by Micah Elconin
Entrepreneurial dreams from a half century ago led to The Kiva, one of Eugene’s cherished food institutions.
Owned and operated by Melissa and George Brown, The Kiva is a downtown grocery store long popular with people who prefer locally grown organic produce and food. Over the years, The Kiva has helped some of the Eugene area’s best-known food and beverage makers get started, including Nancy’s Yogurt. And the store, at West 11th Avenue and Olive Street, contributes to a sense of community for people who shop there.
“It’s pretty rare for someone to come in here and not see someone they know,” Melissa Brown said. “My favorite days are when I wait on two or three generations of the same family.”
An Indoor Hippie Mall
George Brown began The Kiva in 1970 by selling books in the newly started Scarborough Fair, near West 11th Avenue and Willamette Street. Brown was one of a dozen or so vendors who sold wares in the former Hannum Motors garage, which he described as an “indoor hippie mall.”
Scarborough Fair paired quality products with the arts, thereby creating a welcoming space for people to gather, purchase goods, and build community. Intended or not, Scarborough Fair also acted like a business incubator by providing a launching pad for Brown and other entrepreneurs to offer something new and see where it might lead.
The KIVA expanded and began selling organic foods, which had started to grow in popularity. Today, grocers can simply order products from natural foods distributors, but in the 1970s, Brown had to drive up and down the West Coast buying directly from producers such as Dr. Bronners and Knudson, then small ventures led by like-minded entrepreneurs.
In 1983, Brown moved the store to its present, 4,500-square-foot building, which is now near the Lane Transit District Downtown Station and Eugene Public Library.
A Downtown Institution
Brown continued to expand The Kiva’s offerings. Today, in its 50th year of operation, the store has a full-service deli and espresso bar, and it sells organic produce, dairy, meats, cheeses, bulk foods, natural vitamins, health, beer, wine, beauty and homecare products, and more.
George met Melissa in 1991 when she began working at the store. They later married and she took over managing the store in 2004. Under Melissa Brown’s management, The Kiva’s staff grew from a few dozen people to more than 60.
Melissa Brown says that shoppers love her team. “Our customers get pretty attached to our employees,” she said.
Growing Local Champions
The Kiva may be small compared to other grocery stores, but its’ shelves are filled with a wide variety of premium products. The Kiva buys from more than 240 vendors in the Willamette Valley, most of which are in Lane County.
“I love the quality and choice of food in Eugene,” Melissa Brown said. “This valley and this town have some of the best quality food in the entire world.”
Supporting local producers is not always easy, but Brown is committed to the practice. She views it as another way to build community. “It's not efficient. It costs more, but it's tremendously rewarding to be involved with people’s lives,” she said.
Many of the most recognized food brands in the Eugene area grew up on the shelves of The Kiva. Some even got their start there. The Kiva was the first retail location to give shelf space to Coconut Bliss, a non-dairy frozen dessert company founded in Eugene that now distributes internationally.
“They have always been supportive of small, local startups like we once were,” said Coconut Bliss Chief Executive Officer Kim Gibson Clark. “Their willingness to try out new products that larger retailers might not take a chance on has been instrumental in the success of many local businesses, including Coconut Bliss.”
The Kiva continues to be an early adopter of new food and beverage brands.
When Marcela Zecenarro began bottling Aji, a Peruvian-inspired hot sauce, The Kiva’s lead buyer, Tom Kay, quickly helped get the product on a shelf. “The Kiva was the first store that trusted us,” Zecenarro said. “Tom and his staff have always been patient and willing to answer our questions. Their support has not only helped our company reach new customers, but also grow our business family.”
Oregon Tea Traders founder Angela McDonald thought of the brand while working for Melissa Brown and The Kiva. The store has carried Oregon Tea Traders since it began. “Working at The Kiva was a great opportunity for me when I was young,” McDonald said. “Not only did I form close relationships with many of my co-workers, but the lessons I learned proved invaluable when I began Oregon Tea Traders. Working at a grocery store gave me an inside look into what buyers are looking for, the importance of packaging, how pricing works, etc. Melissa and I have remained friends since I worked there, and she has helped me over the years with everything from finding equipment, to how to approach larger buyers and distributors, and R&D (research and development.)”
Like many retailers, The Kiva has had difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.
Brown has adjusted by reducing store hours, but she remains committed to vendors, customers, and staff. Her vision is not just generating sales, but to continue being a warm and welcoming “place for people to belong.”
Brown’s words are courageous and timely: “As challenging as these times are, being in that place is such a beautiful and important thing.”
Micah Elconin the president of Season to Taste, Inc., and director of Eugene’s Table, a food and beverage industry partnership.
Credit for featured photo: Mel Brown