Sunday, May 9, 2004

Businesses just like Mom used to make

Family enterprises were learned at parent's knee

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

Hank Merrick and his sister, Valynda Mitchell, help customer Nettie Madaris of Madisonville at G and Shirley's Health Food Shop. Their mother established the store and its standards.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/MELISSA HEATHERLY
It's a rare day when Valynda Mitchell doesn't sense her mother's guiding presence at the health food store her mother established in 1977.

Because she had found great benefits from a natural food regimen, Shirley Merrick felt called to share her knowledge with others. And because she felt that God was her partner in the very risky enterprise, Merrick named her store "G and Shirley's."

"Things were very slow at first because people who believed in health foods were considered 'health food nuts,' " Mitchell said. "There were days when she didn't sell more than $75 worth of merchandise. She put her own money into keeping the business going."

But slowly Merrick's passion and conviction won her a broader clientele, and her Columbia Township store gained by word of mouth. Her emphasis on education helped people realize that eating properly had significant health benefits.

"Second to Jesus Christ, the greatest gift is your health," Mitchell said.

Merrick knew that only too well. When she was a child, her liver had been damaged by diphtheria. She developed cirrhosis of the liver as an adult and was given only weeks to live. But her faith, her family and her zealous advocacy of a healthful diet kept her going for 38 years after that diagnosis. When she died in 2002, Mitchell took over operation of G and Shirley's, with help from her brother, Hank Merrick.

The Merrick family is one of many in Greater Cincinnati who took over small businesses from mothers who passed on more than just the business - they passed on lessons in succeeding in business and in life.

Along with the inventory on the shelves, Shirley Merrick's kids inherited her personal philosophy, which she applied unstintingly to her business.

"She believed in loving everybody," Mitchell said. "She also believed in being committed - to Dad, to her children, and to the store. She believed in forgiving people and continuing in relationship with them."

These days there is much more competition in the sale of health foods, Mitchell said. Shirley Merrick's interest in her customers and their needs, and her willingness to educate them about the importance of "putting the best in their bodies" enabled her business to survive and thrive. Mitchell follows her mother's example.

"People can go to Wal-Mart and buy a bottle of vitamins," she said. "We have to offer them something more. We offer them education and compassion."

A passion for pasta

As a child of 6, Frank Schiavone Jr. worked the cash register at his parents' restaurant in Massachusetts. When the restaurant was destroyed by fire, the family moved to Middletown and Frank Sr. opened a collection agency. But the dream of again owning a restaurant never died.

Frank Jr. remembers the watershed moment, "like it was yesterday."

Frank Sr. broached the subject of opening another restaurant one evening as the family lingered over dinner. His wife, Yolanda, responded, "The only way I'll ever get involved in a restaurant again is if we do it right here."

Said Schiavone: "So Dad went and got a hammer, and hit a spot on the kitchen wall and made a hole. He said, 'Here's where we'll put a door.' "

After transforming the downstairs of their home into a commercial kitchen and dining area, Frank and Yolanda opened Schiavone's Casa Mia on April 1, 1971. Their sons Frank, Dennis, David and Michael, contributed to the family enterprise, and it prospered. The menu featured the Italian specialties that Yolanda had learned from her forebears. While she kept the kitchen humming, Frank courted the clientele.

"Frank loved the restaurant, and our customers loved him," Yolanda said. "He died in 1991, and I miss him dearly."

Yolanda worked hard and transformed her family into a team that pooled their talents to further the restaurant, its catering service and sauce sales. The Schiavone sons have other careers, but three of the four (Michael has other business interests) have a defined role in the business.

Yolanda says her business principles flowed from her core values.

"Always be true to whatever you are doing," she said. "Be honest in everything. And take care of your family."

In 1999 the family undertook a major renovation and expansion of the restaurant. In the midst of that complicated project, Yolanda Schiavone learned she had breast cancer. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy but was back in the kitchen when the restaurant reopened in spring 2000. She has since balanced her ongoing treatment schedule with her culinary endeavors.

"I have too much to do; I have to watch over the restaurant," she said.

In her mother's saddle

Julie Primack had not planned to take over the equestrian center her mother established in the rolling hills west of Hamilton in 1980. But when her parents decided to retire and put the farm up for sale, Primack realized she wanted Old Stone Riding Center to remain in the family.

"Places are so precious to you," she said. "Old Stone means a lot to a lot of people, not just me. I didn't think I'd want to come back, but I'm glad that the place is more or less the same, not going to be developed in any way."

Primack's mother, Gillian Bath, decided to open her riding center because she loves animals and grew up around horses and riding in her native England. Until her husband retired from his research and development position with Procter & Gamble, Bath ran the place largely by herself. She developed a full curriculum of instruction and events.

"It became a consuming responsibility," she said. "Your work ethic has to be strong. You may go to the ball, but when you get back, you have to take off your party clothes and go take care of the horses."

Bath believed firmly in the benefits of the outdoors and exercise and made sure her two daughters received the best possible riding instruction. Primack graduated from a prestigious equestrian program in England and "obviously has a natural bent," according to her mother.

Primack and her husband, Avram, bought Old Stone Riding Center from Gillian and David Bath in 2000. Avram took a teaching position at Miami University, and Julie, like her mother, began running the farm and teaching riding.

Once the sale was complete, the Baths moved to Florida and forced themselves to let go of the business.

"Julie had to establish herself," Gillian said. "We said we would give her three years, and it took her 21/2. She has done extremely well."

Primack said she appreciates what her mother created at Old Stone. And she finds much wisdom in her mother's operating philosophy.

"The most important thing she taught me was the responsibility to animals in our care," she said. "Our own comfort is secondary. The passage in Genesis that speaks of God giving man 'dominion' over creation? She felt strongly that the word should be 'guardianship.'

"The essential thing is to help people find comfort from a horse, get out in the fresh air, enjoy the beauty of the world. These things are more important than winning at the next horse show."


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