Sixth generation grocer buys Cathlamet store


Diana Zimmerman

Michael Kirby, left, and his father, David, right, come from a long line of grocers. Michael stepped in to manage Cathlamet Fresh Market a couple years ago for what was supposed to be six months. This April, he bought the store.

When Michael Kirby transferred from a grocery store in Toledo to manage Cathlamet Market Fresh a couple years ago, he was told it would only be for six months. With the transfer came a promise that his half a year would be rewarded with management of an even bigger store.

"We had to twist his arm," David Kirby, his father said.

Little could he or his father know that it would become a much more permanent post. On April 11 of this year, not long after his father retired from the business, Michael Kirby made the shift from manager to proud owner of the Cathlamet store.

Michael Kirby is a sixth generation grocer. If his father had had anything to do with it, Michael would have been anything but.

"It's a hard life. I always said the kids could do anything they wanted to do," David said. "Go to college. Do anything. Just don't be a grocer."

Michael tried. He went to college and studied business and political science, but it didn't take.

It was Michael's older sister who finally pulled their dad aside and said, "You're breaking your kid's heart. He just wants to be a grocer."

David listened.

"I've been working in grocery stores since I could walk," Michael said. "It's pretty much all I've ever known. It's a job that changes all the time, I always feel challenged."

"We get to interact with everyone," he continued. "Everybody needs groceries, and it's just awesome to get to provide that. I've gotten a lot of good experience working for good people in my journey. I've learned a lot and I think I can succeed at it."

It was after his dad retired in February that Michael approached his father's former business partners about purchasing the store in Cathlamet.

"It's a smaller store and kind of out of the way," Michael said. "I figured they might go with that. It was kind of a win/win on that front."

"He's very excited to be here and own the store," David said. "I think it was a good transition for the store, out of Kirby Co. and back into single ownership again."

Like his father before him, Michael fell in love with the community. Each of them has made a home here.

"My whole family pretty much lives here now," Michael said. "It's been nice to be close to them all. I don't see myself wanting to leave."

As for David Kirby, retirement suits him. He is spending time with family, enjoying a bit of fishing, and has gotten involved in development.

He can trace his life and his lineage by naming markets and stores, but unlike Michael, David never intended to be a grocer. Instead, he felt a call to teaching, but life had other plans, as they say.

David's grandfather was a butcher who owned Kirby Meat Market at Pikes Place Market and on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. David's father would pedal his bike around, delivering products for them.

"My father went to work for one of the first grocery chains in Seattle, Big Bear Stores," David said. "Eventually they got bought out by Lucky Stores. He retired as Executive Vice President of Lucky Stores. My great grandfather had a grocery store in Ohio, and his father had a store somewhere back in England."

Like most people in the business, David started as a box boy and worked his way up. In 1991, he bought his first store in St. Helens.

He and his partners ended up owning eight. The store in Cathlamet would become number three.

"I think I was a lot better grocer than I would have been a teacher," David said.

"We like smaller towns, we like to be the only store if we can," David said. "It's great to go into an old tired store and rejuvenate it."

"We know we are not competing with Winco or Fred Meyer," he added, "but if you can put a nice meat case in and have decent produce and be as competitive as you can be, people don't want to drive that 35 to 40 minutes into town. We just try to capture some of that local stuff."

The last couple months have been really busy for the younger Kirby, and he's making plans for the future.

A new phone app shares weekly ads that alerts customers to sales at Cathlamet Market Fresh. The ads are prepared each week for the chain of stores owned by David's former partners. Michael is working to ensure the ads will reflect what is actually available at the Cathlamet store each week.

He also hopes to add some local products to their inventory.

"We are still getting our groceries from the same suppliers and vendors," Michael said. "Nothing will change as far as products we do carry or our prices, but we will get a chance to focus more on just Cathlamet."

"Cathlamet is a protected little market. Safeway isn't building here anytime soon. I think it's a good long term proposition for Michael and an opportunity," David said. "I'm proud of him, and I think that the fact that store is going to continue to go on is important to the community."


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