Sky River Bakery's owners, a mainstay on Main Street, look to retire

MONROE —  Customers nearing the Sky River Bakery can hear Andrew Abt before they see him.
Abt’s voice wafts out the screen door of the Main Street shop, mingling with the ambrosial scent of fresh pastries and coffee.
He greets regulars (“the usual?”), makes jokes (“let’s just round it off to $1,000”), and updates people on the shop’s pending sale (“a lot of looky-loos”).
It’s a nondescript Wednesday, but scones, butterhorns, muffins, rolls, and other treats — baked a few hours earlier by Abt’s wife, Mary Thorgerson — are flying off the shelves. One walk-in order fills 11 boxes.
Well before noon, all that’s left are a few cinnamon rolls, a couple of muffins, and two signature “Those Pink Cookies.”
“The only thing predictable is that it’s unpredictable,” says Abt, who with Thorgeson has been running the bakery for 32 years. “You can’t plan on someone ordering 11 boxes. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”
Thorgerson has long since gone home. Abt will soon join her, closing shop early once everything sells.
It won’t be much longer, of course — likely early next year — that the couple sells the entire shop and heads home for good.
Andrew and Mary are both 66. They say it’s time for retirement.
“We set this up a couple years ago on the down low,” Abt says.
He has narrowed more than 100 inquirers to two potential buyers. Each would keep the store a bakery but might change the name.
“It’d be a good idea for them to springboard off our success,” Abt says. “We’re the busiest right now that we’ve ever been. And we have an enormous customer base. That will give the new people a shot.”
Two steady customers, Nancy and Wes Dawson, have commuted from Everett since discovering Sky River through a summer newspaper story.
“This is the only place I could find with raisins in their cinnamon rolls,” Nancy says. “We can call the day before and ask them to add a little extra frosting. They just go beyond.”
Though it emphasizes freshness and reasonable prices, what sets the bakery apart is its relationships with clientele.
Abt learned customer service skills as a young boy working for his uncle, who owned a pharmacy in Blasdell, New York.
“He had this uncanny ability to engage customers,” Abt says. “I might not go through a day when I’m not channeling my Uncle Mil.”
The best form of advertising, he discovered, is handing out free samples.
Abt recalls a mother and 6-year-old daughter who stopped by some 30 years ago just after the shop had closed. He ran after them, and gave the youngster one of “Those Pink Cookies” they had hoped to buy.
Sure enough, the girl returned to the shop recently. She remembered the gesture.
Abt traveled a varied path to becoming a bakery owner. After earning a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology, jobs were scarce amid federal budget cuts.
He worked as a furniture restorer and a chimney sweep. A stint with a company that opened franchise restaurants brought him to Seattle, where he met Mary.
Thorgerson, then living in Mercer Island, had learned to bake in Lehani, Hawaii. Her friend Karen Clifton, from West Seattle, had worked at bakeries in Wallingford and on Lopez Island.
The trio decided to open a bakery. They chose Monroe after a statewide search that spilled into Idaho.
Thorgerson’s cousin, Richard Lowell, is a retired Monroe dentist. When Andrew and Mary were looking for a space, Lowell teamed with now-deceased attorney Ken Berger and Adrian Taylor, the owner of Ben Franklin Crafts, to pitch Monroe to them.
“We’re happy we made the choice,” Abt says. “Monroe’s been good to us.”
Through the years, they have forged friendships with regular customers, and fashioned birthday and wedding cakes for generations of families.
Daily patrons Bill and Carolyn Davisson became godparents to Andrew and Mary’s son and daughter.
Bill suffered a fatal heart attack a couple of years ago. Carolyn is still a regular customer.
Clifton left to start a different business, but still helps decorate cakes.
“We’ve been lucky, with our own individual skills and the way we complement each other,” Abt says. “It’s not easy to run a small business and make money. We’ve never missed a paycheck for ourselves or our employees.”
He’s not sure what retirement will hold. Abt’s not ready to stop working completely, however.
It’s quite possible, in fact, that he will remain at Sky River through the transition, teaching new owners the tricks of the trade.
“There probably won’t be a drastic change,” Abt says, noting “we now have seven notebooks of recipes that go along with the sale.”