Flying the Coop: The Smeltzers Story
In a world full of big box stores, self-checkout stations, and Amazon Prime deliveries, Smeltzer & Sons General Store in Cape May Court House is a throwback to a kinder, more attentive time, when customers were friends-in-the-making, and service was just that. When hard work meant results and reliability, and when guiding, engaging with, and helping customers troubleshoot and make informed decisions was par for the course in building a sustainable business.
“It’s not so much a shopping experience but a relationship experience,” says Bob Smeltzer, who opened Smeltzer & Sons General Store—often referred to simply as “Smeltzer’s,” back in 1990.
In the beginning, the store was—quite literally—a converted chicken coop.
“I found the place, 13 acres, semi-affordable, kind of like the seller had to get out and I negotiated an agreement with him,” says Smeltzer. “The property had a home on it, like a 50s two-story home and a chicken coop and horse pasture in the back. My wife said, ‘What are we going to do with that?’ I told her, we’re going to take this chicken coop and make it a store. My wife thought that was the craziest thing she’d ever heard.”
The coop, a 3000-square foot concrete block with a roof, had nothing in it. The chickens were gone—not long gone but gone—and the former owner had planned to convert the coop into a television and radio repair shop. Instead, Bob started Smeltzer’s. He gutted the entire interior and took down any debris around the property. He bought some shelving and pegboard, and without enough working capital to create a whole store, figured he’d expand when he got a little more income.
“The first day we opened, I came home and my wife, with a great degree of excitement, asked how we did, and I said ‘great.’ And then she asked how many customers I had. And I told her 10 or 12. Then she said `Do you think we can make it on that many?’ says Smeltzer. “I said, ‘Absolutely not. But I’m going to do better tomorrow and better the day after that.’”
True to his word, the next day, Smeltzer’s saw 15 customers. And it’s been uphill ever since.
The Man Behind Smeltzer’s
To understand how Smeltzer’s came to be a success, we need to go back to the beginning. Far back to before Bob Smeltzer imagined a storefront in Cape May Court House. Back to when Bob Smeltzer first got to Cape May County.
A graduate of Springfield College in Massachusetts, Smeltzer majored in YMCA administration. Growing up in North Jersey, he was raised around a strong YMCA influence, and his first job after college was directing a YMCA in Asbury Park. Smeltzer’s dad was born and raised in Cold Spring, in Lower Township, and Smeltzer, who used to vacation in Cape May County each year, wanted to take his skill sets to the area.
While plans for a Cape May County YMCA didn’t pan out, Smeltzer was hired as Director of Recreation and Public Relations and Special Events for the City of Cape May. From there, his job experience varied tremendously, from becoming the Vice President of Maine National Bank in Wildwood—where he was hired as a people person, to create relationships and help the bank grow—to joining Carl Mitnick as a property developer.
And though he was invested in each of these seemingly disparate careers, he was doing something else that would lead to the development of the Smeltzer’s we know today—Bob Smeltzer was farming hay.
“Our first crop was alfalfa, and we did pretty well with that,” says Smeltzer of the hay he was farming on his 20-acre property in Cold Spring. “We were selling it out of there. It was the late 80s, and people started to recognize we had a decent bale of hay.”
Around then, television personality Merv Griffin owned Resorts Casino Hotel and had a polo team. Smeltzer signed a contract with the team, and they bought every bale of alfalfa he produced. “We started doing really well, and then they wanted feed. So, I called Purina Mills in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and started selling them feed,” says Smeltzer.
While Smeltzer worked in a suit and tie Monday through Friday, the weekends were increasingly busy with hay and feed sales. People started showing up at his home at 7am. “I said to my wife that the feed and hay thing was getting pretty big, maybe it was time to find a place,” says Smeltzer.
Enter the chicken coop on Route 9.
Smeltzer & Sons is Born
As a former executive, Smeltzer’s true specialty was customer relations. He’s a people person at heart, connecting with customers and neighbors and more or less forming relationships. It’s like his special sauce.
“We got involved with the customers, learned about their families, their kids, who was in college, who was in grammar school,” says Smeltzer. “Friends told their friends and neighbors about it as a shopping experience where people really know who you are. And we nurture that. We want that…it’s like a family. And there are thousands of members in the family. So, when people come shopping, it’s like an experience.”
Part of that experience includes the animals roaming around Smeltzer’s—cats, macaws, and each spring, hundreds of chicks. There’s also the Smelter’s loyalty cards, and their hallmark customer service—they carry your parcels to the car. “That’s part of the energy that exists in our store,” says Smeltzer. “It’s not a Home Depot or a Lowe’s, not that there is anything wrong with them.”
After 32 years in business, Smeltzer’s is definitely onto something. And though the reason for their success may be the relationships, it’s helpful that Smeltzer’s has such a vast array of products—products that are needed by individuals as well as many businesses in the county.
