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Food for 50 Years
Walkers' Evergreen grocery

photoThe Evergreen Store in downtown Winthrop in the late ’60s or early ’70s. Photo courtesy Shafer Museum.

You could say that Mike Walker, owner of the Evergreen IGA and Winthrop ACE Hardware stores, was born to sell groceries. The Walker family is celebrating some 50 years in local business this year. And the recent renaming of the store—from Winthrop Red Apple to Evergreen IGA—harkens back to the early years.

Walker says he was in fourth grade when his family moved to the Methow Valley. His dad, Lyle, bought the original Evergreen Store in downtown Winthrop from Herb and Bud Gatewood about 1964, he recalls. Mike says he started stocking shelves, boxing groceries and carrying customers’ purchases “as a lad.” His older brother Kenny also worked at the store.

“I remember one lady, always known to be hard to please,” Walker says. “My very first carryout, I dropped her watermelon in the street and got a pretty good tongue lashing, but I survived it.”

photoThe crew at the Evergreen IGA includes, left to right, Vicki Ahrens, office manager, Mike Walker, owner, and Sara Blankenship, store manager. Photo by Karen West

Walker, 59, graduated from Winthrop High School in 1973—the last class before the Winthrop and Twisp schools were consolidated. He joined the U.S. Navy and served as an air traffic controller at Naval Air Station Dallas (Texas) and aboard the USS John F. Kennedy. He and his wife, Carol, live in East Wenatchee and have one grown son.

He typically drives the 180-mile round trip from East Wenatchee to Winthrop “no fewer than two days a week” or “whatever it takes” to stay on top of the grocery and hardware stores. This winter the couple will spend some time in Arizona –“one flight and drive away” if he needs to get back to the Methow Valley, Walker says.

Mark Walker, Lyle’s brother and Mike’s uncle, went to work at the downtown Winthrop store about 1965. “Lyle was always a pretty hard worker,” Mark says. At one time, Lyle worked in a grocery store and had a small ranch and orchard on the Brewster Bar before it was flooded out by a dam project.

Lyle moved his family to the Methow after a stint ranching in Canada. In addition to the Winthrop Evergreen, he bought “the old Gibson Building where the Methow Valley News is now,” says Mark. Lyle ran the Twisp grocery while Mark ran the Winthrop Evergreen.

photoThe newly hung Evergreen IGA sign painted by Marti Darling. Photo by Karen West

By the time Lyle semi-retired in the mid-1980s, he owned three stores in Winthrop, Twisp and Brewster, and he had moved the Winthrop store to its present location. “Not bad for a farm boy who dropped out of high school,” Mark said of his brother.

Mike Walker says his dad was a North Cascade Highway project booster and moved the Evergreen to its present location at the south edge of town in 1973, shortly after the highway opened. That’s when it became a Red Apple store. When his dad retired, Mike says his older brother, Kenny, took over ownership. Mike later bought him out and sold the Twisp and Brewster stores.


The grocery business is “not as easy a business as it looks like,” Walker explains. “You have to change priorities constantly.” Stock variety is essential, he adds. “It’s a constant juggling act.”

For example, he expanded the organic produce section and integrated organic food products throughout the store. For every item added, something else has to be either removed or get less shelf space.

He calls the store “a laboratory” with “giant fluctuations in volume” because of the ebb and flow of the local tourist-based economy. “If you can make it work here, you can make it work anywhere,” he adds.

From Thanksgiving until the week before Christmas and again, from President’s Day until May 1, or the opening of fishing season, it gets “pretty quiet,” he explains.

"We have to compete on service and the fact that we're convenient."

Among his challenges is keeping local residents happy. They may also shop at the big box stores like Walmart in Omak and Costco in East Wenatchee. “I could never match their prices,” Walker says. “We have to compete on service and the fact that we’re convenient.”

And then there are his visiting tourist and part-time valley resident customers. Some of them are used to buying groceries before they travel and packing them to the valley, he said. “We try to be in a position where they know things are available here.”

Again, price can be an issue. Some small tourist towns have very high prices, he explains, but he needs to cater to more than tourists. He says he adds a couple of Seattle-area stores in his price-tracking mix to stay favorably competitive.

photoAn unidentified woman stands outside the Evergreen Stores grocery in downtown Winthrop. This photograph is undated. According to information at the Shafer Museum, the store opened in the late 1920s. Photo courtesy Shafer Museum

Another challenge for a small town grocer is the small local labor pool, Walker says. The Evergreen IGA employs up to 30 people at times, he says, but not year around.

Walker, who has lived in East Wenatchee since his son was young, coached high school and junior college basketball there for many years. He quit coaching about three years ago, which gave him time to get more involved with the Winthrop stores, he says.

Former Red Apple manager Bart Northcott moved on at that time. Assistant manager Sara Blankenship, who has worked at the store for 21 years, was promoted to manager. Vicki Ahrens is office manager and Walker’s administrative assistant.

The store was expanded in size a few years ago. No further remodeling is in the works, Walker says. A long rumored expansion of the deli space and addition of a customer seating/dining area will not be happening. “There were costs involved with that plan that didn’t work out like I thought they should,” Walker says.

His recent switch from Red Apple to IGA means the store is part of the “largest independent grocers association in the world,” Walker says, adding that, “it gives us a good opportunity to stay competitive.”

photoThe Winthrop Red Apple sign that is yet to be replaced. The store is now part of the Independent Grocers Association. Photo by Karen West

Since affiliating with IGA, the store has introduced a points-based “customer loyalty program.” And Walker says the store will be making more use of social media to get the word out on “really good” specials.

“I’ve always said, if you aren’t changing constantly, you’re falling behind,” he says of his business philosophy.


Walker also likes IGA’s commitment to supporting local communities. A self-described “low profile” guy who likes to do things in “a quiet way,” he sponsors a number of sports teams and donates to “different things that I think are doing a good job.” He cited school sports programs, Winthrop’s annual 49er Days celebration, and the Christmas at the End of the Road fireworks display as among recipients.

Walker has sponsored two division champions in a senior softball league based in Wenatchee and is a player himself. Team members range in age from 50 to late 70s. Walker says he is playing more outfield positions than he used to: “I’m fortunate I can still run.”

He says his personal commitment to fitness started after he attended a school reunion and saw what was happening to some of his classmates. His goal became “stay fit and be able to compete.”

Mike Walker shuns the spotlight whenever possible and says he plans to continue keeping a low profile. “I’ve got a quiet commitment to this community, and I hope I can keep doing it for a lot more years.”


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