Saturday, February 19, 2011
Step over the complacent black-and-white cow dog on the front porch, mosey past windows licked with steam and push open the door.
First rattle out of the box, the scent of citrus-glazed salmon wraps you in an aromatic hug. On an evening when frost in the country air stings the skin, nothing could feel better.
No matter that Tate’s Umapine Mercantile is but a handful of miles from the nearest incorporated town, the sign on the inside of the door is an excellent clue you’ve taken a step away from the time continuum.
"Tabs must be paid in full by the first of every month," it cautions.
Tabs? In an era where everyone carries some form of plastic money?
A few feet inside the entrance, jars line the wooden counter, filled with jerky and beef sticks, as well as long twists of licorice. The deli case that centers one wall has a mix of culinary delights, all made from scratch. Ready-bake pizzas nestle by slices of cheesecake on the wire racks, while sangiovese and pinot grigio wines from Locati Cellars stand sentry on top.
At the back of the building, across the original planked floor, a beer cooler is fully loaded. The candy selection is generous and well-stocked, and a stand-alone ice cream freezer offers frozen treats.
In the space in between, though, beats the heart of this Valley’s best-kept secret.
The building that sits one car length in from the Umapine Highway has been home to a number of businesses at different times, from a gas station to the Hudson Bay Co-op Creamery Company in the 1920s. For years, the post office occupied a narrow slice of the space, closing for good in 1966, locals say.
During the past six years, however, the walls embellished with antiques and cowboy kitsch have embraced Donna and Duane Tate’s dream. The couple may reside right around the corner, but life is clearly lived in the mercantile.
On this winter’s night, the place seems to be the only lighted building in the vicinity, the "Tate’s Umapine Mercantile" sign sending a glow into the ice-speckled air. From about 5 p.m. on, cars and pickup trucks pull up under the sign with regularity, as if on a preset schedule.
"It’s quite a hub for the community," Duane said, seated at a bar-height dining table, one of several he crafted. "We don’t advertise, it’s all word of mouth. That’s how you have a solid business."
The dining room comfortably seats 32 or so, from two-tops to tables ready to take a group of eight. The area is the recipient of long hours of labor to remove generations of flooring and at least one wall. "This floor was covered with linoleum and plywood," Duane noted, sweeping a hand toward the rear of the room.
He’s preparing to head home. Duane, who raised cattle "forever" — takes the dawn prep shift before 6 a.m. — it has already been a long day. "Anyway, I gotta go. I’m running out of lies," he joked.
His absence is filled by Helen Richartz, who calls herself "a volunteer bus boy." After a career at Providence St. Mary Medical Center as an operating room nurse, serving up food and doing dishes keeps her busy now, she explained.
Tate’s, believes longtime customer Scott Hendricks, provides community "in a world where there is very little community." Umapine, he explained, was once "more of a real town," as a stop on the electric railroad line and salted with school, churches and lumberyard.
"Some days it’s slow and some days it’s packed," added Hendricks, who ranches in the area. He’s often a participant of what’s commonly referred to as the "Umapine Brain Trust," a coffee-chugging bunch that sets its watches by the 6 a.m. opening of Tate’s door.
Just over a year ago, the Tate family decided they weren’t already working hard enough, what with cooking, cleaning, ordering and stocking six days a week. Why not expand the services and the blueprint, using the old building’s (the age of the building depends on what corner you’re standing in) vacant sections, including a cavernous cold storage vault still bearing the sawdust insulation?
That didn’t mean getting a bank loan for restoration, Donna said. It meant starting a dinner special one night a week, "to get the cash for remodeling."
And cash it is, since Tate’s accepts no credit or debit cards, "of any kind," she said.
By this winter, the popularity of Tuesday’s spaghetti and other dishes upped the demand. Tate’s Mercantile now serves up burgers, nachos and sandwiches three extra nights a week.
A whiteboard offers the menu in English and Spanish — Monday features "Umapine Cheesesteak Sandwich," while the next night is "Taco Tuesday."
She has her own favorite, said Tara Crittenden Perkins, who runs Tate’s with her parents in a jigsaw puzzle of scheduling. "Fried chicken on Fridays … it’s the day I don’t work."
On this night, the salmon is flying off the George Foreman grill, in use while the kitchen is battened down for the gusts of remodeling.
Customers have rewarded the culinary efforts. The Curcios are frequent fliers here, they said, waiting for dinner to arrive. Gene and Anne, along with son Reed, hail from Lowden, "five miles away on the back roads."
Tate’s, Anne said, "is a great place, a really nice thing to have. This is kind of a dying thing when you think about it."
While the Walla Walla Valley is blessed with numerous "gourmet winery destinations," the Umapine establishment provides a comfortable alternative, she feels. "It’s an unknown jewel that just feels good and where everyone is friendly. It’s kind of a happy place for kids."
Reed agrees. He gets to Tate’s for lunch any way and any time he can, the middle-schooler said, conceding he sometimes uses "alternative transportation methods."
His temptation is the BLT, Reed explained. "And the T is for turkey."
Tate’s is more than a place to pick up a pack of gum and a burger. Community events take place here, including birthday parties and an annual Valentine’s Day dinner, which is always sold out. Her adult children, including Crittenden Perkins, do the serving for that one, Donna said. "They are so professional."
Once renovation is done, which includes the jackhammering of a large and thick concrete floor whenever time allows, the new dining room will allow the mercantile to add many more diners and events, although Donna holds the line at wedding receptions, she insisted. "I won’t do those."
She has plenty to do already. At the height of farming season, it’s not unusual for her and Crittenden Perkins to plate up 50 lunches a day, Donna said. "We are just running."
Mornings are when the Tate’s coffee community is in fine fettle, Perkins noted with a wide grin. "Monday’s the best day. The rest of the week is just review."