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Nelson’s Market owners want to run restaurant like good neighbors

A year in, preserving history and community are top of mind for 'stewards' of 129-old Bellingham establishment

Nelson's Market customers enjoy their breakfasts on Wednesday morning before beginning their day.
Nelson's Market customers enjoy their breakfasts Wednesday, Jan. 24. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)
By Charlotte Alden General Assignment/Enterprise Reporter

A year ago, Urania and Ben Shaklee went from living next to the 129-year-old Nelson’s Market to owning the iconic neighborhood joint.

The sale went through just a few days before longtime owner Jon Ostby passed away. He had managed and owned the York neighborhood restaurant and market for 38 years.

The Shaklees were joined in their venture by business partner and kitchen manager Mars Lindgren, who lived across the alley from the couple for years. Despite changing hands, one theme remains the same: Nelson’s has been operated by York neighbors for at least seven decades.

The community connections, and the decades of memories, make this place almost sacred for the Shaklees, who consider themselves “stewards of Nelson’s.” 

Nelson's Market co-owners Ben and Urania Shaklee, left, and Mars Lindgen, business partner and kitchen manager, right, work together in shaping the memorable market experience on Wednesday, Jan. 24 on Potter Street in Bellingham.
Nelson’s Market co-owners Ben and Urania Shaklee, left, and Mars Lindgen, business partner and kitchen manager, right, work together in shaping the memorable market experience. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)

“I don’t really think it can fully be owned to be quite honest. It feels like it’s its own sort of organism [or] living thing,” Urania said. “That’s really how I feel about it. It’s stewardship, it’s a really special place.” 

In a year, the Shaklees and Lindgren have made some small changes, but said they’re preserving the strong culture and legacy that already existed at Nelson’s and has for more than a century. 

“A lot of people ask, like, what are you going to do with it? … And I feel like, ‘We’re not,’ is kind of the answer,” Urania said. “It’s just going to be. [What’s] important to the whole project is just letting it be what people love about it and keeping it going.”  

Nelson’s has been around since 1895, in various forms. The building at 514 Potter St. has hosted grocery stores and a meat market — the coolers in the current market are original (but updated) from that era. Now, it’s a restaurant/market hybrid best known for breakfast. 

In the mid-1920s, what is now Nelson’s Market was Nordstrom & Son grocery and the York Addition Meat Market. (Photo courtesy J.W. Sandison, Whatcom Museum)

To the Shaklees and Lindgren, Nelson’s is the center of the York neighborhood and their community. They lived across the street from Nelson’s for years. 

“A lot of what Mars’s hospitality was to us as a neighbor speaks very much to what the place is for the York neighborhood at large,” Urania said. “A place to meet with friends, enjoy good food, help each other. I think you’ll find people willing to lend a hand here.” 

Neighbors have historically bought the market.

Jon Ostby
Former owner, the late Jon Ostby, sits on a bench in front of Nelson’s Market reading a newspaper and visiting with a couple of local kids. Otsby purchased Nelson’s Market in 1984, and died in 2023 at age 75. (Photo courtesy of Otsby family album)

“For at least 70 years, this has been operated by someone who first lived in the neighborhood taking it over,” said Ben Shaklee, who is also general manager at the market.

Nelson’s devotees were anxious for the few years the neighborhood mainstay was on the market before being purchased by the Shaklees.

Hearing the Shaklees had bought the place was a relief for David Lofgren, a regular patron for 15 years who worked at Nelson’s in 2010. 

“It just felt like, OK, someone who knows and loves this place is taking over,” Lofgren said. “We don’t have to worry about some crazy new business plan. I think it’s clear that they very much are here because they love Nelson’s too.” 

Nelson's Market chef Tim Smith prepares burgers for restaurant customers on Tuesday, Jan. 16.
Nelson’s Market chef Tim Smith prepares burgers for restaurant customers on Jan. 16. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)

Alie Lofgren called Nelson’s Market many people’s “third space.”

Lindgren said the changes the new management has made are small, and “geared around giving people things to be excited about.” 

“Some different food here and there, the game night, we’re looking at maybe doing some trivia. Reasons for people to come and hang out and get to know each other,” he said. 

A year ago, Nelson’s began hosting a Monday board game night. The market is also open until 10 p.m. every night now, for consistency, Ben said.  

As for food, the Nelson’s Market staples like chicken and waffles have remained, but Lindgren said he’s had fun adding new dishes, like a popular curry poutine. 

A focus on community 

Every night, you’ll likely find some regulars at the bar and in the restaurant. On Tuesdays, the Lofgrens and Zach Baumen sit in a booth and have dinner before their band practice. 

They call it “date night” — a nod to the married couple’s first date at Nelson’s 13 years ago. 

Nelson's Market
One year ago, Urania and Ben Shaklee bought Nelson’s Market, located at 514 Potter St. in the York neighborhood. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)

“I invited her [Alie] to come to breakfast at Nelson’s, and Zach and another friend of ours were already here having breakfast,” David Lofgren said. “And I was like, perfect we’ll just sit down with these guys. And of course, Alie was like, I came here to go on a first date with a guy and he’s with two other boys, all sitting here.” 

The owners and business partner Lindgren grinned when talking about class reunions held at Nelson’s, an elderly man’s birthday with four generations present, and the “candy rush,” as Lindgren calls it, after school, when parents occasionally let their kids get one piece of candy. 

Urania described Nelson’s as a “place you remember from your childhood where you would meet an old friend.” 

“I think that my goal is to just cherish this place,” she said. “It’s for people to cherish and enjoy, so I’m going to do that right along with everyone else.”

Charlotte Alden is CDN’s general assignment/enterprise reporter; reach her at charlottealden@cascadiadaily.com; 360-922-3090 ext. 123.

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