From a school bus to a dirt-floored Quonset hut to a base of operations in the center of Homer and 16 year-round employees, NOMAR and owners Ben and Kate Mitchell are celebrating four decades of doing business.
The outdoor adventure and apparel store meets upholstery business builds “unique products to overcome Alaskan challenges and meet the demands of extreme conditions worldwide,” according to its website. That includes apparel sturdy enough for fishing crews, warm enough for youngsters walking to school and colorful enough to brighten dark winter days. Bags in a variety of shapes and sizes are designed to meet the demands of work sites, the rigors of travel, and the wear and tear of everyday family use. Backpacks range from plain to many-pocketed. Hats protect from sun, rain, wind and howling snow. Then there’s the made-to-order boat covers, upholstery repairs and oh so much more.
“They have an awesome business with products that I wasn’t able to find anywhere else,” said Mark Zeiset, owner of South Central Radar. “And as a business owner, I bounce ideas and questions I have about business in general off Kate because I know she’s been doing it a long time and has some wisdom and knowledge.”
Hinting at NOMAR’s success are the flower-filled bags hanging outdoors and the bags used in displays indoors, smaller versions of the famous NOMAR brailer bag, a direct reflection of the Mitchells’ focus on meeting customers’ needs.
Ben Mitchell takes it a step further when asked for the key to NOMAR’s success.
“It’s Kate,” he said. “She’s stuck with it and has just kept going.”
Ask Kate, however, and she points to her mother Ruby Kent. In the 1940s, Kent became the first woman in Washington state to be accepted as a journeyman in the Upholsterers International Union of North America. As a youngster, Kate played under the sewing machine while her mother worked.
Years later in Ketchikan, with Ben in the Coast Guard, Kate put her own sewing skills to work. Teaching herself to work with boat canvas, she opened Mitchell’s Boat Tops.
When a Coast Guard transfer to Homer came along in 1978, the Mitchells, including son Rich and daughter Jen, relocated to the Kenai Peninsula. They purchased a 1966 GMC school bus, parked it at Lou’s Storage Yard on Kachemak Drive, painted “Mitchells’ Marine Canvas and Upholstery,” but discovered finding work wasn’t as easy as it had been in Ketchikan.
“In Ketchikan, there were 12,000 people, 8,000 boats and 200 inches of rain a year. It’s a pretty perfect place to learn to do roofs for people’s boats,” she said. “In Homer, I was bound and determined to try, but I knew I’d have to do a lot of different things.”
Mitchells’ Marine Canvas and Upholstery grew slowly but surely, and in 1979, it moved into a Quonset hut. There was only a dirt floor, but it offered space to bring a boat inside to be worked on and had room for an office.
Three years later, Ray Bice, then acting manager of Kachemak Gear Shed, and False Pass fisherman Don Ballard presented a challenge: design a net brailer that didn’t damage the fish and was faster to unload. Their words — “Kate, you sew” — set Kate on a course that would give her business the boost needed.
“Kate would come to people and say, ‘Try this. What do you think about this? What do we need to do?’” said fisherman Mike Heimbuch. “Kate became the chief proponent of what an economic engine fishing was in the community. For me, Kate Mitchell is at the very top of the list that made Homer what it is.”
The resulting successful design spread among Alaska’s fisheries. It was trademarked with the brand name “NOMAR” for “no marka’ the fish.” NOMAR — NOrthern MARine Canvas Products — eventually became the name of the business.
Ben retired from the Coast Guard in 1980, and stayed busy by purchasing Lou’s Storage Yard, renaming it Homer Boat Yard. Both businesses continued to grow, but, like many Alaskans at the time, suffered a financial setback in 1985. The financial institution failed that had approved a loan to expand shop space and purchase equipment for the boat yard. Foreclosure proceedings were scheduled to begin Christmas Eve.
“That was our biggest challenge, getting out from under the bank foreclosure, but we worked our way out of it,” said Ben.
The Mitchells revised their marketing scheme and began attending Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle. Salmon prices went up in 1986, 1987 and 1988. After the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in 1989, Exxon purchased all of NOMAR’s brailer bag inventory. During the winter of 1992, NOMAR closed the deal to purchase the current building, the former Proctor’s supermarket, and by 1993 NOMAR was settled in at its current location. In 1995, Ben sold the Homer Boat Yard.
Over the years. Kate has served as president of the Homer Chamber of Commerce. In 2011, she helped launch Homer Marine Trades Association and has served as that organization’s board president.
“Kate’s vision is of a cooperative effort, one that brings boat and trades people together,” said Mike Stockburger, a Homer Marine Trades board member and owner of Salty Cushions.
Homer Marine Trades works with Homer High School and Kachemak Bay Campus, University of Alaska Anchorage-Kenai Peninsula College, offering scholarships and helping provide classes for students interested in training for the marine trades.
“Kate has been very supportive of getting recognition of marine trades at Homer High School, and it’s wonderful to have community members support what’s going on at our school and helping meet the needs of the kids,” said Gordon Pitzman, who coordinates Homer High School’s Focus On Learning program.
NOMAR was recognized as the Small Business Administration’s 2013 “Manufacturer of the Year,” and in 2018, a Legislative Citation from the Alaska State Legislature honored the Mitchells’ “40 years of marine trades and community service on the lower Kenai Peninsula.”
With no specific date set, the Mitchells are preparing to turn NOMAR over to their son and daughter. Head of production, Rich, said, “It’s great to be a part of what’s going on, of making things happen and working into ownership.” He recognizes, however, that “it comes with an equal amount of challenges.”
Jen, NOMAR’s office manager, said, “We’ve always had in our minds that maybe we wanted to do that, but I think we’re ready now.”
Her vision for the business is keeping service the top priority, along with “filling a need that you can’t get filled anywhere else and making things that last.”
“I feel good about the kids taking over,” said Ben.
For Kate, taking that step means ensuring Rich and Jen know the story behind NOMAR. Her book, “Bag Lady at the End of the Road” does just that, and is being published by Wizard Works.
“Going forward they need to know what went into making NOMAR come to this point, to succeed,” she said. “Now it’s up to them to keep it.”