At the end of 2011, I wrote a column about J.C. Penney’s comeback. That was shortly after the retailer filed a building permit application with the city of Union Gap.

The column talked about the company’s efforts to return as a top department store brand. At the time, J.C. Penney had just hired Ron Johnson as CEO and there were high hopes that he could turn the store’s fortunes around. Johnson had come to J.C. Penney from Apple Inc., where he developed the company’s successful retail concept.

Johnson wasted little time implementing what many considered drastic moves, such as dropping sales and coupons for a new everyday-low-price system and introducing a modern store design that includes different “shops” within the store.

But customers did not respond, and sales — and the stock price — continued to decline.

Last week, after nearly 16 months, J.C. Penney fired Johnson. Questions about the retailer’s future abound.

During Johnson’s tenure, Penney opened its new store at Washington Plaza, a new development at the former Costco site in Union Gap. The opening was much anticipated, as store leader Greg Fellman told me last fall.

“As soon I say I’m from J.C. Penney, they say, ‘I’m so glad you’re back,’” he said just before the store opened.

And when the store had its soft opening at the end of September, there was a line of eager shoppers.

But over the next few months, it was clear the honeymoon was over.

My mother-in-law, who was a regular J.C. Penney shopper when it was located at the Yakima Mall, expressed her disappointment several times. I heard chatter from shoppers that they were unhappy with everything from a lack of inventory to a too-modern design.

And when I blogged about Johnson’s firing last week, those comments again surfaced.

“The ‘new improved’ J.C. Penney’s needs a total overhaul,” Kaylene Sutton-Wheeler commented. “It’s like walking into a giant warehouse when you go in. I’ve been in the new Union Gap store once since it opened.”

“... The economy is picking up and yet this famous brand is doing so poorly that I would not be a bit surprised if it went the way of Montgomery Ward,” she continued, referring to the defunct department store brand that once operated a store at 24th Avenue and Nob Hill Boulevard.

On the Shop Talk Facebook page, Matthew Mead aired his grievances: “I used to be a fan of J.C. Penney’s but when the new store opened in Union Gap, I was less than impressed,” he said. “(The store) just didn’t feel like the Penny’s I remembered. Store seemed cold.”

Debby Knutsen Meers also voiced concern: “They need to offer more selections. They hardly have anything.”

Of course, a few comments are hardly scientific. I know some people liked the pricing concept and the new store design. My husband, for one, thought the pricing strategy was a nice idea.

But the concept appealed to him because he isn’t a sales and coupon person, and I know from covering numerous Black Friday sales that many people are.

In the end, the comments are noteworthy because they clearly come from once-loyal J.C. Penney shoppers. These were shoppers who longed for a new store for years after the Yakima Mall store closed more than a decade ago and happily anticipated the retailer’s comeback.

Many Shop Talk readers sent me messages wondering about all the construction activity at the Orchards Shopping Center. Some is for a new Standard Paint store, which will replace its location at 5802 Summitview Ave.

But there’s also been quite a bit of activity at the former Pho Tan restaurant at the southern part of the shopping center at Tieton Drive and 72nd Avenue. The space has been vacant since the Vietnamese restaurant closed a year ago.

The space will soon be home to a new restaurant and market called Pasta Pronto! Bistro.

Owner Joe Rouleau said the eatery’s concept is fresh-casual, which means it will offer diners the higher-quality ingredients you might see at many restaurants but in a more convenient fashion.

Diners would order at the cashier, then sit down before a staffer brings out the meal. Takeout will also be available. The menu will include pastas, salads, soups and desserts.

“It’s between your fast-food restaurant and your full-service restaurant,” Rouleau said.

Rouleau, a 59-year-old Yakima native, came across the concept while he was still working for International Paper, a job that required a lot of traveling. He was on a work trip in the Portland area when a co-worker told him about the Pasta Pronto Cafe. Rouleau visited the restaurant several times and liked the concept.

So when he retired from his job last year, he decided to work on bringing the concept here.

Rouleau is paying the owner of the Pasta Pronto Cafe a fee for the concept and guidance, but said he is not a franchisee. Rather, he will take on the concept of the Oregon restaurant and add his own touches.

One of those touches includes a market that will stock items such as spices, sauces and salad dressings.

Rouleau is aiming to open by the first part of June. Hours are expected to be 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sundays.

• Mai Hoang’s Reporter’s Notebook is published Mondays in the Marketplace section. To reach her, call 509-759-7851 or email Check out business and shopping updates and analysis on the Shop Talk blog ( You can also follow Shop Talk on Twitter ( and Facebook (