Nancy Nipples knows a thing or two about dairy. She’s the owner of Pike Place Market Creamery, a tiny shop deep in the heart of Seattle’s bustling Pike Place Market.
Nancy Nipples isn’t her real name—just the one she goes by on a daily basis and signs checks with. Her given name, Nancy Douty, just didn’t have that jolt of humor. Outside of her store, the slight shopkeeper introduces herself as “Nancy Nipples the Milkmaid,” so no one gets the wrong idea.
Thirty years ago, a 25-year-old Douty and her new husband bought the 450-square-foot Pike Place Market Creamery. Selling farm-fresh eggs, milk and yogurt, the Creamery became well respected among other Pike Place Market stall owners and local restaurants. Resting on her success, Douty left for a three-week vacation later in the year.
When she returned, she found that her husband had vanished, along with the till and bank loans. “All the money’s gone,” Douty says she thought at the time. “I’m 25 and $40,000 in debt. Wow, this is a weird cosmic joke.”
The bank and fellow marketers encouraged Douty to keep the store open so she could replace the stolen money. Through her sales, she repaid the debt in two-and-a-half years and thought about hanging up her milkmaid’s apron. However, she realized she couldn’t quit the market: She loved her customers and farmers too much.
For a woman who says she grew up on “margarine and Cool Whip,” Douty now has a deep appreciation for wholesome dairy. Her store offers products “as pure and fresh and local as possible.” Her dairy cases—which take up most of the store’s footprint—are free of bovine growth hormone and include specialty creams and 17 choices of butter, plus quail, duck and Araucana eggs. Raw, local and organic goat and cow’s milk also share the shelves.
Pike Place Market Creamery is essentially transparent. The outer walls are made up of cases and merchandise inside clear glass cubes, and the borders are accented with cow-patterned paint. However, the cases open from within the store, so customers must enter through one of store’s three doorways to check out the merchandise.
Once inside, shoppers also discover all-natural and organic nondairy items like kefir grains, hemp waffles, oat milk and granola. But because Pike Place Market essentially operates like a traditional European street market, the Creamery has to stay on-topic: “Dairy, dairy alternatives and what would go with dairy,” Douty says.
“We try not to sell anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves,” she adds. Her personal favorites include Nancy’s Naturally Cultured Sour Cream, Toby’s Family Food’s All-Natural Salad Dressing, and the locally owned BGH- and preservative-free Greek Gods Traditional Greek Yogurt. “I’ve been buying their butter for 20 years,” Douty says, and loves Greek Gods’ newer yogurt lines, incorporating flavors like fig and pomegranate.
Her customers include condo-dwelling urbanites doing their evening shopping, tourists seeking quick sustenance and restaurant owners from across the city looking for specialty cream or eggs. The recent opening of a Whole Foods Market on the fringes of downtown Seattle doesn’t faze Douty, who says, “Either people like shopping in the [Pike Place] market or they don’t.”
Visitors to the Creamery are often greeted by name and receive personalized service, even if they’re picking up just one pat of butter or a single egg for breakfast. “I know people and their kids,” Douty says. “I know generations.” Clientele share new-product tips, and store staff will order products for customers upon request.
Douty doesn’t have to advertise much beyond local outlets—such as the local homeless newspaper and Pike Place Market News—thanks to word of mouth. “People will shop the market and ask, ‘Where can I get cream and salad dressing?’ ” Douty says, and neighboring shop owners will direct visitors on the hunt for natural foods to her location. Tourists will stop in for ice cream bars but end up staying to read the humorous signs scattered around the store. One quip on an outer case reads, “Cows don’t know how to use doors. You do. Go INSIDE.”
Douty says she tries to make the business a fun place to work, and a few employees have been with her for 20 years. All employees vote on whether or not to carry a new product. “I have been outvoted,” Douty says. And while customers shop, the employees decorate their egg cases with gel pens, creating miniature works of carton art.
Stacks of egg cartons are available for customers in case they forget their own to reuse. “We recycle everything,” Douty says, using the back of order forms for notes, saving extra shopping bags and setting aside yogurt containers for school projects. “Teachers love them,” she says. Even food isn’t discarded. Employees keep small piles of less-than-perfect boxes and almost-expired food items for homeless visitors.
Several years ago, Douty added a small cow-themed gift section to the store. Glass cubes display cow-print tissues, soaps and stuffed animals. Shoppers can choose from cow-print rain boots, backpacks and socks. Tourists get cow-eyed over the items, Douty says. Before the cubes, the display was chicken wire, threaded with Christmas lights, but her “sweetie” suggested changing to something more modern and attractive. “His family was in retail,” she says. However, the Christmas lights remain overhead, twinkling throughout the year.
As for the next 30 years, Douty says she’d like to create a Web presence for Pike Place Creamery, but she’s fairly happy with the business as-is. She doesn’t see herself retiring anytime in the near future, either. “I swore I’d retire when I had to wear glasses to see price labels,” she says. “That’s been years now.”
Lora Shinn is a Seattle-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 7/p. 50