Family grocery has Civil War roots
Schuette Markets, which employs about 140 people at five locations in rural southern Illinois, celebrated its 150th anniversary in October. The fifth generation coming on line at the company is all female. President Michael Schuette, 64, says his daughters bring a new perspective. They have expanded marketing efforts to include social media.
German immigrant Peter Schuette founded the company in 1863 amid the turmoil of the Civil War. It began as a trading post bartering locally sourced goods; by 1870, it had evolved into a general store.
Schuette Bros. General Store doubled in size under Peter’s sons Joseph and Frank. They exploited new rail service to bring in goods and ship out groceries. In the 1930s the business, led by Frank’s sons Francis and Peter, grew again. At one point, the family owned 17 grocery stores, plus dairies, bakeries, a meat packing plant, agricultural operations and a warehouse.
Because of shortages during World War II, the business closed its dairy, bakery and meat operations, and most of its stores. “It really hurt the fresh food side of our business, and that was really hard for us to repair,” Michael says.
Michael says Peter and Francis “were young and just into the business” when Joseph and Frank passed away. The wartime closures had left the company “in a state of complete disarray,” he says. Yet the third generation successfully evolved from goods stocked behind counters to aisles accessible to customers.
Peter’s sons Michael and Tom joined the firm in the 1970s. By the mid-’90s, the Internet was becoming an essential tool. Tom launched a separate Internet company, bringing connectivity to the stores and the communities they served. A decade later Tom left to focus on the technology business.
Michael’s wife Linda, 48, the human resources manager, joined the business in 2005 after retiring from teaching. Daughter Tessa Wiegman, 31, vice president of administration, began working there full-time in 2006. Her older sister, Sarah Goodwin, 36, vice president of operations, joined in 2011. Like her father, Michael, Sarah is an attorney. She and her husband, Steven Goodwin, Schuette Markets’ CFO, often telecommute from their South Carolina home. Carmen Schuette, 29, works part-time in marketing. Niki Tazelaar, 35, another sister, is not in the family grocery business.
Tessa notes that the markets specialize in fresh products, a bakery and a deli. The business positions itself as “the new destination for tasty, healthy quick and high-value food that is either already cooked or that you can very quickly cook and serve your family,” says Sarah.
Product selection and décor vary to reflect the communities where the markets are located. Carlyle, near the state’s largest manmade lake, boasts a lodge-like exterior. Highland features a painted concrete floor and murals by Niki, an artist.
“We need these towns to do well or we won’t do well,” says Michael. “We want to make sure that the food that they’re eating is healthy. We want to make sure that they are getting fair prices, and we want to make sure that our employees are paid living wages and benefits.” Scheutte is a union store, he notes.
“What are the odds that we’d continually have so many generations in a row that absolutely loved the business and wanted to live here, and wanted to serve these communities?” says Michael. “We’re very blessed and fortunate that we had so many generations.”
Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Lawrence, Kan.
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