William Clarke speaks with a bit of Sam Elliott’s growl, a twang of Eeyore’s drawl. IMBD says Robert Redford narrated “A River Runs Through It,” but after a conversation with the longtime business owner, it might be worth a rewatch just to make sure whose gentlemanly chords are whose.
“Old customers come back and say ‘the old curmudgeon is still here,’ ” Clarke, 72, said, chuckling.
When Clarke opened The Cheese Shoppe in State College 40 years ago, Penn State had about 15,000 fewer students, Starbucks had yet to reach the East Coast and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s cover of “Blinded by the Light” was at the top of the charts. Clarke’s shop used to be a gravel parking lot. He signed a lease on a building that wasn’t there. But brick-by-brick — and later cup-by-cup — both it and his dream were built.
He introduced roasted coffee to the shop’s lineup of gourmet cheeses, adapting as times and tastes changed. “It took a while to catch on,” he said. But he stuck with it. Now about eight out of 10 Americans live within 20 miles from a Starbucks, according to the Washington Post.
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“I tried to be ahead of the trends,” he said. “There were times when things slowed down and we had to adjust.”
Like his shop, located at 234 E. Calder Ave., Clarke is a throwback. He still wakes up at dawn, coming into the shop to make his rounds and see old faces. He keeps an honor system where customers can make their own change. “People are honest and they do come back,” he says. Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett sing the playlist of his youth.
As he readies to celebrate The Cheese Shoppe’s 40th anniversary on Sunday, Clarke shared how business might change, but some things never do.
“You become family when you come in there,” he said. “It’s interesting to watch. People have met in there who would’ve never have met, and that always makes me feel good.”
Q: What gave you the idea for coffee?
A: In the beginning, I carried a lot of gourmet and a lot of cheese, probably three times of what I carry now. But for a couple of years when things weren’t going well, I was thinking, “what can I do?” There was a bakery on College Avenue but they didn’t really carry baguettes or croissants, so I looked into that, decided no, looked into some other things, decided no, so I started checking out coffee. Starbucks was only on the West Coast at that point and they were mail-order. No one was trying this, so I put all my eggs in one basket and went for it. It took a while to catch on.
Q: What have you found most rewarding in your career?
A: In some ways, people have said this is a vortex: If you come in and you maybe just look around and maybe you start talking. A lot of people have come in just for coffee and stay by themselves, but then they start talking and they become good friends.
Q: Like “Cheers?”
A: Like “Cheers” or an old-time general store. If you come in and have a few cups of coffee, I feel, on the whole, like I’m going to get you to keep coming in. We have the honor system where you make your own change and put your money on the counter. People like that; students like that; business people like that; they’re in a hurry. I’ve had people ask me, “What’s this? Is this for me?” And I say, “Well, if you need it.”
Students and professors have come back three minutes later and said “I forgot to pay,” and they’ll pay. Or “I’ll pay you for yesterday, Bill, I forgot.”
Q: It’s cool that you have faith in people and it’s often reciprocated. Is that the case?
A: It is. I think it comes back in the long run many times over.
Q: Who inspires you?
A: My wife, June. She passed away. She gave me the confidence to do this. She stuck by me and even when there were a couple of years when it was tough, she kept the faith. “You’ll get through this, you can do it,” she told me. We were married for over 50 years.
My kids (Clarke has two daughters) were the same way. They gave me the confidence and the tenacity. We used to have a different venting system for roasting and I used to go in at 3:30 a.m. and I would go until 6 p.m. and my daughter would pick me up and drive me home. I used to say, “when I leave it’s dark, when I come home it’s dark.” And she said “yeah, but Dad when you come home, there are lights on in the house.” I laughed and said, “you’re right.”