Olsen’s Scandinavian Foods in Ballard soon will close

Len Tangen, right, chats with Anita (Endresen) Osterhout, a co-owner of Olsen’s with her sister, Reidun. The Endresen sisters have owned the store for the past 14 years.Photo: GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES.

A venerable part of the Scandinavian community, Olsen’s Scandinavian Foods, is closing, and to many it’s a turning point for Ballard — a loss of one of the few remaining ties to its Scandinavian past.

By Nancy BartleyThe Seattle Times 

The ebelskiver pans, lefse grills, packages of fruit soup and lingonberry sauce are disappearing in the arms of teary-eyed customers.

Outside on Market Street in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, the red-white-and-blue Norwegian flag stands proudly, marking the front of Olsen’s Scandinavian Foods — for now.

The shop that for decades has offered the mainstays of Scandinavian cuisine, and the ingredients and kitchenware for Scandinavian baking, is closing.

Most likely in July, but the final date is uncertain, says Anita (Endresen) Osterhout, who with her sister, Reidun, has owned the store for the past 14 years.

For many, the store’s closing represents a turning point. Ballard, once the hub of the Northwest’s Scandinavian community, home of Norwegian fishermen and shingle-mill workers and the Scandinavian families who arrived in the big wave of immigration between 1880 and the 1920s, is more and more just another neighborhood.

Monday, after a sign was posted in the window announcing the closing along with discounts, some of those early immigrants’ grandchildren visited Olsen’s for the first time.

As Osterhout put a large lefse grill in a sack, Eric Clark, 38, of Monroe, asked about finding recipes for the flatbread made from potatoes.

“I’m buying this for my heritage,” he explains. His grandmother made Norwegian food, and when Clark heard the store was closing he came in “to buy whatever I could. There aren’t many Norwegian stores around anymore,” he said.

Anna Reinhold, 26, of Ballard, was buying a cast-iron ebelskiver (Danish pastry) pan. “I’m Scandinavian background of some sort,” she says. “This is so sad. I’ve walked past here so many times and thought of coming in, and now you’re closing.”

To many people, the store is like the beloved older relative you thought about but seldom took time to visit and so were stunned and filled with regret when the news comes of the death.

“They love us at Christmastime,” Osterhout says. That’s when the store bustles with customers, and the sisters prepare holiday food for sale. “They forget about us the rest of the year.”

To survive, she said, the store would have had to offer wine or food that was not Scandinavian.

News of the closing is the talk of the kaffestua (coffee hour) at Leif Erikson Sons of Norway Lodge and the Swedish Cultural Center, where the information was taken hard.

“I came in here just to cry,” says Claude Nelson, a longtime Olsen’s customer.

There are things for sale at the store unavailable at other places, he says, such as different kinds of herring, fruit drinks, meatballs, homemade sausage and lots of prepared foods (soup and pancake mixes) imported from Scandinavia.

Einar Johnsen is believed to have started the store around 1960. He sold it to Reidar and Ebba Olsen in 1969, according to their son, Eirik Olsen. Reidar Olsen and Johnsen had been friends and sausage makers in Norway when they immigrated here.

Eirik Olsen, who was born in Norway, grew up around the store, took it over from his parents in the 1990s and then sold it to the Endresen sisters in 1995. The sisters had worked for the Olsen family for at least a decade before buying the store.

Now that both women are in their 50s, they want less work and more free time — to travel and to return home to Norway, where they haven’t visited in 20 years.

“It’s disappointing. I don’t think it’s anything (the Endresen sisters) have done or haven’t done,” says Olsen, 42. “Over time, things change. The generation of Scandinavians that were here have had kids and the kids aren’t necessarily into Scandinavian food.

“It’s sad. An icon in the Seattle community is going to be gone.”

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.