They came from other states — some returning to visit relatives, others on business trips and even those who retired to other regions of the country.
The had to make a stop at the Bobby Nelson Cheese Shop to stock up on specially made cheeses, the smoked meats and the pickled veggie treats whenever they were in the area
And when they could not make a trip, they would purchase their goodies via mail order.
For 70 years, Bobby Nelson’s, the little cheese shop “just off the highway” at 2924 120th Ave., has been a beloved iconic destination for generations of customers. Just across from the Mars Cheese Castle, it had its own tourist following.
There’s only a few days left. The shop that was established and opened by Nelson on July 4, 1949, will close at the end of the month.
Phyllis and Richard Giovanelli are retiring after more than 40 years of ownership. Nelson, the wrestler who created the nelson and half-nelson wrestling maneuvers, ran the shop until 1978.
There are no plans to sell or continue the mail order portion of the business. “I told Bobby when I go, the shop will go,” Giovanelli said.
Phyllis Giovanelli was 10 years old when Nelson asked if she wanted to work in the shop. And she has been there ever since.
“I would do a few things around the shop, clean up, pick up paper, and stock the shelves,” she recalled. Later, she learned how to sell. “It’s the only job I ever had.”
Though the shop is small, no more than about 40 feet by 26 feet, there was never a desire to make it larger. They just wanted to add more homemade goodies that customers might not be able to find elsewhere.
“We wanted to stay as small as we could,” said Sheri Schaefer, the shop manager who began working there when she was 15. Now, after 41 years at Bobby Nelson’s, she too is retiring.
“We didn’t need to be the biggest cheese shop,” she explained. “We thrived on being the most-respected for quality products, fair prices and most of all excellent customer service.”
The customer service sometimes went beyond the counter.
“Many times customers that were unable to make it to our shop during business hours would request a mailbox pickup, meaning we would put their order together, put it in our large mailbox with an envelope,” explained Schaefer.
“Later in the evening, they would pick up their goodies, put the cash in the envelop and in the morning we would pick up the envelope. All about customer service and trust,” she added.
Bobby Nelson’s has a large mail order business that is as old as the shop itself. Its shipment to all 50 states included holiday gift boxes, which were filled with only Wisconsin cheeses and specialty meat products from local sausage makers.
In the early years, people used to visit the shop to see Bobby. “He filled the little shop with his personality,” said Schaefer.
Then after he left, Bobby Nelson’s built upon the reputation and charm of the shop.
People wanted to visit and shop there. People in in Chicago and other areas heard about it on Steve Dahl’s radio show. Dahl, a radio host in Chicago, was a devoted customer who talked about the shop.
Noted shoppers included celebrities. Even Tom Brokaw stopped in when he was in the area.
“We never advertised,” said Lucille Stephens, Phyllis’ daughter.
Stephens remembers how she and her brother Tony Giovanelli would help out in the shop. They would stock shelves, learned how to sell and helped do the shipping.
Over the years, Giovanelli began adding more special homemade items that she created herself without a recipe to give customers a wider selection of merchandise. “We had three different bratwursts and kept adding more. We have 12 different brats now,” she said.
While there were about 40 different types of cheese blends and more than 30 different types of specialty meats and a variety of spreads, preserves and pickled vegetables, some of the longtime favorites were the applewood-smoked bacon and the hickory smoked summer sausage.
“We re-invented ourselves a little bit,” Schaefer said.
“Some of the customers became our friends,” Giovanelli said.
Since the shop closing announcement, there has been an outpouring of customers who said they will miss it. Longtime customers, young and older, shopped and now are coming back for their last order of merchandise.
“A 92-year-old customer from Michigan traveled on the ferry across Lake Michigan just to visit our shop and pick up products for the last time,” Schaefer said. “His first visit to the shop was in 1952. That’s a longtime customer.”
And, “a young gentleman from Boston decided to fly in for one last visit. His family are longtime customers (third generation). The whole family came to the shop to take photos and say goodbye,” Schaefer added.
With the shop closing later this week, Schaefer wants to thank the loyal customers.
“Thank you to all of our wonderful customers over the last several decades,” she said. “If you never made it to our little shop, you missed out on a real gem.”