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All we ever see on the news these days is economic doom and gloom, with a forecast for more of the same. But even during a recession, the American dream is alive and well for anyone with a strong work ethic and the resilience to roll with the punches. At least it was for the successful owner of Shisler’s Cheese House, Rita Shisler.
Rita emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1956 with nothing but the clothes on her back. She was not even able to speak the language. She inherited her work ethic from her father, who held three jobs while he supported his wife and four children. He passed his dream of business ownership on to Rita, who was eldest of the four. But the work ethic alone was not enough to survive as a business owner. She would have to learn to keep the faith through the many trials and tribulations that every business owner must face.
During the recession of the 1980s, Rita was at the helm of a family business on the verge of bankruptcy. Shisler’s Cheese House was still following its original business model, which resembled a neighborhood deli. But now the meats and cheeses could be found for a lower price at any of the local grocery stores. The business was caught in a downward spiral. She had one child in college and another in Junior High at the time, and she was left to face it all on her own. She made the agonizing decision to sell the business…but fate had other plans.
Thanks to the slow economy and double-digit interest rates, the business just would not sell. Every time she got a buyer lined up, the deal fell through. So she decided to give it one more shot at making the business work. She began making sandwiches for a gas station on the interstate a few miles away. The sandwiches were a hit and soon the one account grew to ten different accounts. This alleviated some of the financial pressure, but the work became exhausting. Twenty-hour workdays were not uncommon. She woke up at 2AM and began making sandwiches. Her youngest son got up to help her deliver them a few hours later. Then she dropped him off at school and got back just in time to open the store at 9AM. She then stayed open until 8PM. This was a typical day for many years.
Through all of this, her faithful customers continued to shop there and would not give up on her. The revenue from the sandwich accounts enabled her to pay down some debt and begin introducing new products into the store. She began to re-define the business to be a reflection of local culture, rather than just the virtually obsolete neighborhood deli. She only dealt in the best locally made cheeses and meats, and began introducing some imported cheeses and gourmet foods to her product offering. She also dedicated a portion of her retail space to gourmet chocolates, and she was able to gain distribution rights to the world famous but locally owned Heggy’s Chocolates. She also became focused on providing the best customer service. The loyal customers were the life blood of her business, and the reason it survived the difficult times. This was the turning point for Shisler’s Cheese House. From there, it evolved into the thriving business it is today.
Here is the abbreviated list of her accomplishments:
- Gross sales of $30,000 a year in 1958 to over a half-million in 2009.
- From grandpa Shisler alone behind the counter in 1958, to 6 full- time and 4 part- time employees.
- From weekly cheese sales of 300 pounds, to over a ton per week, tripling that during the month of December.
- From a small grocery line and 6 types of cheese, to 80 domestic and imported cheeses, 30 local smoked meats, and over 300 gourmet foods and chocolates.
- Adding a “Skinny Alternatives” line to satisfy the more health conscious customer base and a product line for the ever growing diabetic patients with sugar free items.
- Designating Shisler’s Cheese House as a wealth of information for tourists and a favorite Tour Bus Stop (3 to 4 buses a week from spring to fall).
- Her eldest son D.J. Shisler opened a second Shisler’s Cheese House in Copley, OH with a wider selection of imported cheeses and a selection of fine wine to go with them.
- She brought her delicious product line to the rest of the world by shipping to all fifty states and over thirty countries. Shisler’s Cheese House began offering the online shopping experience at www.cheesehouse.com last year.
- Plans to expand are currently under way. She plans to triple her retail space so she can offer more of the wonderful gourmet products Shisler’s Cheese House has become famous for. The expansion will also include a diner where the customers can sample recipes that include her delicious products.
There are no free rides, and no one has ever become successful simply because they thought they were entitled. But for those willing to persevere, the American Dream is Alive and well, even for a disadvantaged immigrant woman struggling to survive in what is perceived to be a man’s world. Rita Shisler is living proof of that.