Food hall nurtures post-Covid aspirations for couple and community

PULLMAN, Wash. – DJ Goldfinger and Molly Golden have a heart for large-scale hospitality whose innovation and service attract first-time customers and then convert them into lifelong fans. The partners – in marriage and business – had worked 15 years at the popular college dance bar Stubblefields when it was forced to close in August 2020 because of Covid-19 shutdowns. They both tear up recalling the loyalty of a young family from the Midwest that rented an RV to travel to Pullman for vacation that summer in order to bid goodbye to a favorite college-days haunt.

And they both smile remembering the former customers and employees who crossed the state and country to volunteer to paint, prep and bartend as Goldfinger and Golden opened their own post-Covid businesses – Timber Bar & Grill and its umbrella food hall location, the Lumberyard – in October 2021.

“One person even traveled here to build us a stage,” Goldfinger said. “He provided the materials and labor, and worked on it for at least a week, at no cost to us.”

As they looked for a business where they could continue their calling post-Stubblefields, the couple were told repeatedly that they should contact Aziz Makhani, the advisor in Pullman for the Washington Small Business Development Centers. By October 2020, they were among his clients.

The Washington SBDC is a network of more than 40 advisors in more than two dozen communities across the state working to help owners and entrepreneurs who want to start, grow or buy/sell a business. Advising is confidential and is provided at no cost to the client through a partnership between the U.S. Small Business Administration and Washington State University. Additional support is provided by funding partners including other institutions of higher education, economic development agencies and business and civic organizations. 

Advisor’s experience, technology, encouragement vital

When they first approached Makhani, the Lumberyard location already was at the top of Goldfinger and Golden’s preference list. It had been run as a food hall – akin to a shopping mall food court, but inside a vast former lumber sales structure – but closed under the strain of Covid. The couple’s first attempt to buy the business fell through, as did offers on at least two other locations. But throughout their efforts, Makhani provided guidance, templates, reminders and encouragement to persevere.

“We have years of experience in operations, but we had never bought or owned a business,” Golden said. “Aziz helped us write a one-page proposal to start off with potential investors and banks,” Goldfinger said. “He has templates for things like a business plan, projections and spreadsheets.”

“Aziz knows how business people think,” said Golden. “He recommended people we could contact and knew ahead of time about buildings that might be coming available. He has connections and business networks across the state.”

“We would have a hundred ideas and plans going around in our heads,” Goldfinger said. “Aziz helped us focus on maybe three or five immediate goals and articulate them clearly.”

“He has information that we didn’t even know we needed,” said Golden, “like our area’s demographics and access to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s data team that could quickly assemble and deliver government numbers and data that we needed.”

Hesitantly hopeful after stellar opening, steady growth

After a year of hard work, the couple was able to procure the Lumberyard on the second attempt. But, mostly due to lenders’ Covid hesitations and the large scale of their dreams, they were not able to secure outside funding; instead, they have invested their lifetime savings, and Golden works full time outside the business. They remain cautious, but are encouraged by their success so far.

Indeed, with a capacity of about 480 on Stubblefields-style dance/bar nights, the Lumberyard was full with mostly college-age fans an hour after it opened its first night, with a line waiting to get in that extended into the next block. City police arrived to help direct traffic.

“The success we’ve had since we opened is beyond anything we could have imagined,” Golden said. Their customers’ first-night support “damn-near made you cry,” Goldfinger added. “I’m standing on my last dollar, thinking ‘God, please let there be a hundred or two people come tonight.’ And we must have had 500 or more.”

The multi-age lunch and dinner crowds have grown steadily since October, with moms’ groups and little league teams enjoying the indoor and outdoor creekside playgrounds, variety of meals offered by the different food trucks that line the perimeter indoors, and $5 kids menu at the Timber food truck. A second-floor covered and heated outdoor patio invites year-round fresh-air dining and the upstairs bar provides an upholstered, more intimate atmosphere.

The location’s versatility is enhanced by a separate events building with stages and sofa seating. The ends of both buildings can be opened and the stages rolled onto a lighted outdoor patio. A commercial certified kitchen is used in part by the food truck owners, but also is available for rent by clubs and other groups. A two-bedroom, two-bath vacation rental with separate entry and parking is located in a corner of the main building nearest downtown Pullman.

Welcoming town and gown, promoting downtown business

Late night crowd with disc jockey in foreground and people dancing with blue and multicolor lighting

In six months, the staff of the Lumberyard and Timber Bar & Grill has grown to an average of 40. In addition, the three independently owned food trucks – Yia Yia Nikki’s, Malo Cuisines and Poke Man – employ about 20. Daytime patronage is growing and the late-night crowd remains consistent: “We know how to do college,” said Goldfinger who, as his first-name initials suggest, is a DJ whose music – along with the occasional live band – is featured after 9 p.m.

Goldfinger and Golden are thrilled that the Washington State University crowd has followed them across the often perplexing town-gown divide into downtown Pullman. And they are proud to continue the Lumberyard’s earlier reputation as a place for families – especially as they are new parents themselves, with children ages 3 and 5. “We want to offer something for the whole community,” Goldfinger said.

They see the Lumberyard as a place providing quick service via the food trucks, but also keeping their own payroll manageable because they only own and staff one of the food trucks and the bar. As the food hall owners, however, they also take care of the facility, and they support the other food-truck vendors’ social media through Lumberyard advertising and marketing.

“In some ways, we are like a business incubator,” Golden said. “We provide these spaces and want to see the food trucks succeed and grow until they can move out on their own, and then other new businesses can move in.” Special events with all the Lumberyard vendors, as well as partnerships with outside businesses like a spring evening of food, drink and paint-your-own wine glasses, are among the couple’s endeavors to support and promote Pullman businesses and encourage its downtown to thrive.

As they consider more special events, partnerships and making more use of the Lumberyard as a wedding and event venue, they are confident in relying on Makhani’s expertise and enthusiasm.

“Aziz keeps checking in,” Golden said. “He reminds us to stay current on our social media. He brought in friends for a ‘burger tasting,’ they gave us feedback, we made changes and now we track our burger popularity on the computer.

“He is there when you need him and gives you his full attention and candid thoughts,” she said. “He has a lot of information, but he doesn’t rush as he helps you make use of it. He really cares about us as his clients.”

By Cynthia King, Washington SBDC