Just north of where the Klamath and Salmon Rivers meet, there’s a small cinder block grocery store. A sign out front reads “new ownership.”
Founded during the mid-1800s gold rush, the Salmon River Outpost is situated along a winding road in the mountains of Northern California. Once, it was a gathering place where miners and settlers bought supplies while pursuing a dream that had brutal consequences. One of only two grocery stores for miles, the store has served the rural community of Somes Bar for generations.
After nearly two centuries of contentious relationships between historical owners and local Indigenous communities, the dynamic has shifted. In July, Indigenous husband and wife duo Joe and Elly O'Rourke bought the Salmon River Outpost.
That’s thanks in part to a new program operated by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Corporation. This grocery store is the first project to benefit from a new $73 million pot of federal money, intended to help small businesses in Indian Country that might not otherwise get the funding they need to flourish.
ATNI-EDC will oversee roughly a third of that money. The organization has cultivated a union of 25 tribal governments across the West working together to fund enterprises under the new State Small Business Credit Initiative Awards.
“We're glad to be the first Native owners of an original outpost,” Elly O’Rourke said. “We're happy to be running it and get it built back up to what our community needs.”
Meeting the needs of Somes Bar looks different for each customer. For regulars like Ebba Fournier, it’s as simple as bringing in her own decaf coffee for Joe O’Rourke to make into a latte each week. She also appreciates the ever-growing inventory.
“I love that they have organic stuff and healthy food. The beer and wine selection is pretty good, too,” Fournier added. “I like their display of local people to have their art, jewelry and things like that.”
For other community members, the help is a little more hands on.
On a late September afternoon, an elderly man parked out front was experiencing car troubles. Sitting in the front seat of his red pickup truck, the man’s dog watched closely as Joe handed him tools and peered under the hood to see how he could help.
A Family Affair
Elly, Karuk, and Joe, Yurok, met when she was 10 and he was 12. They dated in high school, when Joe promised to build her a house with a circle driveway on her family’s land overlooking the Klamath River.
The pair separated for about a decade — Elly went off to college while Joe stayed home, sharpening his skills as a contractor. They each got married and started building families of their own.
But like any good love story, they found their way back to each other. Since they’ve been back together, they had two children together, and Joe kept his promise: he built Elly the house and circular driveway of her dreams, teaching himself through YouTube videos.
“He tells me I’m the smartest person he knows,” Elly said, smiling at Joe.
“And she says I’m the smartest person she knows,” Joe responded. “There is nothing we can’t accomplish together.”
Reunited with a blended family of seven kids ranging in age from 2 to 20, the couple has embarked on a new adventure: business owners.
Operating the store has become a family affair.
At the Salmon River Outpost, it’s common to see the two youngest O’Rourke kids running about — Sihára, 2, has his own mini metal shopping cart he likes to weave up and down the aisles while Morek, 7, helps with chores around the store.
“My favorite part is taking out the garbage,” Morek said.
Morek swings his legs as he eats the ice cream bar he earned by taking the trash out. His face is soon covered with melted mint chocolate chip that drips down his hands.
He walks out front and quickly shifts to his other favorite role: store greeter. He spends hours visiting with locals who come in to use the store’s free wifi and chatting with tourists.
Following in his parents’ footsteps, the family’s 17-year-old, Íhaan, started his own business soon after the O’Rourkes purchased the store. Using Facebook, Íhaan launched a grocery delivery service. He takes customers’ orders and brings groceries to their front door for a $10 fee. Through his business, he is able to pay for gas money and have a bit of extra cash to spend as well, according to Elly.
“He calls himself the Salmon Runner,” Elly said.
Healing a relationship with the community
In 1849, the California Gold Rush drew the Brizard family from Peru, where they had been living after emigrating from France. For a century, A. Brizard Inc. was a major retail supplier of produce, household items, mining and farm equipment in Humboldt, Siskiyou and Trinity Counties. The operation grew to thirteen locations, ranging from the California coast inland, including the Salmon River Outpost.
The original building – 16-miles round trip from Elly’s family’s allotment along the Salmon River – was lost to the “thousand year flood” of 1964 that devastated Northern California. The store moved a couple more times since then, but the name remains the same.
Contentious relationships with tribal members was a common theme of A. Brizard Inc. outposts.
“They weren't necessarily favorable to the local Natives,” Elly said. “Instead of giving them money, [Brizard] gave them ‘Brizard coins’ for their goods.”
Native artists sold woven baskets, beadwork and other handmade goods to Brizard stores in exchange for Brizard coins, which meant they had to come back to his stores to buy their groceries.
On an evening in September, the O’Rourke family was crowded around their dinner table, eating tri-tip steak with mashed potatoes and salad, followed by homemade lime ice cream.
“When you were a kid did they still do the Brizard coins?” Elly asked her soon-to-be 87-year-old Atish, or grandmother in Karuk.
“Yes,” Jeanerette Jacups-Johnny said with a chuckle. “Natives didn’t understand money. And they used them to skip like rocks across the river. So, it was a different life back then.”
Healing the store’s relationship with Indigenous customers has been one of the O'Rourkes’ top priorities. First up was providing space for Natives to showcase and sell their artwork, pottery, homemade soaps and beaded jewelry — and paying in real money.
