Randy Neely and Steve Archuleta were living a bucolic life on Madeira Island, Portugal, when a friend sent them a text message: Betty Yates Jacobs, the fourth generation of the Yates family to helm the 127-year-old Yates Market in Ellicott City, was retiring.
"We kind of took it as a sign," said Archuleta.
The pair contacted Jacobs. Within weeks, they had moved back to Ellicott City and were renovating the historic store. Randy & Steve's General Store officially opened Sept. 29.
The store sells classic general store items like paper towels and cold cereal, but the bulk of the merchandise is gourmet food and personal care products such as Stonewall Kitchen jams, gourmet pastas and Barr Co. soaps.
"We promised Betty Yates we would keep the Yates tradition alive," said Archuleta, "but we're doing it Randy and Steve style."
They kept the exterior and repurposed many of the store's fixtures. A meat case in use since 1904, for example, now houses herbs, and old doors were painted white and made into tabletops for product displays. They painted the brown tin roof white and replaced the flooring.
The store will sell staples like eggs and milk, said Neely, but "we want to be more of a gourmet store." Once they get the required license, they will sell sandwiches and hot tea for take-out, as well as soup in winter and salads in summer. They also plan to sell garden equipment from a patch of greenery behind the store, where Neely will lead meditations.
"It's their look; it's their new store: it's what it should be," said Jacobs. She said Archuleta and Neely let her visit during the six-week renovation, which made the transition less jarring. But she admitted it's strange seeing others in charge of the store she has known her entire life, and where she worked for 34 years.
Located on Main Street, Yates Market was founded in historic Ellicott City by Samuel James Yates. Ownership passed through the Yates generations to Samuel Irving Yates, then Samuel Bladen Yates and then to Jacobs. Her daughter, Melissa Baker, who also lives in Ellicott City, "has a regular job in the business world," said Jacobs, who did not encourage Baker to take over the store.
For most of its history, Yates Market was a grocery store, known for its fresh sausage and home delivery. But in the last few years, said Jacobs, "it was becoming more a general store," with less meat sold. She had worked in the store 34 years and was ready to retire, she said.
Archuleta and Neely were already familiar with Ellicott City retail as owners and operators of The Good Life Market, on Tongue Row, from 2005 to 2010. Previously, Archuleta had worked for the National Institutes of Health; and Neely had worked for Eileen Fischer, Brooks Brothers and Ann Taylor.
"Randy and I love Ellicott City," said Archuleta. "We love our customers. We love the families. They become our family."
The two work every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and warmly greet each person who walks into the store, often striking up conversations. One customer asked about a specific cracker, and Archuleta said he would order it.
On a recent weekday, Ann Thompson Hogg, who lives downtown, lingered to chat. Her grandmother, LaRue Stromberg; and mother-in-law, Alberta Kinlein Hogg, both shopped at Yates, she said. They called in their orders, which would be delivered.
"It was a real grocery store," she said. "It was the kind of store you'd call and they'd say, 'Oh, I have this today,' " she recalled.
For two years, Neely and Archuleta had been living in Portugal, where Neely wrote a book that Archuleta edited, "Eighteen Inches of Courage," about "learning to live from the heart instead of the head," said Neely. The 18 inches, he explained, refers to the distance between head and heart.
"We really learned the difference between quality of life and standard of living," said Archuleta. "It was great for the way we approach this business."