“I’m here to speak with Chris McLendon,” I say to Santa’s look-a-like wife behind the counter.
“Take a right on 20 and follow it to the back of the store,” Mrs. Klaus directed. There was a twinkle in her eye, cherubic cheeks and a smile that was as pleasant as hot cocoa and whip cream.
When you go to McLendon’s, there’s comfort in being helped by “real” people— like you’ve just stepped into the best of another era, a time before customer service was a title.
15, 16, 17, 18 19 and aisle 20 take a right.
At the faux kitchens I recognized the guy from the paint department — the one who reminds me to stir in a teaspoon of pure vanilla into my paint before getting started as a way to avoid the wet paint smell.
“For little kid’s rooms to get rid of the smell . . . But it has to be pure vanilla,” he always advises with conviction. And I’m grateful for the tip: As a McLendon’s customer for more than 10 years, with four kids we’ve painted a lot of rooms.
But I wasn’t at McLendon’s to write about kitchens, paint or small-town customer service. Of course I appreciate it but giving top-notch customer service for 85 years isn’t necessarily news.
I was at McLendon’s because a sleek, sexy, futuristic vision had touched down in their parking lot like a shiny silver Phoenix.
The Airstream, a beacon of retro swag crowned with a silver doughnut and two words: Top Pot.
The Top Pot Doughnut is an experience and the maple old-fashioned my favorite: perfectly crunchified dough that sits majestically glazed like the snow-peaked Mount Rainier, with sumptuous frosting as if tapped from a Vermont maple.
These infamous glistening sirens have become famous. Bewitching Seahawk rookie Golden Tate into nabbing a few bars before the store opened. Or the tale of Howard Schultz after a one-week Top Pot binge and three dozen doughnuts that led to a multi-million dollar partnership. Even Obama had been wooed into sharing half a glazed old fashioned with Sen. Patty Murray. And now they’re available in Renton.
Top Pot owners Mark and Mike Kleback are former contractor brothers who have picker hearts and a love of retro-mod designers like Charles and Ray Eames.
So it’s no surprise the Klebeck brothers designed and built out the McLendon Airstream themselves. The success of Top Pot is a secret 1920s doughnut recipe and their signature vintage aesthetic of their cafes. So the Airstream was a perfect choice for Top Pot’s successful blending of “the old with the new.”
On a tour of the Top Pot flagship downtown store and bakery, I asked Mark how Top Pot came to Renton.
“McLendon Hardware contacted us and asked us to set up at their new food court. It’s a great Puget Sound company with a great history. We think it’s a great match for Top Pot.” Mark added, “You should really talk to Chris McLendon.”
I figured I was in the right spot at the McLendon back office when I saw a family picture behind the reception desk. The kind of picture commissioned by the Nordstrom or Boeing families — Northwest institutions of which McLendon’s surely qualifies.
Christopher McLendon strode toward me and he was younger than I expected. I asked him about the family lineage.
“I am the youngest member of the third generation in the business. There are three of us who are senior executives and decision makers of the company. The third generation has been running the business for the last 15 years or so. All total there are 22 family members throughout the business representing the third and fourth generations, ranging from the president all the way down to a part-time store helper.”
I asked Chris who had the idea to approach Top Pot.
“We completed a remodel to add food vendors. The family asked, ‘What would be cool?’ And Top Pot jumped to the top of the list. Something Northwest. So we went to their website, saw the Airstream and we were like “that’s it!”
“Judging by the lines, I guess Top Pot is a success here in Renton?” I asked.
“I get in at 6 a.m. and there’s a line of people,” Chris said with a smile. “We are definitely looking for more vendors. Three or four more with Northwest roots that offer something new, different and exciting.”
On my way out of McLendon’s I paused, watching a dead ringer for “Pop” McLendon feeding his time card into the machine. He was the same older gent who helped us with the supplies for our chicken coop and the verbal schematic.
The Top Pot Airstream was cool . . . but so was a family business that has been a fixture for 85 years and continues to thrive under a creative leadership with deep Renton roots.
“We are a unique type of business in this day and age, and a great place to work. We have a number of long-time employees on staff throughout the company, some from 25 to 40 plus years!” Chris explained.
I asked Chris about the family picture hanging above the reception desk.
“My father and his siblings taken 12 years ago by Renton photographer Bruce Hudson at my dad’s 70th birthday party. They are the second generation of the business that took over running it from my grandfather. Ted McLendon (my father), brothers Pat, Jan and Bob McLendon, and sisters Wanda Kauffman and Dorothy Thompson.”
McLendon’s like Top Pot is a successful blend of the old and new.
If you know of people or places in Renton that surprise, delight and inspire the community, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also follow Carolyn on her blog, www.pippimamma.com.