In the 1930s, wholesale grocer Mason, Ehrman & Co. built a distribution hub in a concrete building between Marine Drive and what was then an active railroad spur running along the Columbia River waterfront. The building later became a storage center and then a Sears Hometown franchise until closing a year ago.
Now advocates are laying the roots of the Astoria Food Hub, a nexus for producers and consumers they hope to open in the fall.
Jared Gardner, the owner of Nehalem River Ranch and a central partner in the project, provides the grass-fed beef for Fort George Brewery’s burgers, along with pastured pork. When the brewery runs out of meat, Gardner has to drive to cold storage he rents in Portland to retrieve more.
“There’s a lack of infrastructure on the North Coast, which is what I’m trying to solve,” he said.
The hub will include retail space along Marine Drive for locally grown and made products, along with educational and commercial kitchens for local producers and people learning to eat local. It will provide cold and dry storage and a distribution hub along the Astoria Riverwalk for community supported agriculture.
“It’s a centrally located site where multiple producers can bring their things, store it, to have it distributed, have some retail,” Gardner said.
The food hub is recruiting producers and other partners who support its mission of enhancing the local food ecosystem to take up residence. One interested partner is the North Coast Food Web.
For the past decade, the food web has provided technical assistance to producers and education to consumers. It runs a weekly market selling local goods from around 30 different producers.
Jessika Tantisook, the food web’s executive director, said the business has quadrupled during the coronavirus pandemic because of the demand for local food. The group’s board of directors is contemplating an expansion into the Sears building.
“We know that we need to expand our current cold storage, dry storage, freezer storage,” she said. “… My idea as a director, would be that we co-locate with other community organizations and businesses that have commitments to our mission, and just in general, importing our local food systems.”
Jeff Graham joined Fort George as executive chef several years ago with a mission to make the brewery’s menus more local. He sourced local chicken from Blackberry Bog Farms in Svensen and eventually connected with Gardner to source grass-fed beef from Tillamook County.
“He’s driving it up in his truck,” Graham said. “Once a week or twice — whenever I need it — we get a delivery. It’s exciting to have this possibility to where it’s going to be a couple blocks away, where the food will be stored.”
Graham envisions taking beef and pork from Gardner and other producers and turning them into charcuterie and other value-added products mere blocks from the brewery.
“I then know where my product is coming from big time,” Graham said. “He raised the animal. I made the pepperoni. And I’m going to put the pepperoni on this pizza. So kind of that symbiotic relationship between the producer and the restaurant, that’s superexciting for a chef.”
Warren Neth, who markets for the food hub, worked for Slow Food Southwest Washington, a group supporting local agriculture on the north banks of the lower Columbia River.
“It was always very apparent to me that coastal southwest Washington is much more connected to Astoria than Vancouver, Longview, that kind of thing,” Neth said. “So it will be great to have this food hub servicing those producers on the north side of the river.”
The partners plan to acquire the Sears building for $780,000 by the end of the month from Rick Fried and Thea Dyal, who operated the Sears Hometown store. They are raising $700,000 through Steward, a lender specializing in regenerative agriculture and food sustainability projects.
The loan allows individuals supportive of the food hub to invest, earning back interest. Tre-Fin Day Boat Seafood, a hyperlocal catcher-processor in Ilwaco, Washington, and another partner in the food hub, is using the concept to raise money for a new production space. The food hub has already raised more than $37,000 at astoriafoodhub.com to help with the purchase.
Corey Omey, the architect for the project, described the planned decor for the food hub as “contemporary reclaimed,” using much of the existing Sears Hometown storefront while bringing in raw wood, reclaimed features, more natural lighting and energy efficiency upgrades.
The partners plan to restore the Mason-Ehrman sign and murals painted by Jo Lumpkin Brown on the back of the building, designed by famed local architect John Wicks and on the National Register of Historic Places.
The building includes an equally expansive basement, where future phases envision expanded dry and cold storage, a freight elevator and a ramp for bringing products up to the loading dock on the Riverwalk. The partners want to eventually start a restaurant overlooking the Columbia and serving local food.
“This food shed is historically probably the most important food shed in the whole region,” Omey said. “And it’s a great place to restart … what was done in the past, and to think of the future, so we bring back good, local, healthy food in a way that is meaningful.”