Feed store owner and Paradise mayor says the secret’s in the open door
Steve Lambert is riding high.
Lambert Feed & Garden, the business he started 10 years ago after graduating from Chico State University with a degree in animal science, has grown to include stores in Oroville, Paradise and Yuba City—and Lambert hasn’t ruled out expanding to other cities.
This year, he was chosen as mayor by his fellow Paradise Town Council members and has been almost universally embraced as the friendly diplomat on a council that’s getting along better than ever.
Smart and funny, handsome and confident, Lambert is a popular guy. At 34, he’s already bucked two stereotypes. He’s proven that a relative youngster can go far in Ridge politics and that not everyone in agriculture is shy about getting involved.
Heck, he even finds new homes for the puppies and kitties that people abandon outside his Oroville store. On the day we visited, there were only two left from the litter sitting mournfully in a cage out front, where Lambert replenished their bowl from a watering can.
Lambert was born and raised in Sonoma, and his family was one of the last holdouts as vineyards sprung up around what was once cattle grazing land. “I was raised on a cattle ranch, and now it’s all grapes,” said Lambert, whose father was a mechanic as well as a rancher.
The Yuba City store opened just last December, and all in all the Lambert mini-chain has grown to nearly 30 “great employees” with little turnover. “I’m blessed with good employees and a good customer base,” he said.
Lambert likes to have a lot of things going at once. One of his latest is revamping the fishpond fountain in the Oroville store. “I’m constantly working on projects,” he said. “It helps keep me out of trouble.”
Lambert and his wife, Cindy, have three children, ages 6, 9 and 11, who he is quick to point out are his top priorities when it comes to demands on his time and attention. “I’ve built my business with the idea of not being here every day,” said Lambert, who usually puts in a full eight hours before noon. “I’ve always taken off for my kids’ games.”
The Oroville store is on West Lincoln Street, near the railroad tracks, and Lambert seems used to raising his voice a bit to compensate for the trains rumbling by. A nearby building was one of the original grain depots in the town.
The offerings inside include packets of seeds for the garden, dog leashes, guinea pigs and fluffy baby chicks that are selling for 45 cents apiece. (Inexplicably, the shop dog is a pretty black poodle with ribbons and bows in her hair.) The feed offerings range from huge sacks of hog chow to a cage full of crickets.
“We sell feed for just about everything. There’s not any creature we don’t feed,” Lambert said.
Lambert is always looking for the right “mix” of products in each of his stores. This will be the third season his Oroville store has included an outdoor garden section—complete with Teal the rooster and his hen-wife, Penny, who’s set up house in a Dog-loo. His Paradise store was a former nursery, so Lambert knew there was a market for such supplies.
In general, he said, “We cater to the specialized farmer-rancher: the smaller rancher.”
Lambert Feed has its own private label of products, as the store has contracted with a variety of mills to package sacks of quality feed. When he wasn’t satisfied with the bird seed available to purchase, he got together some folks to find better suppliers and form In-flight Bird Seed, now successfully sold nationwide to bird foundations and breeders in 5- to 50-pound bags.
“We have to do a lot of diversification,” Lambert said of the feed business. “It goes with my personality: I like a little bit of everything.”
Well aware that he’s contradicting himself as he speaks, Lambert insists he’s “not a politician.”
“I love politics,” he admits. “I just love the game of it. It’s kind of like being in business. [But] what we need in politics is real people.”
In concert with the prevailing feeling on the Ridge, Lambert is a confirmed Republican. He likes George W. Bush—"I dig him, just because he’s truthful"—and believes the North American Free Trade Agreement was bad for business.
But, at the same time, he said he can’t help seeing farm subsidies as “another form of welfare” and would like to “even out the playing field” as far as international trade so the payments are no longer seen as necessary. He’s also cynical about the two-party political system: “I enjoy the nonpartisan-type position I’m in now.”
What all this translates to when Lambert steps onto the Town Council dais, he says, is an open mind. He said one of the things that motivated him to run in the first place, in 1998, is the observation that “these guys are arguing over silly things.” Now, he says he’s on “the most incredible council anybody could have. … All five people are really actively involved in the town, [and] we all have different opinions.”
Perhaps one of the biggest controversies he’s faced in his nearly three years on the Town Council is a developer’s plans to build a shopping center, including a “large retailer” (foes fear it’s Wal-Mart), on the Skyway, right at the Crossroads where motorists enter and leave the town. It’s ironic the council has taken on the issue, he said, because the land in question is in the county.
But some opponents figure the town could annex the property into the city and then dictate what can and can’t go there. (They’re worried about aesthetics, competition to small businesses and the environment.) The way Lambert sees it, the town could annex the property and get loads of money from taxes generated there.
“It’s going to come anyway,” he said, pointing out that he’s the one who would have plenty to fear if Wal-Mart came in, selling its garden and pet supplies.
People may come up to him after a meeting to argue, he said, but it’s been civil, and “I have never been attacked yet.”
His secret? “I’m not extreme. I try to be respectful of everyone’s feelings. I try to be fair and listen to everybody’s part of the deal,” he said, calling himself a realist. “I think, growing up in ag, you see things as they are.”
Lambert hints at higher political aspirations, perhaps when his children are older. “I would like to have enough power to legislate that everybody has to take an ag class,” he said. In big cities, he half-jokes, people “don’t understand that chocolate milk doesn’t come from a brown cow. They should know where it comes from.”
He’s been asked to run for other local offices but so far has stuck to volunteer boards and the Town Council. "I would like to move up the food chain, in all honesty," Lambert said. "I like challenges. I get bored really easily."