What Eric Larson brought to Oak Park and River Forest

Opinion: Columns

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Mary Jo Schuler

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If you saw Eric's letter to the editor [The 'cheese guy' says farewell, Viewpoints, May 9], he referenced the first time he and I met each other in the original store. I don't remember what kind of cheese Eric sold me, but I do remember being filled to the brim with admiration for both Eric and his wife Michelle — not only because of the guts they both had in terms of opening the original store, but also because of the respect they held for cheese makers, small farms, and community.

As a lifelong resident of Oak Park, my friendship with Eric and my experience with the Cheese Market raised my awareness of how important independent businesses are to the social and economic fabric of our community. I could go on and on about the anatomy and value of a locally spent dollar, but I won't. I'll just say that Eric and my Cheese Market experience awakened a whole bunch of new sensibilities within me that have, and will continue to, significantly impact my life.

In 2006, when Eric invited me to help him expand the Cheese Market, we immediately started looking for a larger property that could accommodate a bistro, an expanded product line, and most importantly, a high-quality vibe. We kept using the phrase "revenue-generating community center." We wanted to build a place where people could learn about food, experience culinary creativity, and refuel their souls. We hoped that diners in our bistro would feel as if they were dining in the home of a dear friend.

Eric and I, along with a deep bench of talented staff, believed that our community would embrace our expanded version of MSCM, and we are so happy and grateful to report that this expectation has been met. I don't have scientific evidence yet, but we believe our business enjoys a staff retention rate that far exceeds industry standards. A majority of our employees live in Oak Park and River Forest; however, even if they live elsewhere, our community and our business has become an important part of their lives. Again, we are grateful.

As you may know, the Cheese Market has enjoyed a great deal of recognition and attention from professional associations and the media which is really wonderful because this business has evolved to be a regional destination for culinary enthusiasts. In fact, every time we attract visitors from outside the boundaries of OP-RF, Eric and I consider it a victory for our business, our employees and our community.

Just to be clear, Eric's vision has resulted in a main street merchandising venue for small farms and local producers. The business is getting healthy, unique and sustainable foods into the hands of the people. I know many of us share excitement about these accomplishments, but Eric and I feel equally good about creating 50 jobs in our community because every job helps a person or a family. We also appreciate the hundreds of people who have thanked us for being such a positive addition to our neighborhood and community. This may sound a bit unusual, but Eric and I also feel good about the retail tax revenue that helps keep the wheels of village government moving and serving.

Eric and I would be remiss if we didn't thank and acknowledge the Village of Oak Park. Every step of the way, our village staff — ranging from the building department, the health department, the business department and the clerk's office — has been with us side-by-side as we have achieved higher and higher levels of impact and performance. We also want to acknowledge the Opera Club residents, our neighbors upstairs, for also being our partners in making the Cheese Market a success.

To Eric and his wife Michelle, as you move into the next chapter of your lives, I hope you will often reflect upon the long-term impact of your vision. To borrow language from one of many journalists who have written about our store, this business is the "artisan cheese Mecca of the Midwest."

On behalf of our staff, our customers, our vendors, and our business community, thank you for making the Cheese Market a reality, and thank you for inviting me to be a part of it.

Mary Jo Schuler, an Oak Park resident, is the owner of the Marion Street Cheese Market. These remarks were originally delivered at Eric Larson's farewell soiree on May 18.

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