Dirt Exchange, small business with classic family spirit
In a way, the folks at Dirt Exchange by the Ballard Bridge represent the American Dream. They are the quintessential family-owned small business.
The father, Gary Ard, grew up on a farm and went on to be an architect. The daughter, Brittani Ard, was a land use consultant. But both dropped their respective careers to do what they love: Play in the dirt, and allow others the opportunity to play in the dirt, too.
“It’s a lot less stress and a lot more fun,” Brittani Ard said of switching careers.
Or, at least, Gary Ard says it’s a different kind of stress. Whereas before they could spend all day working full bore and not necessarily feel like they got anything done at the end of the day, at Dirt Exchange they can go to bed every night knowing they helped someone with something.
“It turns out there’s something really enjoyable providing a service, a product,” Gary Ard said. “It’s a fun place to work because everyone is trying to improve their property.”
Gary Ard jokes that while the do all the fun stuff, his wife Rowena Ard has to do all of the hard, boring work -- accounting and paper work.
If all that wasn’t enough, every Sunday, the Ard family gets together at the grandmother’s house to have dinner. Whereas many families might manage to get a few people together a few times a year, they manage to pull together at least 16 people for a weekly dinner.
“We spend a lot of time together,” Brittani Ard said, mentioning that her and her dad were actually taking time off of work this weekend to spend time together.
The family originally started the business as an excavation company about seven years ago, but quickly realized the benefits of reusing the dirt and serving the local community. Now, their company wears multiple hats: excavation, bulk compost retailer, a place where customers can bring leftover dirt and rocks, and with their new building, a place to buy landscaping tools.
“Between Queen Anne, Magnolia and Ballard, we have a lot of good customers and it’s been fun to serve this whole other industry,” Gary Ard said, referring to the landscape industry. “... It’s like a bunch of cooks in the kitchen, and it’s really interesting. … They all have their favorites.”
Just last month, they made a big move from their original Ballard location, which is being paved over for a storage building with a possible floor of retail. Though the new Dirt Exchange space is only two blocks to the north, it offers huge change in both size and the fact that it comes with a building where they can sell items and have office space.
“Trying to find a place in Ballard that would work was a little tricky,” Brittani Ard said.
The interior of the building matches the personality of the family and particularly of Gary Ard, who grew up on a farm. Rough, salvaged lumber has been reused to comprise the stairs, display tables and counterspace. (Gary Ard keeps on getting told that the wood would look beautiful if he just sanded it down, but he keeps saying no, he likes the rough, down-to-earth nature of it.)
Dirt Exchange has also ingrained itself into the community. Besides being the go-to place for everyone’s dirt needs, the Ard family entertains field trips and teaches kids about composting. They also have donated plenty of trucking and material to various community projects.
One of those community projects, a median renovation at 14th Ave NW and NW 58th St, had The East Ballard Community Association effusing praise for Dirt Exchange. Co-chair Shannon Dunn’s description of Brittani (who loves to drive around the trucks and excavators) was particularly heartfelt. On their blog, Dunn writes about how helpful and thoughtful she was, “Brittani, the ownerʼs daughter … was a skilled and efficient operator. Watching her back a dump truck into the median between the oak tree and the sculpture was inspiring.”
The large new property means the Ard family is committing to their excavation and dirt retail business. It was not a decision easily made, Gary and Brittani Ard said. They thought how the timing would be perfect to just quit and move on.
But in the end, the family stayed put. Now, Brittani is looking at her two sons, who love playing on the excavators and in the dirt yard, and is considering what they’re going to do when they grow up.
“I have two boys that love it here and I’m hoping when they grow up they’ll take over,” Brittani Ard said. “One of my kids is exactly like my father, except younger.”
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