CANNON BEACH — The Waves of Grain Bakery on South Hemlock Street closed earlier this month after seven years. When it reopens in February 2014, it will be nearly 90 miles away on East Burnside Street in Portland.

“It’s with a heavy heart,” said Hillary Fargo, seated beside the cottage that housed the bakery she co-owns with her husband, Jason Fargo. “When we set all this up, it was for the long haul. We really thought we were done. We were going to retire out here.”

Though Waves of Grain – with its assortment of breads, pastries and caffeinated beverages had become a fixture of the North Coast community, it became clear to the couple that difficulties specific to Cannon Beach had an effect on their business.

For one thing, their hiring pool had became increasingly shallow over the years, especially since the Sunset Empire Transportation District reduced bus service to Seaside and Cannon Beach.

“We were lucky enough to have people with cars, but other winters we’ve had people that relied on that bus service,” Hillary Fargo said. “There’s no affordable housing in town, and then it’s very difficult to commute from Seaside.”

“Who we could hire was so limited,” Jason Fargo said. “Most places (in Cannon Beach) are totally cost-prohibitive for anybody.”

What’s more, the high turnover rate of seasonal employees made it almost impossible for the Fargos to achieve a desirable work-life balance, particularly during the winter when the bakery employs a light staff.

“To be able to find skilled bakers and be able to find year-round staff has been really tough for us,” Hillary Fargo said. “We find our summer staff, but then they all go back to college.”

The Fargos count on their employees to maintain the high level of quality that defines their business. Baking, coffee brewing and customer service are skilled professions that require rigorous training.

“It’s not just putting pastries in a bag,” she said. “We expect (our employees) to carry our passion onto the counter, and that’s just hard to find.”

On top of all this, the seasonal swings in Waves of Grain’s customer base hindered their creative freedom. The Fargos had always wanted to add brunch, but it never became feasible.

“The last year has been the hardest year for staffing the bakery we’ve ever had, so it was just max stress,” she said. To carry out the bulk of a business during July and August is an “all-or-nothing rollercoaster. And if everything doesn’t go perfect, you’re totally screwed.”

Near the end, the couple began experiencing sleepless nights. They finally told themselves, “We really can’t keep feeling like this.”

And with that, they decided to find a better environment for their business.

School closed

Depite these concerns, the couple nevertheless planned to raise their 1-year-old son, Levon, on the North Coast until he became a teenager.

But when Cannon Beach Elementary School closed permanently last June, the Fargos had another reason to leave the community.

“It was the catalyst,” Jason Fargo said.

“It pushed our plan up a good seven to 10 years,” Hillary Fargo added.

If this is the first public fallout of the school’s closure, it raises the question: Is this the beginning of a trend?

“I doubt it,” Cannon Beach City Councilor Sam Steidel said.

Mayor Mike Morgan also was skeptical.

“I question whether that was a major part of their decision (to leave town),” said Morgan, who thinks that the ultimate reason they left is that they “found the opportunity in Portland and decided to go in that direction.”

Robin Risley, a Cannon Beach real estate agent who has known the Fargos for several years, agreed. The closing of the elementary school “would not be a reason, in my mind, to leave a community” given that a charter school – the Cannon Beach Academy – is currently underway and is likely to be up and running by the time Levon is old enough to enroll, she said.

“It’s a very big loss to have them leave,” Risley said. “I’m sad because I think that they put out a very good product here for our community, and I think our community embraced their being here.”

Hillary Fargo said that she’s confident the charter school will be a success.

“I believe it’s going to be great because there’s people that care about it, and there’s great teachers still in the area,” she said. “I just saw Levon’s future get a little dimmer. I didn’t like that feeling.”

Saying goodbye

During their last day in Cannon Beach – roughly 2 1/2 weeks since they officially announced their closing – the Fargos took turns manning the counter and watching Levon.

It may have been their final hours as a Cannon Beach business, but that didn’t stop the Waves of Grain staff from “giving it their all,” Hillary Fargo said.

Jordan Guenther, 28. is a veteran Waves of Grain employee. He worked, first, as a barista, then as a baker after he returned from a brief stint in Portland. Guenther has seen more of the bakery than anyone except the Fargo family.

“It’s been educational, and it’s a lot of hard work,” Guenther said. “Everything changes, especially food service.”

Meanwhile, the regulars -- some still reeling from the news, some holding back tears -- expressed their gratitude to the Fargos, who gave away surplus coffee, brioches and other favorite desserts from the menu.

Outside, patrons drew hearts and composed loving messages and fond farewells on the concrete entranceway near the “For Sale” sign.

Of all their many loyal customers, the person the Fargos are going to miss the most is Don Howell, a Korean War veteran and the first public works director for the city of Cannon Beach.

“That one’s going to hurt,” Jason Fargo said.

Nearly every day since Waves of Grain Bakery opened its doors in August 2006, Howell has dropped by and ordered a vanilla latte and a shortbread cookie.

“I hate to see it go,” Howell said. “It’s been great.”

“We love Don,” Jason Fargo said.

“We love Don like family,” Hillary Fargo added.

Humble origins

For the first six months of the bakery’s operation, Waves of Grain was a two-person show. Hillary and Jason did all of the work themselves: baking the treats, brewing the coffee, greeting the customers, taking orders and washing the dishes by hand. They didn’t hire their first baker and dishwasher until 2008.

The couple found themselves working 12-, 15-, sometimes 17-hour days.

“We didn’t expect the bakery to be this successful,” Hillary Fargo said.

“It just went crazy. The locals, they used the word-of-mouth to get us going, and it certainly got us flying out here. But then they got annoyed with the fact that they had to wait in line,” Jason Fargo chuckled.

He estimates that Waves of Grain brings in at least 500 people per day during the summer.

“Generally, if they’re staying in one of the hotels around here, they’re in every day,” he said.

Eventually, Waves of Grain began to attract national attention. The Fargos were featured in Gourmet Magazine and on National Public Radio’s foodie show, “The Splendid Table,” with Jane and Michael Sterns. And at one point, they were among the finalists to be featured on the Food Network’s now-cancelled series “Throwdown With Bobby Flay.”

But their most cherished shoutout came from Bela Fleck, a virtuoso banjo player with 15 grammies, who credited the Fargos in the liner notes of his first concerto, the third movement of which was inspired, Fleck said, by music he heard in Waves of Grain.

“We’ve had a lot of good times and success,” Hillary Fargo said. “It’s not that we want to leave. It’s just that we feel we need to.”

Off to the Rose City

Like many young business owners, the Fargos think of Waves of Grain as their first child.

“We want the business to grow up and be successful,” Hillary Fargo said, referring to their forthcoming outlet at 2250 E. Burnside St. on Portland’s “restaurant row” as “the grown-up Waves of Grain.” “It’s like, ‘Aw, the kid gets a real kitchen and a real dishroom.’”

The couple did the math and realized that they had a built-in customer base in Portland -- which, incidentally, is where the couple first met. They realized that, in Portland in winter, there are more people who know about Waves of Grain than those who come to Cannon Beach.

“I feel like our success is capped (in Cannon Beach) with the off-season fluctuation, and so in Portland we can just have the summer success year-round,” Hillary Fargo said.

Already, the Fargos have removed their sign from the small Cannon Beach cottage where it all began. It now stands in the window of their new big city establishment.

“We...feel really confident with our decision,” she added. “If we didn’t feel it was such a great setup, we wouldn’t have done it.”

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