Rockin’ a Hard Place: Beth’s tasty 20-year road to success at bayleaf

I’m always intrigued by the fascinating, sometimes convoluted stories of how people we see all the time end up living on our Rock. But this one seems really unique.

How did Elizabeth Graves, an Army brat who was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., spent her childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., graduated high school in Nantucket, Mass., picked up a degree in economics at Simmons University, a prestigious women’s college in Boston, rebelled against taking a “regular job,” hitched a ride with friends moving to “hip” Seattle in 1993 at the height of Nirvana/Grunge period and then transform herself into…

Beth Kuchynka, Whidbey’s queen of wine and cheese and owner of the bayleaf store in Coupeville?

She moved through a few jobs, not sure if she would stay permanently in Seattle. But, by the late 90s she was still there, waiting tables and sharing a house with artist friends. Through a catering gig, she also met Susan Vanderbeek, a chef in Seattle who spent weekends with her elderly mother on a farm overlooking Penn Cove. So, one weekend Beth came to Coupeville to visit Susan “and I just thought it was magical here. I had grown up on Nantucket and I had a yearning to live on an island again.”

By a good stroke of luck, Vanderbeek was about to open the Oystercatcher, a fine dining restaurant in Coupeville that still attracts visitors and great reviews today. Beth left her Seattle job almost immediately and started waiting tables at the Oystercatcher.

“I could tell right away that Beth had good business sense and she was entrepreneurial and willing to listen, and she’s not too hung up on herself,” Vanderbeek, now retired and living in Portland recalled.

Almost from day one at the Oystercatcher, Beth dreamed of opening her own restaurant on the island. “A friend and I had the plans all ready for a nice, kid-friendly breakfast and lunch place that had a bayleaf-style wine and food shop inside,” she said. “But it never quite came together.”

Then another stroke of luck. In 2000, Vanderbeek’s landlord offered to rent her a tiny 200-square-foot space tucked away under the staircase below the Oystercatcher as a storage unit. But instead Vanderbeek encouraged Beth to take the space and open just the wine and food shop she had been dreaming about. The rent was cheap: $200 a month – but would anybody even know it was there, so small and hidden; and would Coupeville support a fine wine, cheese and food shop?

Beth never doubted it. “Coupeville is amazing. People move here from all over; I call it a town of curmudgeons who still enjoy breaking bread together.”

The original bayleaf opened in October 2000 with a four-foot refrigerated cheese case, two grocery racks and about 50 different wines. And why did she name it the bayleaf?

“I wanted something that would represent something global, not just one place,” she said. “Bay leaves are used in cooking all over the world, and I figured that in the 2000s there would have to be a lot of teaching to introduce people to fine food and wine. The Romans used wreaths made of bay leaves to give to scholars and I thought that was cool.”

And why the lowercase “b” in the shop name? “I just liked the way it looked.”

Almost from day one, the tiny bayleaf shop was a hit, attracting locals and visitors alike. Beth became a go-to local expert for folks hosting dinner parties or just wanting some good wine and cheese to enjoy.

Then, in 2006, another stroke of luck. Doug McFadyen, local developer of a new commercial complex on the corner of Coveland and Alexander Streets, urged Beth to move the bayleaf into an 800-square-foot space that would have much higher visibility and foot traffic.

“Doug thought I had outgrown my space under the Oystercatcher, but I loved my life,” she said. “The overhead was low, I was making good money and I didn’t have to hire employees.”

She hesitated but finally took a leap and signed the lease. The new bayleaf opened in May 2006. “It was a night and day difference,” she said. “People who never saw us before came in and it was great to have so much more space with everything brand new.”

Her reputation has only grown thanks to internet sites such as Yelp and Trip Advisor that have given her good reviews. The number of tourists in Central Whidbey has grown exponentially and she has benefitted from that. Meanwhile, her local regulars have remained loyal despite increasing competition from other shops.

In the slow winter months, she continues to offer events such as wine and food tastings to introduce people to new things, just as she did when the original bayleaf opened.

Through it all, she has remained the same energetic and down-to-earth person she was when she arrived in Coupeville. Next year, she’s planning a 20th anniversary celebration for the bayleaf – remarkable longevity in an often treacherous retail world.

She’s a creative spirit who also shares her good ideas. In 2008, she brought the “Red Ticket” promotion to the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Assn., which adopted it as a way to get more people to shop locally for Christmas gifts. For every $20 you spend with a local merchant, you get a red ticket with a chance to win up to $1,000 cash at a drawing that is always held on the last Sunday before Christmas.

This year’s drawing is coming up Dec. 22 on the steps of the Island County Historical Museum in Coupeville.

“I borrowed the idea from Nantucket, where I lived,” Beth said. “Of course, in that rich place the top prize is $10,000, but Coupeville’s drawing is a lot more fun because everybody comes.”

She came to Whidbey more than 20 years ago as a single young woman, and she quickly learned that there weren’t many eligible men to date. But, eventually, through a friend, she met Gerry Kuchynka and they married in 2009 and settled into a new home near town. “It’s a Czech name, pronounced ka-hink-a and it means ‘little kitchen,’ which seems appropriate,” she said.

And she still loves the business she built from her dream. “The idea behind this store is that everyone is welcome. I don’t really like the term ‘gourmet’ because it sounds exclusionary to me. I don’t care if you are buying one $10 bottle of wine from me every once in a while or somebody who places 150 orders a month. Quality is what we are about.

“Whether it’s butter, a piece of cheese, an olive oil or vinegar, or a nice bottle of red wine, when you put something in your mouth from the bayleaf, I want it to stand out and taste amazing.”

n Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who lives in Central Whidbey.

Rockin’ a Hard Place: Beth’s tasty 20-year road to success at bayleaf