“There’s a more steady stream of local customers now that we own it — the Native community,” Elly said. “There’s this one customer who drives all the way in from the coast and when he walks in he always says, ‘Here’s my favorite store.’”
Homemade hot meals are another thing the couple brought to the community. Every Saturday, Joe fires up the store's commercial kitchen and makes pulled pork sliders, smoked ribs, street tacos, cold-cut sub sandwiches and more.
His next culinary adventure? Homemade ice cream.
The couple implemented a suggestion box to ensure the store carries the products community members want. Customers can drop a note to request specific brands of coffee and creamer, foods that meet dietary restrictions, or anything else the store does not yet carry.
Financing a business
On a whim one lazy afternoon down by the river, Joe turned to his wife after a snack run. He suggested they buy the Salmon River Outpost — a community staple since the 1800s.
Two days later, Elly was onboard. But the couple’s dream didn’t come cheap.
The store had been listed for sale on Craigslist for three years, according to Elly. When they expressed interest, the seller agreed to lower the price for a local family.
Even so, an asking price of $200,000 for the business and another $450,000 for the nearly two acres of land it sits on meant getting approved for over $650,000 in funding was not easy. It likely would not have been possible at all without three separate organizations’ willingness to work together to support the dream of the O’Rourke family.
In the end, Arcata Economic Development Corporation stepped up as the primary lender, contributing $375,000. The Alliance, the Yurok Tribe’s Community Development Financial Institution, loaned the O’Rourkes $50,000. And a new program through the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Corporation, in partnership with the Karuk Tribe, loaned the couple $250,000. The extra $25,000 in loans went toward business capital.
Having three lenders involved could have made the loan process complicated for the O’Rourkes, but instead all three loans are managed through the Arcata Economic Development Corporation.
In June, the Biden-Harris administration approved the first 15 Tribal State Small Business Credit Initiative Awards — providing $73 million to 39 tribal governments to support tribal enterprises and small business owners across the country.
The ATNI-EDC will operate the State Small Business Credit Initiative programs in partnership with 25 tribal governments spread across California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Arizona.
“I call it a lightning strike, once in a lifetime moment,” said Casey Pearlman, Iñupiaq, business development specialist at ATNI-EDC. “Just the amount of capital that's getting poured into these communities is certainly at a rate that we've never experienced in the lifetime of our organization.”
ATNI-EDC is partnering with other financial institutions — including local Community Development Financial Institutions, banks and credit unions — in order to distribute loans to support Indigenous entrepreneurs and economic development opportunities across Indian Country.
In practice, applying for an SSBCI loan is “just like applying for any other loan” through a local Community Development Financial Institution, according to Pearlman.
Salmon River Outpost is just the first economic development project in Native communities across the Northwest that the program will help support. Two other projects are currently in the works.
One is a tribal enterprise energy project that will use nut shells in a process called gasification to produce energy, biochar and carbon credits. This will create three new revenue streams for the tribe, which Pearlman chose not to name because the project has not yet been officially announced.
Also in the works is a partnership with Yakama Nation to open a new convenience store called “Yakamart,” according to Pearlman.
‘Cash is King’
Owning and operating a grocery store is no easy task. The couple has faced struggles and triumphs both expected and unforeseen.
Situated 45 minutes from Happy Camp, California, Salmon River Outpost is in the heart of a fire prone area of Northern California. As fire season has become more intense, so has the ability to get fire insurance.
Typically, businesses are supposed to have insurance within 10 days of opening. The couple had to file for an extension because they struggled to even get an inspector to come out and give them a quote, according to Joe.
“We haven’t gotten insurance yet,” Joe said. “It is damn near impossible.”
In late September, smoke hung heavy in the air and small blazes could be seen from the highway just a few miles down the road.
The couple finally did get a quote — $20,000 per year for fire insurance alone.
“How are small businesses supposed to survive when you require something that's one, almost impossible to get, and then once you do get it, it is almost impossible to afford?” Joe asked.
Credit card fees were another unforeseen expense.
Banks charge the store between 2 and 5 percent of each transaction depending on the type of credit or debit card. The fees quickly add up.
“I’m estimating our credit card fees will be about $2,500 a month,” Elly said. That adds up to $30,000 each year.
While this may be standard for a small business, that is a lot of extra money the couple didn’t realize they needed to account for.
“Honestly, we’re just trying to make a living and right now we’re losing money out of our pocket,” Joe said.
One way they are hoping to offset some of this cost is by incentivising cash payments with a discount. Because the store is in a remote area with high levels of poverty, the couple does what they can to keep prices at the store affordable, but says it can be hard to avoid increasing costs to make up for card fees.
“Cash is king,” Joe said.
The community wants the store to succeed. Andy Ayers has been volunteering one of his days off for the past year and a half to help keep the store up and running.
“People want a gathering place which I think this store has been, could be and is becoming again,” Ayers said.
Lead image: Elly O'Rourke visits with Aja Conrad, owner of On River Time Designs, as she stops in to buy snacks. Conrad is one of the artists who sells her clothing in the store. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)
Clarification: The O'Rourke family home overlooks the Klamath River.