Some people thought Thomas Power was crazy.
The idea of opening a specialty shop selling fine wines and cheeses in Newport News, of all places, seemed like a long shot. Even those close to him expressed doubts. But Power, a military veteran and determined entrepreneur, had a vision and a family willing to work as hard as he did, and The Cheese Shop of Virginia was born.
That was in 1971, and it turned out to be a good decision. Fifty years later, The Cheese Shop and Fat Canary in Merchants Square remain iconic Peninsula small businesses, but the Power family's ventures represent something more, too — an enduring effort to act as a force for good in the community that supports them.
Yet even after five decades of service in the local hospitality industry, the Power family isn't immune to economic challenges, and these disruptions continue to guide decisions about the course of their business and what they see as their responsibility as a local employer.
Mary Ellen Power Rogers now runs the family's businesses with her siblings Cathy Power Pattisall and Tom Power Jr. They've taken the reins from their parents, Tom Power, who died in 2017, and matriarch Mary Ellen "Myrt" Power, who still stops by The Cheese Shop and Fat Canary frequently, but no longer has the active role in day-to-day operations that she once did.
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Rogers said that she and her siblings have made the decision to put sandwich-making on temporary hiatus. Their goal is to keep that department in operation until Friday, but after that date, The Cheese Shop will not make its renowned sandwiches until further notice.
They are simply too short-staffed to continue to operate business-as-usual, Rogers said. The Fat Canary, the cheese board, wine shop and the retail sales will continue.
Rogers said that the family sees this sandwich-making pause as another one of many challenges they've encountered running a community-focused small business — something the family has been navigating for half a century.
The first Cheese Shop opened in Newport News's Warwick Shopping Center in 1971. From the beginning it was a family affair.
The storefront was small, Pattisall said, but an expansive storage area in the back, set up with bean bag chairs and other kid-friendly accommodations among the inventory, was where she spent countless hours during childhood. She remember trips in the family station wagon, which was stuffed with cheese bound for the shop. When she was naughty, the punishment could be putting price tags on endless boxes of Stoned Wheat Thins.
The Cheese Shop got its French bread from a facility in Norfolk. The same day that Pattisall got her driver's license at age 16, her mother sent her by herself to go get the bread.
"We were young, but there was a vibe, and we understood how important this was," she said.
Former Newport News city councilman and vice mayor Bert Bateman knew the Power family and said they established The Cheese Shop as a community cornerstone early on. Bateman's father, the late Congressman Herb Bateman, always looked forward to conversations with the elder Power about wine and cheese.
"I tried many things I never would have because of the Powers," he said.
In 1973, the family opened a second Cheese Shop on Prince George Street in Williamsburg. Locals, college students and tourists frequented this new location. A large part of the appeal, said Pattisall, was Tom Power's genuine interest in people.
Mary Ellen Power was responsible for the unending and thankless task of all the behind-the-scenes work, such as payroll and accounting, that keeps small businesses afloat. She was the rock upon which the family business rested, Pattisall said.
The children remained active in the business through college and into adulthood. But it was the elder Tom Power who was the public, friendly face of the operation.
"Daddy thrived in that environment," Pattisall said. "He was meant for that."
The Cheese Shop established itself and its products as a local institution. The Cheese Shop sandwich, with its secret recipe Original House Dressing, became "the tail that wagged the dog," Pattisall said.
Nevertheless, over the years, the family business changed and grew. In 1978, the Powers sold the Newport News Cheese Shop to George Ackerman, who independently operated the store with his wife for 36 years. In 1980, Tom Power partnered with John Curtis and Marcel Desaulniers to open The Trellis, and the family kept a stake in the popular restaurant for 14 years.
In 2003, The Cheese Shop moved from Prince George Street to a much larger space on Duke of Gloucester Street in Merchants Square, and the Power family launched Fat Canary, with Tom Power Jr. at the helm as executive chef.
David Niebuhr, a longtime Williamsburg resident, said that Williamsburg hasn't always been the cultured town it has become today. The Cheese Shop helped usher in a transformation because it was the only place one could get better wines, cheeses and specialty foods, such as pate.
"Even now that Williamsburg is so much more sophisticated, it's still a go-to place to get unique hors d'oeuvres, olives or bread for a dinner party," Niebuhr said. "And, of course, the sandwiches are legendary."
The product and customer experience remained a priority all along, but the Power family, from the beginning, saw their role in a broader context, aiming to be a good community partner and generous employer.
Tom Power became involved in local causes and organizations. He helped establish the Williamsburg Farmers Market and served on the board of directors for TowneBank Williamsburg, a role later assumed by his daughter Cathy.
The Power family forged a deep connection with the College of William & Mary. Williamsburg city councilman Caleb Rogers, who graduated from W&M in 2020, and who is not related to Mary Ellen Power Rogers, said that when he arrived in town for a campus tour the year before he matriculated, he asked for a recommendation for a lunch spot. The reply was swift and fervent: The Cheese Shop. And be sure to get the house dressing.
"It's one of those few places in Williamsburg that's on the bucket list of places to go to get the full experience of the city," he said.
In May 2017, the president of W&M at the time, Taylor Reveley III, presented Tom and Mary Ellen Power with the university's Prentis Award, which recognizes distinguished community service and a W&M connection.
In nearly half a century in Williamsburg, the Powers employed many hundreds of people, a significant portion of whom were W&M students. Every year on homecoming weekend, hundreds of alumni stop by The Cheese Shop, Pattisall said.
In his acceptance speech for the award, Power talked about the importance of his employees. His words were not just idle chatter. The Powers went to great lengths to ensure their employees were looked after.
For 25 years, the family businesses were closed on Sundays — a result of Virginia's blue laws — and employees and their families were often invited to the Power home to enjoy a cookout. To this day, employees of The Cheese Shop and Fat Canary are provided a meal before their shift, often eaten together, family-style.
For Niebuhr, who has lived in Williamsburg since 1978, the family's philosophy and way of conducting business is a glimpse of a different time in the city's history.
"It's more than their philanthropy and interest in and service to the community," he said. "The business still reminds me of small-town Williamsburg."
A month after receiving the Prentis Award, Tom Power, age 81, died while vacationing in Bermuda with Mary Ellen, whom he'd been married to for 56 years.
The businesses were strong enough to withstand the passing of the patriarch, but Mary Ellen Power Rogers said that the pandemic has offered an unprecedented set of circumstances. Typically, the businesses employ about 80 people. Today, there are around 50 people on the payroll, with few or no applications for the open positions.
The employees are stretched too thin to keep all the components of the operation running safely, according to Rogers.
"We're so short-staffed it's unhealthy, and we have an obligation to keep our staff healthy," Rogers said.
Already the Powers have reduced the number of days the businesses operate. The Cheese Shop started closing on Mondays in June and later narrowed the time window during which they made sandwiches.
Rogers said the family looked at this from every angle and tried to figure out how to keep the sandwich-making going, but it's just not possible to continue at current staffing levels. "We really hate to disappoint people," she said.
According to Rogers, the family understands that unfilled positions are a national problem, and that small, independent businesses are feeling the pinch especially hard. She hopes that people will consider supporting local establishments and, if they can, apply for jobs.
Rogers said that the family can't say when The Cheese Shop sandwich will return, only that they hope it's sooner than later.
"We will resume," she said. "It's what we do."