The Old Cannery Furniture Warehouse in Sumner has its own ecosystem prospering within the walls of the history-rich building.
Upon walking through the double doors, Jake the Greeter launches into his regular spiel, if you linger in front of him for more than a second or two. He’s one of seven animatronics throughout the store that share some of the history of the iconic warehouse.
Parents and grandparents travel from across the state with squirmy children who ogle over the 7 scale miles of model trains — an impressive fixture that’s maintained by two full-time employees — as well as an interactive model train exhibit.
Inevitably, you’ll stop by the fudge shop, which was handcrafted by founder Tony Grout from a fallen 103-year-old birch tree in 1993. The homemade fudge — offered in 28 rotating flavors — is made from scratch.
As CEO Dave Radcliffe tours me around the 77,000 square feet of showroom, he points out bits of Sumner artifacts, like the remnants of an old box truck side displayed with the Washington Packers moniker, one of the canneries that operated within the building in the mid-1900s. It’s perfectly fitting that the Old Cannery Furniture Warehouse is the official visitor’s center for Sumner. The store basically is a museum, with Sumner history plastered on the walls, and informational brochures are surely better when read with fudge in hand.
While Radcliffe and I chat, an area resident passes us several times, blurting out jests aimed at Radcliffe. The local walker frequents the store to get his daily steps in, and many of the employees know him fondly as a regular who’s there for the atmosphere, rather than the furniture.
In many ways, the Old Cannery is just how I remember it because, like many of the people I encountered during my visit, I also came here as a child with my parents. It seems impossible to think, but the seemingly endless warehouse is even bigger than I remember, even though the last addition was made in 1995, years before I first visited.
Having scheduled a tour on a Friday morning, I was a bit surprised to see how many families stopped in for pre-weekend entertainment. We bumped into a woman named Lacey Heinz, who was there with her kids, and Radcliffe recognized her right away.
“We’re back again,” she said as her toddler wiggled in her arms and her 3-year-old son climbed up a little lookout that gives kids an eye-level view of the model trains chugging along overhead. Heinz grew up in Eatonville and now lives in Puyallup.
“I came here with my parents growing up, and I remembered the fudge and the trains,” she said. “(My parents) furnished their house here, and then I grew up and moved to Puyallup, and my husband and I came here. We have two kids now, and (my son’s) a train fanatic. This is the rainy-day, come-see-the-trains place.”
This is the magic of the Old Cannery.
“Our mission is to make it fun,” Radcliffe said. “Our mission is to provide great value, and I may say fun too many times, but Tony and Mabeth started this store with the idea of great value of furniture and a great experience.”
The Origin Story
More than half a century ago, when Tony Grout was a firefighter at Station No. 2 in Tacoma, the fire department responded only to fires, so Tony had a lot of down time. A talented woodworker and craftsman, he started reupholstering furniture in the firehouse. Later, the home he shared with his wife, Mabeth, on Enchanted Island near Spanaway Lake became a live-in furniture store in 1953.
Everything was done by hand, from the lumber Tony harvested, milled, and carved into sofa frames to the upholstering he did with an old Pfaff sewing machine. Once their operation became too big to run out of their home on the modest island, Radcliffe said the pair opened Off Center Furniture in Tacoma, until the mid-’80s, when the Old Cannery building in Sumner became available and the store was renamed and moved to Sumner.
Radcliffe’s connection to the Grouts goes back to childhood, when the two families became friends. As an adult, Radcliffe worked as a furniture supplier to the Grouts. He joined the company in 2001 to help their daughter Sherry with the operations after Tony passed away.
As the current CEO, Radcliffe oversees the Old Cannery. Sherry isn’t directly involved in the daily operations anymore, but she’s still involved in the major decision-making, and her family history is very much engrained in the store. As for Mabeth, she retired in the mid-’80s, around the time the furniture company bought and moved into the Old Cannery building, and she’s currently living in Bonney Lake.
In many ways, the Old Cannery showroom is an homage to the Grouts. Pay attention, and you’ll notice little bits of their lives bespeckled throughout, both big and small — like a small mural hanging above an archway entrance depicting Sweetbriar, a South Sound neighborhood the Grouts developed when they decided to branch out into model homes for a few years, and an equally impressive and terrifyingly skeletal kit plane Tony built and flew, which is now hanging from the rafters of the showroom with a mannequin version of Tony sitting in the pilot seat garnishing a cigarette and a thumbs up.
Nearly a full-loop around the showroom is where a memorial for Tony resides. It’s set up almost like a make-shift office/living room, with memorabilia photos and documents on the walls, his leather recliner, checkered flannels hanging from coat racks, and the original sewing machine used to craft the furniture that launched the Grouts’ legacy business.
It’s amazing really: a time capsule of Tony and Mabeth’s life together, with all their inside jokes and fond memories on display, memorialized in a place that began as a livelihood for the small family and has grown into an institution of fun for hundreds, if not thousands, of others.
What Remains the Same
With all that lives within the warehouse, it might be easy to forget for a moment that it’s an operating furniture store. But Radcliffe said the secret to its long-term success has never been about selling furniture — everything goes back to creating an experience.
During the summer, the Old Cannery becomes a carnival for its three holiday sales, and a total of 30,000 hot dogs are given away. At Christmas and Easter, lines snake around the store for free family photos with Santa and the Easter Bunny. Each winter, the Old Cannery also has been doing a bridge lighting in conjunction with the City of Sumner, complete with hot chocolate and roasted nuts. The list truly goes on. Radcliffe said the company is involved in something just about every week, from military dinners and turkey donations during Thanksgiving to summer rodeos and cancer walks.
“When you’re successful, you have to give back,” Radcliffe said. “And when you do the right thing and give back, the right things happen for you. A good business has to be involved in the community, otherwise you just become a big-box store.”
During the Great Recession, the spiraling economy affected the Old Cannery just like it affected every other business. Radcliffe said the staff went from 130 to about 60, and they operated with losses for three years until the recession began to recede. He attributes the Old Cannery making it through those difficult years to its loyal employees and continuing to host free, family-friendly events that draw thousands.
“We didn’t change our model of giving away the hot dogs and doing the event in the economic downturn,” Radcliffe said. “For a lot of people, rather than going out to a movie or going out to the park on Memorial Day, they’d haul the kids down for the free event at the Old Cannery during those downturns. I feel that in the downturn, our customers stuck with us.”
Radcliffe said the business is back to doing very well, and when it comes to the future of the Old Cannery, he envisions one thing remaining the same: “As a retailer, we just need to stick to our basic principles of community and great value.”