Replace the parallel parked Nissans and Hondas with a few T-Model Fords, and West Main Street in Poseyville, Ind., would look relatively unchanged from the Golden Era of the 1920s. Rows of small businesses line the Mayberry-esque town square, a testament to a place that honors and supports its local business owners. Brick and mortar proof of this long-running support can be found on the corner of West Main, under a brown and white country store sign that reads, “J.L. Hirsch Co. Grocery & Department Store.”
According to statistics published by the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2011, 50 percent of businesses fail within the first year. Of those, 95 percent will fail within the first five years. Opened in 1916, J.L. Hirsch Co. survived its first five years, as well as a series of hard times pending from World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and our most recent recession. It survived Charles Merrill of Merrill Lynch’s push for chain groceries in 1926 and the shopping center boom in the 1950s. Its success story is a rare testament to the achievability of the “American Dream,” but not one that came without hardships.
“The store was opened in 1916 by John Lawrence Hirsch, my grandfather,” says Susan Weatherholt, current owner of J.L. Hirsch Co. “I do not know whether his intention was to keep the business in the family or not. However, my grandfather had to let his employees go during the depression in order to keep the store open. Then, the store operated with just family members.”
When two of John’s three sons left to join the U.S. Army, his third son, Susan’s father Robert Hirsch, set aside his dream of becoming an architect to assist in the family business. Luckily, Robert found another passion and became the store’s butcher. Upon returning from his service during World War II, son Charles Hirsch also joined the business to oversee the department store. Robert and Charles purchased the business from their father in the early 1960s, and though they eventually hired more unrelated employees, family ties still held strong.
“My four sisters and I started working at the store at the age of 13,” says Weatherholt. “As we grew older and graduated from college, I was the only daughter who returned to help my dad and uncle. I worked in public accounting for seven years before returning to work part time for my dad.”
Weatherholt decided to officially commit to the business in January 1995, after her Uncle Charles’ retirement, to assist her father. In August 2005, Robert passed away after a battle with cancer, leaving the business in Weatherholt’s highly-qualified hands. In 2009, the fourth generation of the Hirsch family joined the family legacy. “My oldest son, Clint, started working full time in the store, and his specialty, like my dad’s, is cutting meat,” says Weatherholt. “My youngest son, Kurt, also works in the business doing everything but cashiering. Like my sisters and me, our (total) five children started working at the age of 13. Today, our grandchildren love to come to the store to work.”
Though the appeal of a family-run business keeps J.L. Hirsch customers coming back year after year, it is not the only factor contributing to the store’s great success. In the age of Wal-Mart Supercenters, the original building and antique fixtures in the store bring back a nostalgic feeling for those looking for a more intimate grocery experience. Aside from just groceries, like some of the bigger chain stores, their department store carries women’s clothing, jewelry, purses, baby gift items, and glassware. Weatherholt insists on having a friendly staff to assist customers in whatever they may need, even if it means carrying groceries to their cars. “We are fortunate to have loyal customers that return not just week after week, but generation after generation,” she said. “Most tell us it is the service and friendly employees that keep them coming back.”
There’s a staying power for employees, too. Sharon Goebel has been with the store for 39 years. “I stay because I enjoy what I am doing,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t enjoy it.”
While maintaining an old-town feel, the store modestly embraces the technology of modern business culture, upgrading to computerized registers and scanners, and even creating a new website and Facebook page. J.L Hirsch Co. runs weekly ads in the hometown paper for deals, but claims its best form of marketing is still word of mouth — something Weatherholt can remain proud of for years to come. Her recommendation for other small businesses looking to succeed goes back to the root rules of American prosperity: hard work, a lot of care, and genuine enjoyment for what you do.
“For a family business to succeed, it requires long hours and dedication. When you grow up in the grocery business, the work comes naturally. I am not in the business to become rich. I am in the grocery business because I enjoy it and believe in my small town heritage,” she says. “It can be challenging in a small town, but knowing I am continuing something that my grandfather started and was my dad’s passion makes it worthwhile.”
J.L. Hirsch Co. is located at 8 W. Main St., in Poseyville, Ind. For more information, call the store at 812-874-2719 or visit its Facebook page.