“We have a few contracts,” says Smeltzer. “We provide grain for the zoo as well as the canine unit of the Sheriff’s department. We also have a contract for the one horse in the equine division of the canine unit. And by and by, we ended up with a variety of municipal contracts by bid, giving us the opportunity to supply products like mulch, ice melting salt, rakes, shovels—all the stuff municipalities would use.”
As they’ve increased their market, they’ve increased their accessibility, purchasing four dump trucks for delivery, and a dump trailer that holds up to 40 cubic yards per delivery. With over 40 contractors that regularly shop at Smeltzer’s, they must find ways to make shopping easy for those who depend on them for so many things.
Inside, Smeltzer’s is full of dog food, cat food, wild bird seed, chicken feed, animal toys, and live chicks in the spring. Outside, where Smeltzer had to expand in 2000 once the inside hit capacity, customers can find firewood; fertilizer; grass seed; lime; water softener pellets; pavers; bulk stone; bulk mulch, including playground state-certified mulch for municipalities; mushroom soil from Kennett Square; leaf compost; concrete sand; fill dirt; wheelbarrows—even clamshells.
“There’s quite a market for clamshells for driveways,” says Smeltzer. “They’re a popular item. It’s a look people here want, and we sell thousands of cubic yards”
There’s such a wide variety of products that according to Smeltzer, people started saying, “If you go to Smeltzer’s and they don’t have what you need, then you probably don’t need it.”
Though Smeltzer’s is basically iconic in Cape May County, they experienced an odd occurrence when they removed the yellow house that was at the front of their property several years ago—even long-time customers drove right past the place, looking for the entrance.
“The yellow building is gone. The house was beautiful and was built in the 1950s, but it was kind of difficult to have a use for it that was connected to the store. I tried to rent it out but no family with children really wants to live at the site of a commercial business with tractor trailers and dump trucks in and out,” says Smeltzer. “And when we finally took it down, no one could find us.”
Smeltzer’s sits back off the road, and without the yellow landmark, it was difficult to find. The solution came in the form of a rather apropos Mr. Big Top, a 13-foot-tall fiberglass statue of a ringmaster that once was part of a mini-golf and ice cream place. Now situated at the front of the property, Mr. Big Top is an easy and memorable landmark for customers.
“One day, I saw this figure back in the woods tied to a tree. As a picker, it was a stroke of great luck,” says Smeltzer, of the ringmaster. “We transported him with a flatbed truck and took him to Kindle Ford where they repaired the fiberglass. I hired a customer that’s an artist to repaint him and bring him back to his former glory. Now people stand and get their pictures taken with him.”
Smeltzer, a picker, enjoys the reaction his whimsical and unique statues provide for customers and has added to his collection with a huge elephant, a dinosaur, and the Blues Brothers. In addition to these colorful pieces, all of which are photo opportunities for the multi-generations of families that shop there, Smeltzer has lots of railroad memorabilia—his father was a railroad conductor—as well as a bike collection on display. All the bikes are older, from the 30s and 40s, and of the approximately 100 that Smeltzer owns, none are for sale—instead, they are a conversation starter.
“We have more bikes than I could ever have use for, but I enjoy collecting and knowing where they came from and who gave them to us,” says Smeltzer. “We have bikes from sheds and garages, bikes where the original owners refused to toss them. I promised to give them a good home and people still come back to see their old bikes. There’s a story connected to each bike.”
Smeltzer has three sons, and in the beginning, they were all involved in the family business. These days, Smeltzer’s two older sons have pursued different careers—Bill as a New York DJ and Bob Jr. as a California sommelier. His youngest son, Tim, remains.
“Tim is 38 now. We would not allow him to escape,” says Smeltzer. “He has been here over 30 years and is a key employee. The other two have created their own businesses.” Though Smeltzer’s two oldest sons have flown the coop, RJ Hodges, who has been with Smeltzer for 22 years, is positively son-like. The General Manager, Hodges is an extended member of the Smeltzer family.
Son Tim has two sons and a daughter, all under 5, and son Bob has a daughter arriving in January, so there is some potential for a third generation of Smeltzer’s to run Smeltzer’s & Sons. Smeltzer, at 75, is interested in business succession.
“Some independent owners stand behind the counter and wait for customers to come in. I go after the customers. I reach out.”
Regardless of which family—and near-family—members help run Smeltzer & Sons, there’s one thing the people of the county can depend on: The Smeltzer work ethic.
“My wife and I had a secret formula for success,” says Smeltzer. “We both worked 10 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, for 10 years. And we got lucky, and it turned out to be successful. Some independent owners stand behind the counter and wait for customers to come in. I go after the customers. I reach out.”
There’s a story that some of Smeltzer’s larger suppliers tell at national conventions and pep rallies when other small business owners begin complaining about the economy. It’s a story Smeltzer has heard secondhand—he’s rarely in attendance because he just doesn’t have time.
“I’ve heard they tell this story of this banking executive and real estate developer who bought a chicken coop,” says Smeltzer. “And they say, if he can do it out of a chicken coop, you can do it out of a shopping center.”