The most profound memories and life lessons are often shared over a meal. In the Power family, milestones frequently revolve around the retail and restaurant business they have nurtured together for 46 years.
In 1971, parents Tom and Mary Ellen Power started their business, then called The Cheese Shoppe, in Newport News, Va. Tom was inspired by a similar operation he had seen in Baltimore, Md. that sold a variety of wines and cheeses, fresh baguettes, and gourmet foods. Neither had any food industry experience; Tom was a former salesman for the National Cash Register Company, while Mrs. Power was a homemaker. But Tom had a vision and Mary Ellen agreed to his plan. As a mom of three young children, she knew that if it didn’t work out as they had hoped, at least the family would have good food to eat.
In the early years, their three kids, Cathy, Mary Ellen, and Tom, Jr., would walk from their nearby elementary school to help stock the shelves, sweep the floors, and distribute flyers promoting the new establishment. Looking back, that was instrumental in teaching the children the values necessary to operate and build a successful business: offering exceptional products, exhibiting attention to detail, and providing excellent customer service.
Fortunately, it turned out that the Tidewater area of Virginia had an educated population with an interest and appreciation for finer cheeses, wines, and gourmet products. The wife of Colonial Williamsburg’s president became one of their first loyal customers. After two years of operating the Newport News shop, they were invited to sign their first lease in Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchants Square, in part because their best customer didn’t want to have to continue to make the 30-minute drive for her gourmet foods.
The new shop, located on Williamsburg’s Prince George Street, was quite small at just 600 square feet. Over the years, the shop grew to 2,000 square feet as they steadily built an extremely loyal customer base. The cheese shop sandwich, made with various meats and cheese on French bread, with a tangy house dressing created by Mary Ellen, became a huge local favorite, and eventually they outgrew their space once again.
For many years, the couple wanted to expand Williamsburg Virginia Cheese Shop: The Cheese Shop, but also had a strong desire to stay in Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchants Square area. In 2001, a 9,000 square foot prime location became available and the perfect location was finally found. After two years of extensive renovations, they moved The Cheese Shop to a 1930s building in the heart of Merchants Square on historic Duke of Gloucester Street. The new venture incorporated a unique combination of three businesses: an expanded version of The Cheese Shop, a new downstairs Wine Cellar, and the (now famous) Fat Canary restaurant.
Today, the second generation is continuing the work started by Mr. and Mrs. Power. Their eldest daughter, Cathy, stayed closer to home and was the first of the three children to return to the business. Soon after graduating from college with a degree in physical education, she came to realize that working in the family business was what she wanted to do all along. She joined the business in 1986 and, as general manager, she oversees the operations of the cheese shop and the restaurant and all of the cheese and wine buying.
Middle sister, Mary Ellen, returned home after 16 years out of state working in sales, marketing, and merchandising. She oversees specialty food buying, marketing, and direct importing.
Tom, Jr., the youngest of the three, remembers riding his unicycle around that first shopping center in Newport News and handing out promotional fliers. Now executive chef of the Fat Canary, he jokingly says he honed his palate munching on the rind that came off of cheese wheels sold in the shop.
Mary Ellen and Tom are still involved in the business. The children credit their dad with a knack for interacting with customers and always remembering their names. Tom works during the day on tasks such as negotiating with vendors, then puts on a jacket to greet diners in the restaurant at night.
Q&A with Mary Ellen Rogers of The Cheese Shop
Smart Retailer (SR): What can you tell our readers about your buying habits? Which shows do you attend?
The Cheese Shop (TCS): We have a strong preference for smaller, more unique products. My goal is to keep our family business special and unique, so we’re constantly looking for fresh products to keep our customers coming back for more. We regularly attend the National Association of Specialty Food Trade shows and occasionally attend other specialty food shows as well.
(SR): What are some challenges that you have faced, and how did you overcome them?
(TCS): Things didn’t go quite as smoothly on the cheese shop side, as we struggled to keep up with the large volume of tourists lining up for sandwiches. Locals who were used to the quiet shop on Prince George Street also didn’t take to the crowded new location. Eventually, we installed a pick-up window and additional patio on the side of the building so locals could call in their sandwich order and enjoy it in quiet surroundings.
(SR): Running a family business can be very challenging. How do you all do it?
(TCS): We admit that running a family business isn’t all wine and roses, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. The family gets together for a partner meeting every few weeks, and we talk about problems and solutions. I think we communicate pretty well with each other. People wonder how we can work together all the time, but we’re not on top of each other, and we all really love the business.
(SR): How do you determine what to add to your product offerings?
(TCS): The best way to determine what you need is to listen to your customers. That practice provides a great opportunity to know where to direct your store. One example was when several customers requested gluten-free crackers. We added them to the mix and they were very popular. Now we have an entire gluten-free section that has become very popular with our health-conscious customers.
(SR): Tell us about your management philosophy.
(TCS): Our company has grown to more than 75 employees. We are fortunate to employ several loyal managers, a few who have been with us for more than 20 years. No one is exempt from menial chores such as sweeping and slicing cheese on the belief that you can’t ask an employee to do something that you won’t do yourself.
Williamsburg Virginia Cheese Shop: The Cheese Shop Facts at a Glace
Location: 410 West Duke of Gloucester St., Williamsburg, VA 23185