Western Farm Center, a feed, seed and pet emporium anchored along a stretch of railroad tracks in west Santa Rosa, is the kind of place national magazines would describe as uniquely Sonoma County. It’s a delicious blend of Wine Country charm, old-world values and new age trends, particularly, when it comes to the care of pampered pets.
For the store’s appreciative – and loyal – customers it’s the place where the varied lifestyles in Sonoma County come together seven days a week for everything from organic chicken scratch to gourmet doggie dinners. But it’s as much about the shopping experience as the 30 different kinds of dog and cat foods lining the shelves.
Long described as the “farm in the city,” Western Farm Center, located on a historic site on West Seventh Street, is a venerable and beloved institution where customers range from McDonald Avenue matrons in Mercedes to old cowboys in banged-up pickup trucks. Everyone gets first-class treatment no matter if they are in manure-crusted jeans or a Chanel suit.
“Unfailing courtesy,” proclaimed one customer.
The culture of courtesy was instilled by the store’s founders, brothers Larry and Lou Bertolini, who opened Western Farm Center in 1967. Today, the store has passed to the next generation, owned and operated by Maria Bertolini Frampton and her husband Trevor Frampton who is the general manager. Maria is the daughter of Lou Bertolini who died in 2016. Lou’s older brother Larry Bertolini died in 2012.
The Framptons, who continue the Bertolini legacy, strongly uphold the philosophy that customers are first and foremost and must be treated with courtesy and respect. Shoppers are greeted at the door and asked if they need help finding whatever it is they are seeking. Oh, looking for cranberry raisin trail mix for your rabbit? That’s on Aisle Two.
“When my father and Uncle Larry started Western Farm Center they always said you must take care of your customers and treat them with courtesy because they are the ones who pay our salaries. Customer service is very important here,” said Maria, who worked summers at the store. She graduated from Ursuline High School and the University of Notre Dame and then embarked on a career in the insurance and finance industries. She met Trevor, a graduate of Petaluma High School and Sonoma State
University when both worked at Fair-Issac Corp in San Rafael. It was in 2013 that Lou Bertolini, looking for a successor for the family business, asked his son-in-law to join the company. The plan was to learn the business under Lou’s tutelage and one day take over. Trevor took the reins following Lou’s death three years ago.
Maria believes courtesy and the store’s ambiance – a farm oasis in the shadow of Railroad Square – keep customers comingback even as competition intensifies in the U.S
pet care market, which is expected to top $75 billion in sales this year.
Giving Back to the Community
The Framptons also continue the Bertolini Brothers’ philosophy of supporting the community, generously giving back any way they can to build community and support agriculture and the next generation of farmers and ranchers. Western Farm Center has been a longtime member and supporter of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
For more than 30 years Western Farm Center has brought chicks and ducklings to Farm Bureau’s Ag Days, delighting thousands of city kids each year and helping bridge the gap between urban and rural. Western Farm also provides straw and other resources for Farm Bureau events. The store regularly provides food and supplies to many other organizations including Pony Express, All Aboard Dog Rescue, Sonoma County Animal Services and Dogwood Animal Rescue. During the wildfires in Lake, Sonoma and Butte counties, Western Farm Center and its vendors provided tons and tons of hay, grain and pet food for horses, dogs and cats left hungry and homeless.
“Philanthropy really does matter to us. The support we get from our customers allows us to give back to the community,” said Trevor.
It’s no wonder that when Farm Bureau’s staff and board of directors this year established the “Friend of Farm Bureau Award,” Western Farm Center was unanimously selected as the first recipient.
Sonoma County Farm Bureau President Jeff Carlton, the vineyard manager at Dutton Ranches in Graton, is one of the many SRJC students who has worked at Western Farm Center after school and on weekends. He said the Bertolini family was a wonderful employer and encouraging mentor. He has many fond memories of his days bucking hay and hefting feed sacks.
“I learned so much from my time there,” said Carlton. “For decades Western Farm Center and the Bertolini Family have been and continue to be huge supporters of Farm Bureau and agriculture in Sonoma County.”
Over the years, Carlton said, it was gratifying to see Larry and Lou Bertolini in attendance at all Farm Bureau events, which continues today with the Framptons and their employees. Western Farm Center and the Framptons will be honored at Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land Celebration on July 11 at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor. The event, open to the public and annually attracting nearly 1,000 people, pays tribute to the land and people driving Sonoma County’s thriving agricultural community.
The Framptons say they are honored to receive the award, which recognizes the vision and legacy of Lou and Larry Bertolini and the dedication of their employees. Maria Frampton said Western Farm Center was her father’s “baby,” a labor of love that he and his brother nurtured for a half century. But times and tastes change.
“This business was ready for a new generation with the energy, drive and interest to modernize it and take it to the next level,” said Maria, a full-time homemaker who leaves the day-to-day operation of the business to her husband.
Maria and Trevor have twin daughters, Jenna and Sarah, 13, students at St. Rose Catholic School. It’s their hope that perhaps one or both of their daughters will be interested in carrying on the business for another generation.
Western Farm Center has adapted along with the urban growth in Sonoma County, moving primarily from livestock feed 40 years ago to mostly pet food and supplies today. The move reflects the changing landscape as Santa Rosa expanded its urban boundaries into the surrounding farmland.
“Our business is constantly finding ways to evolve and adapt to provide what customers want. We are always on our toes to detect the next trend,” said Trevor. He estimates that more than 70 percent of the store’s sales are now in pet food and supplies.
But Western Farm still supplies feed and hay for backyard farmers and now carries Associated Feeds’ ShowMaster and ShowRite feeds used by 4-H and FFA members for their livestock projects for the Sonoma County Fair.
Maria said her father believed a business supplying the best in pet care will always prosper because of the unfettered love and devotion people have for their pets.
“My father said that people will feed their dogs before they feed themselves,” said Maria. “People are passionate about their pets and we are here to provide for them.”
Maria and Trevor learned that firsthand when victims of the Tubbs Fire in 2017 lined up outside the gate before the store opened to buy food and supplies for their dogs and cats before purchasing
groceries for themselves.
Western Farm Center has 45 people on the payroll, many of them longtime employees like Rocky Buletti who has been with the company for 45 years. The staff includes Maria’s uncle Bob Bertolini, the retail warehouse supervisor, and Maria’s cousin, Dana Gondola, who has been the office manager for the last 39 years. Bob Bertolini, who has been at Western for 40 years and is known for his outgoing personality, is a familiar fixture at the store, roaming the yard and greeting many customers by name.
Many employees are versed in specific areas such as dogs, birds or bees. The staff’s know-how and, of course, the “unfailing courtesy” is what separates Western Farm Center from the big box stores and supermarkets. Customers with an animal problem – chickens that won’t lay eggs or a cat with kidney stones – often get the friendly help they need from Western Farm Center’s clerks.
Bob Bertolini gives Trevor and Maria high marks for tracking the trends that keep the store up-to-date and relevant while maintaining the customer service that was his brothers’ hallmark.
“When Lou and Larry started Western Farm Center they said always take care of the customers,” said Bob Bertolini, “We are still doing that every day.”