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Doing It Right: With Gourmet Foods and Memorable Coffee, Bill Clarke Has Fueled a ‘Village’ of Loyal Patrons at The Cheese Shoppe

by on September 14, 2020 5:00 AM

“I love my shop and I love my customers,” says Bill Clarke, creator of downtown’s longstanding W.C. Clarke’s The Cheese Shoppe.

Opened in 1977, the small storefront is going into its 44th year of business, an institution that’s remained at its East Calder Way location since conception. Tucked among a string of businesses that have changed more times than Clarke can remember, The Cheese Shoppe is a reliable, ever-present reminder that tenacity, good customer service, and an excellent product make for a business that can weather economic downturns, changing shopper habits, and even a global pandemic.

At 76 years old, most of Clarke’s life and career has revolved around gourmet foods and supplying customers with the best money can buy. As a child, he says, he would read cookbooks. After four years in the United States Coast Guard, he began pursuing a career in food. He eventually landed a job managing a cheese and gourmet shop in Wilkes-Barre, a pivotal move that would impact the rest of his life.

“The people who opened the cheese shop in Wilkes-Barre, they asked me if I wanted to run a cheese and gourmet shop and I said, ‘Yeah, I’d love it.’ They sent me to Greenwich, Connecticut … for a month and a half and I learned all about cheese. I came back and ran that shop for I can’t remember how many years,” he explains.

However, as the business evolved, Clarke and the owners went separate ways and, at the encouragement of his wife, Clarke began looking for the perfect spot for what would become The Cheese Shoppe.

“When we first drove into State College,” Clarke recounts, “it was during a [school] break. There was absolutely no one here, but I felt it in my gut. I said, ‘Yes, this is the place.’”

The shopping center where The Cheese Shoppe is located was still a parking lot in the early 1970s, but development was planned and Clarke and his partner signed as a tenant in 1976, opening once construction was completed – February 19, 1977 – after which, he notes, “the only thing left was the change in our pockets.”

At first, community response to The Cheese Shoppe was lukewarm, with many customers acknowledging the gourmet foods void The Cheese Shoppe filled in the area, but overall doubtful it would last. Still, Clarke persisted, and in 1983, The Cheese Shoppe was still going strong and Clarke bought out his partner.

That’s not to say that The Cheese Shoppe hasn’t met its fair share of challenges.

“We went through hard times,” Clarke admits. “They dug the alley up and … for two years in a row, they had all the yellow and orange fencing up and people that used to walk by… all the sudden they didn’t want to come down near all this junk. Then, the government said cheese was bad for your cholesterol, and business was slowing down. I said, ‘What can I do?’”

Initially, Clarke reduced his team, until it was just him working Monday through Thursday, with additional help over the weekends. Then, he began looking to items beyond the cheeses and gourmet foods to bring in new customers. At first, he considered baked goods, but the finances didn’t make sense.

“I researched for another year and came up with roasting coffee. Starbucks wasn’t even to the Mississippi then. They were mail-order only and on the West Coast. I got the roaster and I was one of the first six in-store roasters on the East Coast. I would come in at 3:30 in the morning and I would roast until 9. Then I would stay and work until 6 at night. In the beginning, of course, there were people who thought, because it was local, it couldn’t be as good. So I said, ‘Just try it. I’ll give you some. Just try it.’ It took a while, but then it started working. … The coffee saved the cheese and gourmet business. Was it tenacity or was I dumb? I don’t know – but we just kept going,” he says.

“I only order from two importers and I always say to them, ‘I want the best you have of whatever bean I’m ordering,'" Clarke says. Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert | Town&Gown

Over the years, the coffee has developed its own fan base, to the point that, Clarke says, he now ships coffee orders to buyers in more than 30 states. Some customers have stopped in while attending Penn State, visiting a student, or traveling to the area for business and fallen in love with the coffee. Other loyal customers have taken a more round-about path to discovering The Cheese Shoppe’s coffee.

“I had one customer in New Mexico,” Clarke says. “Someone had brought him some coffee from here and gave it to him, and he called me and said it was the best coffee he ever had. He asked to order 25 or 30 pounds. And how many people did he give it to that have never been here?

“I had a doctor in Denver, Colorado, who had a son who lived here and he stopped in and had the coffee. He really liked it and called and started ordering it for his office in Denver. Someone who worked there, after so many years, started her own business and then called me up … and wanted to order the coffee. … It’s things like that. She’s been a customer ever since.”

The secret to Clarke’s coffee? It’s all in the beans and Clarke’s continual dedication to the highest quality.

“I only order from two importers and I always say to them, ‘I want the best you have of whatever bean I’m ordering.’ They know I want the best, regardless of the price,” he says. “I don’t try to shortchange. I’d rather pay more for a great bean and make less profit, than buy a bean that’s not as good and then make more profit off it. I try to keep high-quality standards.”

Of course, the spectacular customer service only adds to The Cheese Shoppe’s appeal.

“We give good service and we built a rapport with the customers. My very first customer from the day I opened just passed away this year, and he still came in. Whenever I hire someone, I say that it’s family and everyone has to get along. If you don’t, then it won’t work. We get to know the customers, they get to know us, and we’re serving the third generations with some families,” Clarke says.

Most recently, Clarke sold The Cheese Shoppe to Ray Caravan, in order to spend more time with his ill wife before her death; but Clarke is still the shop’s only roaster and is co-manager with chef Mark Johnson.

“When my wife passed,” Clarke recalls, “she thought there wouldn’t be many people who came to her funeral. She thought maybe 75 people or so. But the [service] was packed. I guess there were quite a few people who thought good things about us, even though she never worked here. They knew her.”

And it’s this kind of “village within State College,” as Clarke calls the shop’s community of regular patrons, that keeps him going, loyal to The Cheese Shoppe and resolutely pointing to the customers as the best part of his career.

Still, with all the community support and the shop’s overall longevity, Clarke isn’t resting on his laurels just yet.

“I get paranoid sometimes. … You always question, ‘Am I doing this right? Can I do it better?’ But I’ve come to the conclusion that I must be doing it right.”

 

Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.

 

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