PLAIN — Three 2x4s, two sheets of plywood and a tarp. Light bulbs.
Sweatshirt, wool socks and bug spray — plus a birthday card and a book on local history.
Garden hose, screen, hose clamp and tape measure. Tomato and pepper starts, petunias. Sunscreen.
Sign up for the fun run. Pick up wasp killer, Super Glue and nails.
Check to see who predicted the first snow.
Rent snowshoes and cross-country skis, then get a cup of coffee and bowl of soup.
The “to-do” lists vary with the seasons, but Plain Hardware Home and Garden can handle pretty much any occasion — whether the shopper is local, a weekender or someone passing through.
“Given our remote location, we need to be a ‘general mercantile of sorts,” said owner Rob Whitten. “It is challenging to figure out what items to stock, but customers really do help us understand their needs.”
He purchased the business, then known as Outdoor Equipment and Hardware, in 1997.
Whitten had been working as a home builder in the area and was a regular customer of the store that sits in what has become “downtown Plain” at the bottom of Beaver Hill.
“It had some basic hardware, hand tools, fasteners, plumbing and some electrical,” he said. “Sometimes they would have what I needed, but if you needed two or three of the same-size item, they likely wouldn’t have enough inventory on hand.”
It had been around for about 10 years by then, put on the market a few years after founder Paul Hodges, a volunteer firefighter, died in 1994 of a heart attack while working as a contracted equipment operator battling the Tyee Creek Fire.
Whitten recognized the potential and, with a young family at the time, was ready to put down roots in the community located between Leavenworth and Lake Wenatchee that was a mix of farmers, loggers, off-gridders, “weekenders” who owned vacation homes and visitors attracted to year-round outdoor recreation.
“I knew going in that I had to dramatically increase sales somehow,” he said. “Gross revenue had been just over $100,000 annually. That wasn’t going to pay the mortgage.”
He set a 10-year goal of building sales to $1 million and then “set about figuring out what my customers needed that I could sell,” he said.
His first move was to add a lumber yard, with a pricing philosophy to be competitive.
“If you develop a reputation for being overpriced, people won’t even come in to shop,” he said. It was a gamble. Small town lumber yards were going out of business at the time.
He then started diversifying, adding espresso, antiques, gifts, clothing (including Plain Hardware logo T-shirts and hats), cross-country ski rentals, a garden center and a farmers market — further diversifying the revenue streams and the customer base.
“We had several years of 100 percent sales growth, and we hit $3 million in revenue by year 10,” he said.
His advertising plan reflected the local focus on year-round residents and vacation property owners, many of whom live on the west side of the mountains.
“I started with a quarterly newsletter that was delivered to mailbox holders on the three rural routes near Plain, and also mailed to our ‘weekenders’ around the state,” he said.
Rather than simply pitching products, it provided information about the Plain Valley and stories of interest to locals and visitors. Printing and mailing costs were covered by selling advertising space to local contractors.
“Twenty years later, we are still producing and mailing newsletters, sort of old-fashioned, but somehow more impactful than newspaper circulars, emails or more modern marketing with social media,” he said. “That’s not to say we don’t use these modern tools. We do use them, a lot. Once again, however, we are not hard-selling a product, but soft-selling our community, our recreational opportunities, our ‘lifestyle’ and our brand. We feel that the more we can keep our name and our ‘brand’ in front of them and in their thoughts, the more likely they will be coming to our store for something we offer.”
When he started, he could run the store by himself in the middle of the week. He added his first employee in 1998.
“Today, we have 20 staff members, a mix of full- and part-time,” he said. “Hardware used to be 100 percent of the business. Today, we have really good diversity in profitability. My main departments contribute equally, with the big players being hardware, gift wear, clothing and lumber.”
Plain Hardware’s evolution reflects changes in the community, he said.
“We have seen growth in our local population, growth in the ‘weekender’ population, and growth in the tourist population,” he said. “Beyond that, and part of what makes our community so awesome, is the growth in diversity. We are still a very small community. We all work hard at getting along and being accepting of each other, and helping each other as neighbors and community members.”
Whitten donates popcorn sale revenues to the local elementary school for art supplies, has provided materials for the skatepark and prizes for fundraising auctions, hosts music concerts and the farmers’ market as well as the North Central Regional Library bookmobile.
In 2014, the store also took over responsibility for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather station from Jean Moore, who had been recording the stats from her home in Shugart Flats since 1969. The snowfall record is one of the most-read parts of the fall newsletter.
“One of the more unusual areas of expansion was the development of a Nordic center and cross-country ski trails in our community, and our founding of a local youth ski team, the Plain Valley Nordic Team,” Whitten said. “The ski team also provides park cleanup and maintenance at the (Chelan County) PUD-funded river access park in Plain. We work hard at investing back into our community.”
It’s not all about business.
“My own personal interests guide me,” he said. “It comes from loving your community, wanting to help in your community, seeing the needs of your community and having the resources to help in your community.”