Bellingham Herald

October 30, 2002
Section: Business
Page: 6B

Family ties, service are Hohl hallmark; Over 100 years, products change with the times



Hohl Feed & Seed Co. of Bellingham wraps up its 100th Anniversary Celebration this month under new co-managers Glenn Faber of Lynden and Janice Vongs of Bellingham.

Faber and Vongs began managing the store last December, following the retirement of Jack and Joy Hofeditz, now of Arizona. The store is owned by Charles "Chuck" Gelb of Spokane.

"It's real exciting," Faber said of being manager. "It's fun to learn what sells and what doesn't and plan strategies for how to market things."

George J. Hohl opened the business under the name Geo. J. Hohl & Co. in Fairhaven's Waldron Building in 1901. Now in its 101st year of operation, the store has survived by changing its business focus with the changing times and maintaining its tradition of what Gelb calls "old-fashioned customer service."

"It's an old-fashioned, personalized business with individual attention and knowledge of the field," Gelb said. "We've enjoyed being in business in Bellingham, and we're proud of the fact that we've had long-time employees."

Family connections

Ty Hofeditz moved to Whatcom County from Seattle in 1933, the same year Lilly Miller bought the store and made him manager. He continued to manage the store after Samuel Gelb of Coupeville, who was associated with the Lilly Co., acquired the business in 1937. Hofeditz later trained his son, Jack, who joined the store after graduating from Bellingham High School, and Gelb's son, Chuck, also a Bellingham High graduate.

"Ty broke me in," Chuck Gelb said. "He was my mentor."

Gelb attended the University of Washington and graduated from Oregon State University. He then attended Western Washington State College (now Western Washington University) and completed graduate work in agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin. In 1950, Samuel Gelb bought Cascade Seed Co. of Spokane and named his son the new store's manager.

Samuel Gelb owned the business until he died in 1956 at age 63. Chuck Gelb then became owner.

About 20 years ago, Ty and Jack Hofeditz began to share the management responsibilities. At the same time, Jack's wife, Joy, began working alongside her husband at the store.

Vongs joined the business as a part-time employee about 10 years ago and had the opportunity to work with Ty Hofeditz before he retired in the mid-1990s.

"Ty ran a tight ship," Vongs said. "Ty was old-school. When you asked for a break he'd say, `you got a break working here.' "

For 68 years, a member of the Hofeditz family managed the store, with Jack logging about 45 years and Ty more than 60 years.

Times change

Hohl Feed & Seed began by selling flour, feed, grain, hay and produce. One of the earliest invoices from the company is a Sept. 11, 1901, order for one ton of flour for $31.50. Flour continued to be a staple supply at the store for decades to come.

"We used to sell a lot of flour in the 1940s," Chuck Gelb said. "It was a big item at the time."

The store sold bulk quantities of feed and seed, but by the 1950s, it was losing customers to pre-packaged animal feeds and was forced to change its product lines - the biggest change the store has seen over the years, he said.

"We went from a feed and seed store to a retail garden and pet store, specializing in dog food," he said. "The wide variety of merchandise has expanded tremendously in the last 50 years."

The product changes also changed the store in other ways. The feed mill, located behind the store, shut down about 10 years ago, ending Ty Hofeditz's almost daily visits to Whatcom County farmers for seed and feed orders. The store had two truck drivers and eight employees the day Vongs began work. Today, there are four truck drivers and five employees.

Construction of Bellis Fair shopping mall in the late 1980s brought an influx of national retailers and hurt the downtown business district, Vongs said, substantially decreasing the store's customer base.

"When the mall came in, we died," Vongs said.

But the recent revitalization of the downtown business district has breathed new life into the area.

"Cornwall (Avenue) was the hubbub, and now Railroad (Avenue) is," she said.

There are still loyal customers for the store's tradition of selling birds, cats, rabbits, gerbils and hamsters. Vongs said the store has become a "petting place" and "mini zoo," and today's parents tell their kids about visiting the store when they were kids.

"We have children that don't want to leave," Vongs said.

A new age

Faber, who was born and raised on a farm in North Dakota, said that although farmer-store relationship has ended, Hohl Feed & Seed Co. still operates under the direction of knowledgeable employees and offers good, old-fashioned service.

But good service and customer loyalty alone haven't kept the business going. The store sells products based on consumer demand, and Gelb said a tremendous amount of money is being spent on gardening, maintenance and home repair.

"The store has grown steadily over the years, and the retail part is probably bigger than it has ever been," he said. "Garden and pets have developed into two of the biggest hobbies there are in our country."

Gelb said this year's sales are up about 10 percent from last year.

"I think the business has held up real well," he said.

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