Family histories are defined by a host of different events. In the Power family, the milestones frequently revolve around the retail and restaurant business they have nurtured for more than 40 years.
Since 2003, Tom and Mary Ellen Power, and their three children — Cathy Power Pattisall, Mary Ellen Power Rogers and Tom Power Jr. — have operated The Cheese Shop and the Fat Canary restaurant on Merchants Square in Williamsburg. But this unusual partnership was unwittingly hatched in a small wine and cheese shop the parents opened in 1971 in a Newport News shopping center.
It was called The Cheese Shoppe, and Tom Power had seen a similar operation in Baltimore where he had been working as a sales representative for National Cash Register. When the company transferred him to Newport News, Power and his wife decided to strike out and open a business the likes of which the community hadn't seen before. It sold a variety of wines and cheeses, French baguettes, and gourmet sandwiches and food products,
Tom usually engaged the customers, and sliced and wrapped the cheese, while Mary Ellen rang up the sales. In the afternoons they picked up their three children — then ages 6, 8 and 9 — at nearby Our Lady of Mount Carmel school and brought them back to the store.
"My mom had built a kind of fort with bean bag chairs in the back where we did our homework," recalls daughter Mary Ellen. Over the years, the three kids also helped out by unpacking boxes, stocking shelves and pricing merchandise.
Tom Jr., the youngest of the three, remembers riding his unicycle around the shopping center and handing out fliers about the business. Now executive chef of the Fat Canary, he jokingly says he honed his palate munching on the rind that came off wheels of Swiss Emmentaler sold in the shop.
He grew up to train at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Starting with an externship at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, where he worked under Emeril LaGasse, he went on to work with the Ritz-Carlton chain in Southern California and Hawaii and eventually with famed chef Roy Yamaguchi at Roy's on Maui.
After graduating from college, daughter Mary Ellen pursued a 16-year career in advertising and merchandising that took her toWashington, D.C., Dallas, Denver and Portland.
Daughter Cathy stayed closer to home and was the first of the three children to return to the business. Soon after graduating from college with a degree in physical education, she came to realize that working in the family business was what she wanted to do all along. She joined the business in 1986 and as general manager, now oversees the operation of the cheese shop and the restaurant.
Meanwhile, their parents had been on the move as well. Tom wanted to expand into Colonial Williamsburg, and the couple opened a second cheese shop on Prince George Street in 1973. (The original shop was sold to George Ackerman in 1978 and is now located in the Hidenwood area of Newport News).
Over the years, the Powers enlarged the Williamsburg space from 600 to 2,000 square feet and began building a loyal customer base. The cheese shop sandwich, made with various meats and cheese on French bread with a tangy house dressing, became a local favorite. And Tom's people skills helped bring in a lot of repeat business.
In 1980 the Powers joined with partners John Curtis and Marcel Desaulniers to open another business, The Trellis Restaurant on Merchants Square. Throughout those years, until they sold their interest in the restaurant in 1994, the three children worked for their parents.
"It seemed like we always had two jobs," says daughter Mary Ellen. "Everybody did everything — waited on tables, swept the floors."
"You learn great life skills interacting with customers," she says. "And if you do it right, you can apply it to any career you go into."
Tom Jr. recalls working as a busboy and waiter at The Trellis. It credits those teenage years as one of the reasons he developed an interest in cooking.
Daughter Mary Ellen calls it "kismet" — the move to the present location in the heart of Merchants Square that reunited the family. Parents Tom and Mary Ellen and daughter Cathy had been looking for a bigger location, and a large space opened up on the square with room for a restaurant, cheese shop and basement wine cellar. By that time daughter Mary Ellen and her family had tired of big-city life and were anxious to move back home and become a part of the business. Brother Tom was then working on the Outer Banks, and he jumped at the chance to open a restaurant here. They spent months planning the new venture that opened on Labor Day weekend 2003.
"When it first opened, I thought everything was right," says Tom Jr. about the Fat Canary, named for a Colonial reference to wine brought from the Canary Islands. "We took a lot of time to get it right."
Things didn't go quite as smoothly on the cheese shop side as the Powers struggled to keep up with the large volume of tourists lining up for sandwiches. Locals used to the quiet shop on Prince George Street also didn't take to the crowded new location.
"It took us awhile to figure out the new business," says daughter Mary Ellen. "It's as if you moved into a new house and had guests every day.
"The most important customer has always been the local customer," she says. "The visitors are the icing on the cake."
Eventually the family installed a pick-up window and additional patio on the side of the building so that locals could call in their sandwich order and enjoy it in quiet surroundings.
Today the Powers admit that while running a family business isn't all wine and roses, they wouldn't have it any other way.
"It has fallen into talents and interests as to how we divide the pie," says mother Mary Ellen, who calls herself the "office girl" and does much of the bookkeeping.
Daughter Cathy refers to herself as the "little general" in her role as general manager, while her sister, Mary Ellen, works with the advertising and marketing side of the business. They also have many loyal managers, a few who have been with them for more than 20 years. No one is exempt from menial chores such as sweeping and slicing cheese on the belief that you can't ask an employee to do something that you won't do yourself.
"No one could know that the business would evolve to the point where we now have 75 employees on the payroll," says daughter Mary Ellen.
His children credit Tom with a knack for interacting with customers and remembering their names. He works during the day on tasks such as negotiating with vendors, then puts on a jacket to greet diners in the restaurant at night.
"He is still in so many ways the face of the business," says daughter Mary Ellen.
The family gets together for a partner meeting every several weeks and talk about problems.
"I think we communicate pretty well with each other," says daughter Mary Ellen. "People wonder how we can work together all the time, but we're not on top of each other. And we all really love the business."
"You have to rely on other people, and there's no one more important than your family when you have to do that," says Tom Jr. "It's a blessing...it's the best."
And after working together day in and out, the family, which numbers grandchildren as well, even enjoys vacationing together. Because Thanksgiving and Christmas are such a hectic period in the retail industry, the family heads to the Homestead in February to relax and watch the Super Bowl. They all traveled to the Tides Inn for several days when Tom and Mary Ellen celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year.
Mother Mary Ellen sums up running a family business this way: "It's wonderful...there are a lot of parts and there are a lot of squeaks. But we seem to have found our own path and reached a goal."