Thursday, February 7, 2013

Knowlen & Yates: A Flair For Something Different

Is it possible that Fresh Air Life could actually exist in other parts of the state of Nebraska?  Most certainly!  And could it be that I would actually play a part in that fresh, invigorating breeze? You know it!  Here in McCook, Nebraska, we have several awesome, unique businesses---Wally World hasn't yet been able to figure out how to run them out of town... and get this: I've come across many customers who refuse to do business with Walmart, and are instead happily choosing to shop at my place of employment, featured right here... 

Knowlen & Yates
You'll need plenty of time to take all this in...
During my visits to McCook, Nebraska, before moving here in May of 2012, one store I always vowed never to miss was the 'downtown/uptown' business of Knowlen & Yates, a high-end kitchen store filled with gleaming pots and pans, attractive kitchen decor, specialty gourmet foods, and more cookware gadgets than I imagined possible. As I would open the door and step inside, the delicious aroma of freshly ground coffee beans greeted me along with the pleasant sounds of jazz music, and a friendly "Hello" by owner Mike Ford, who cheerfully offered his assistance and expertise, but never hounded nor hovered--a quality I appreciated.

I never imagined that a few years later I would be working at Knowlen & Yates, but serendipitous blessings can appear in surprising forms!  That warm summer day I stopped in to browse at the store, I engaged in a brief conversation with Mr. Ford who assumed I was once again visiting McCook until I mentioned that I had recently moved here. "Are you looking for work?" he asked. And I, in a rather casual way, gave a somewhat weak and noncommittal, "Um... yes".  "Full time or part time?" I replied, "Oh, part time!"  After all, I needed my computer and coffee routine in the morning... that was top priority.  "Would you be interested in working here?"  And as they say, the rest is history--or in this case, a story in the making.

A small town store with a big town attitude... that's one way to describe Knowlen & Yates. In a previous issue of Nebraska Rural Living magazine (, Gene O. Morris's essay describes Knowlen & Yates as a gourmet's "Mecca"; true, but as an employee of this unique business, I have special insight of it's ambiance and culture.  Big-Box and chain stores can't hold a candle to what Knowlen & Yates possesses... and no, certainly not a bar, but a 'Cheers' atmosphere, where, "Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came."  That's the Knowlen & Yates spirit... you're welcome, we care, we want to help. Small town, big heart.

I approach my interaction with customers as friendly companionship enjoyed around the kitchen table where we have the advantage of time and personal service.  We can share cooking tips and questions, product experience and recommendations; caring is the key. Where else could I be employed that it would often slip my mind that I was actually supposed to be on the other side of the counter working instead of chatting away?  When someone asks, "Do you have...?" and I am able to lead them to that specific product, I have to admit, it's a good feeling. Even more satisfying is when I'm able to share my experience with a particular item which in turn, seems to give them that little extra 'push' and confidence to make a purchase. That's what we do at Knowlen & Yates; provide that extra personal service that Big-Box stores can't spare the time nor sales help for.

Mike weighing up your coffee bean order!

As the front door of Knowlen & Yates opens, we invariably hear, "Oh, it smells so good in here!"  It's the coffee, it's tremendously popular! We offer an awesome selection of fresh coffee beans from around the world, and we are at your service to weigh and grind your selection to specification.  (Even the local Certified Public Accountant scores a late night delivery of his favorite brew during tax season...)  And while you're here, why not try a sample of today's freshly brewed product: Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Hawaiian Kona, Sumatra Mandheling from Indonesia, or Highlander Grogg, a local favorite.

I'm free to set up a display in my own distinct and creative way. Breaking down those boring 'display walls' allows for product cross-over; combining product usage in a way that a customer may not have thought of that inspires one to culinary greatness! No diagrams and instructions from Corporate--although 'Corporate' just happens to be steps away in his office at the back of the store, ready to lend a hand or much needed advice at a moment's notice.

The word is out... owner Mike Ford does not scrimp on quality or service.  No pricing games played either; no inflation of prices just to turn around and slash so as to fool the customer. Mike doesn't do that 99 cent thing either, as he's knows it's an insult to a customer's intelligence... c'mon! A penny?  Round it up, they can handle it. Remember integrity? Mike refuses to carry inferior merchandise. I've learned that if it's here, it's good.  We know word of mouth is the best sales tactic around.  I can't count the number of folks who have stopped in to request "that awesome cheese knife that everyone is talking about" (which Mike refers to as, "the real deal!")  Or, that little scrubbing brush, terrific vegetable peeler, ice cream maker, apple corer, salad spinner... the list goes on.

We meet and greet customers from hundreds of miles away; Kansas, Colorado, and beyond.  Folks even make the trip from Omaha and Lincoln, a distance of over 230 miles.  Denver residents have dropped in too, claiming they prefer Mike's store over similar ones in their area.  So many exclaim, "I love your store!"  Of course, I pass that compliment on to Mr. Ford.  The reasons for the admiration is as varied as the good people who stop in... Neighbors greet neighbors from across the store as if they hadn't just waved to each other from their front porches.  From the coffee counter, Mike shouts a price over to me at the register and I punch 'er in.   Regulars stop in and grab a cup of coffee and pause for a friendly chat.  Old friends re-connect over the Le Cruset cookware and catch up on each other's lives.  I inquire as to what town a customer hails from, and invariably, I end up hearing about their job and family--and recommending a local restaurant for them to try.  It's okay, it's cool. It's part of what I do, and I like it.

What's my favorite part about working at Knowlen & Yates?  It might be the people, or the coffee, or the store's pops of color and style, my patient boss, the opportunity to put my creative talents to use, or even the freedom to run across the street and grab a donut at the renowned Sehnert's Bakery.  As Mike always says, "It's a beautiful day on the bricks!"  Norris Avenue, McCook, Nebraska--my "Mecca". Come and shop our town, stay awhile, let us get to know and serve you.  It's what we do. When we say, "we're friends", we mean it. Cheers!

Joy Richter