New/old kids on the block: Ken's Market and the joys of small-pond life

As of June 1, Ken's Market on Queen Anne has new owners, but it's still all in the family - more or less.

Eric Giles, 32, is the grandson of Ken Giles, who opened the store back in 1964. His partners are Joe Vizzare, 35, and George O'Connor, 44. All three were born and raised on Queen Anne, and Vizzare still lives here.

"Working at Ken's was the first real job for all of us," says Vizzare, "except maybe paper routes." As a youngster, Vizzare delivered the Queen Anne News.

O'Connor began working at Ken's first, in 1977, "the same year as my LeSabre," he quips. "Kenny G was my boss." He did meat cleanup; at age 14 he was not old enough to be a butcher.

Eric Giles was put to work at Ken's in 1984, at age 9, sweeping the floor and bagging groceries. His grandfather remembers that Eric had to stand on a milk crate to bag.

Vizzare started in 1988, when he was 16. Like O'Connor, he did meat cleanup. "From the start," says Vizzare, "the three of us worked well together. We always have."

They worked at Ken's through high school and college. Ken's is flexible about scheduling, and accommodated them all as their schedules changed through the years.

KEN GILES OPENED his first grocery store in Greenwood in 1955, another (Marketime) in Fremont and the Queen Anne store at 2400 Sixth Ave. W. in 1964. After awhile, three stores became too much to handle, so he sold the Queen Anne store in 1979.

His sons bought it back five years later, despite his discouragement. "It's so much work," he says, "but they insisted. They had been raised working at Ken's, and knew what it was."

Now ownership of Ken's has passed on to the next generation. Ken Giles says of the new owners, "They're all quality people - great, personable guys. They wanted so bad to be in the business."

His grandson is more understated. "We all kinda always wanted to buy the store," says Eric Giles. "It was always in our sights."

"The Giles family paved the way for us," says Vizzare. The opportunity came up in 2000, when Eric Giles' father and uncles bought Marketime. They wanted to focus on that store and asked him, Vizarre and O'Connor if they were interested in buying Ken's on Queen Anne. After seven years of thought and ironing out legalities, it has become a reality.

A cascade of reasons tumbles out.

"This is a fun job," says Vizzare. "We put all our love into this."

"We've put in a lot of sweat equity," says O'Connor. "Besides, I didn't want to get into the corporate world. I wanted to be big fish in a small pond," he adds with a smirk.

"My dad and uncles were definitely going to sell," says Giles. "If someone else bought it, it would've changed too much."

THE NEW OWNERS don't plan on making many changes. They won't move from the corner of Sixth West and McGraw, significantly remodel or hire new staff. They'll preserve the unique character of Ken's as a small neighborhood store, a gathering place on Queen Anne.

"We want to keep its traditional Queen Anne feel," says Vizzare. "We have a niche market."

"We know lots of our customers' names," adds O'Connor.

What is changing already is their inventory: more organic produce, natural meats, bottled condiments under their private label and a greater selection of wine and beer. "We'll change to whatever the customer wants," says Giles, "whatever makes them happy."

The three have a clear division of responsibilities. Giles is in charge of the produce and floral departments. "We handpick our fruits and vegetables down at Charlie's Produce in SoDo six days a week," he says. Ken's avocados are consistently perfect.

Vizzare has stayed in the meat department, and also manages the deli and espresso stand. He's proud to offer natural beef from Painted Hills in the meat department; a variety of meals in the deli, including Ken's signature turkey diamante sandwich made with rosemary bread; and, at the espresso stand, coffee roasted by Pioneer Coffee in Cle Elum. "The owner used to work at Ken's," he says. "We decided to support him. The small guy helping the small guy."

O'Connor oversees the largest space: the aisles of groceries, wine and beer. He is expanding the number of items under the private label and, within limits, will go out of his way to get a hard-to-find item for a customer.

Asked about unusual experiences at Ken's, the three don't cite interactions with customers but acts of nature.

During the 2001 earthquake, O'Connor tried mightily to prevent bottles of wine from falling off the shelves by spreading his arms and sidling back and forth, catching bottles as best he could.

Faced with the power outage of 1989, employees escorted customers around the store with flashlights and used muffin tins as tills.

Now, that's service, and it won't change. Queen Anne may be changing, but - fundamentally - not Ken's. Its three new owners will see to that.

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