“This is a company so dedicated to its employees and customers. There are not enough words to say about how much Mr. [Bob] Schenck and Mr. Bill Huntsberry did to make this company what it is.”

— Marshall “Peachie” DeHaven

KERNSTOWN — Talk to the folks employed by Schenck Foods Co., and you’ll quickly learn that things — good things — come in pairs at the 90-year-old wholesale grocer on Valley Pike (U.S. 11) south of Winchester.

Like, for example, the “employees and customers” noted by 55-year employee Marshall “Peachie” DeHaven in the quote above.

It is telling that, at the company’s 90th birthday celebration Monday, awards were given to longtime employees and long-cherished customers.

If it were a contest, Betty Fout, an employee for nearly 58 years, would edge out Southern Kitchen of New Market, a customer for 57 years. Such longevity suggests an unswerving commitment to what Schenck’s has to offer.

And that brings to mind another pair — honesty and service. Or, as former president, or president emeritus, David Huntsberry says, “quality of service.”

“I think we’ve had superior service,” Huntsberry said Monday, to which his son Jason, to whom he handed over the presidential reins in November 2015, added, “And we still do.”

“We care about the community,” the elder Huntsberry says. “It’s not about us; it’s about our employees and customers. Take Betty [Fout], for example. She’s a reason why we’re still open.”

The final series of pairs pertains to the company’s leadership over the years. First, the firm — initially Valley Food Co., as noted in a congressional resolution sponsored by Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-10th — was founded in 1928 by the partnership of Clarence (“Bob”) Schenck and Howard Cahill.

Yet the two men most associated with the rise of Schenck’s were Bob Schenck and his son-in-law, Bill Huntsberry, David’s father. The twosome, the company’s first two presidents, were responsible for the “family” atmosphere which still pervades. Fout, in fact, recalls Schenck asking employees to call him “Granddaddy.”

The last pair, of course, are the present-day Huntsberrys, David, 64, and Jason, 40.

The former, who’s worked for the family business for 45 years (including 18 as president), admits he “needed help” in running the operation. So he turned to his son, who had picked up valuable experience working in politics and in public relations and marketing for the oil and gas industry.

“I was getting dried up,” David Huntsberry says. “We started talking, and he wanted to come up and check it out, to see how he could help. He’s been a godsend.”

For his part, Jason Huntsberry was grateful for the vast “institutional knowledge” of the business his father possessed.

“He’s done things well,” Jason Huntsberry says. “For us, it’s been a way of marrying the old with the new.”

“We are in the people business. We just happen to sell food.”

— Jason Huntsberry

For the first 24 years of its life, Schenck’s was known, initially, as the Valley Food Co. (manufacturer of Blossom Potato Chips), and then as Schenck Cheese Co. Not until 1952 did the business take on the name by which it is still known — Schenck Foods Co.

To be sure, the breadth and reach of the business has expanded since those early days. For instance, its labor force, now 121 employees strong working in the 62,800-square-foot warehouse over two shifts, has quadrupled over the nine decades since the company’s creation. And its radius of operation has grown from 30 to 40 miles (as a retail distributor for Kraft Foods) in the Schenck Cheese Co. days to a bit more than 100 miles — “from Chambersburg [Pa.] to Harrisonburg,” Jason says, looking north to south.

As Mrs. Comstock’s resolution implied, Schenck’s product line and clientele are staggering. It offers more than 5,000 products — and not just food, but also chemical (cleaning supplies) and paper products — to roughly 4,500 customers. Or, as Jason Huntsberry says, “It’s a mix of mom-and-pop restaurants that has expanded to caterers. We still do schools, but not as much as we used to” (due to the volatile nature of delivering products to institutions susceptible to long spells of inactivity ... like “snow days”).

Jason Huntsberry quickly adds that Schenck’s can provide food and associated products for most any private event possible — corporate picnics, weddings, graduations, even funerals. And it can deliver the whole spectrum of food items, he says, “from soup to nuts.”

Despite the comprehensive nature of the business, Schenck’s is still evolving. As a middleman in the distribution process, Schenck’s, Jason Huntsberry says, “is trying to get local farmers’ products into the hands of chefs.” In other words, the company’s variation on the growing farm-to-table trend.

In this sense, as well as others, Jason’s arrival has paid dividends. In a business enterprise where profit margin usually measures 1 to 1½ percent, the last two years have witnessed, at the very least, a mini-boon.

“Dad says he hasn’t seen those kind of numbers in a long time,” says Jason Huntsberry, who then further reiterates how “this company has been well-run.”

Well-run ... and, at the same time, changing.

“We are more aggressive,” Jason Huntsberry says, “and less risk-averse.”

“I never thought to go anywhere else.”

— Betty Fout

Lineage, says David Huntsberry, has been critical to Schenck’s success. And not simply the ownership lineage of four generations of Schencks and Huntsberrys. It’s the family lineage of long-standing employees and, like Merle and Billy Stotler, of sons following fathers into the warehouse and, eventually perhaps, to other jobs at Schenck’s.

“Most came to us out of high school,” David Huntsberry says, “and, starting on the second shift, stayed their whole careers here.”

One of those folks is Merle Stotler, who began working in the warehouse as a Distribution Education (DE) student at James Wood High School in 1967 and ended up remaining at Schenck’s for 47 years, retiring in 2015.

If there’s a common thread among many Schenck’s employees — or at least the three referred to in the remainder of this article — it is that they came to the company from high school, usually working a half-day (until graduation) as part of a school-based program.

For Betty Fout, it was the Vocational Office Training (VOT) program at James Wood; for Billy Stotler, it was Industrial Cooperative Training, also at James Wood; and for his dad, it was DE.

Hired full-time in 1968 by Bob Schenck — “Next to my own father, I never knew any better,” he says — Stotler held a variety of jobs after leaving the warehouse: city deliveryman (which he started just after graduating from James Wood), long-range truck driver making deliveries over Schenck’s expanding business radius, and, finally, after coming off the road, customer service representative in the warehouse. Thus, in a sense, he came full circle.

Like Fout, Stotler never considered seeking employment elsewhere.

“I liked what I was doing,” he says. “I know a lot of people who don’t. This is a family-owned company where family comes first. I had some adversities in life, and Schenck’s always stood behind me.”

What’s more, the company hired his son, now a 27-year employee who is head of Schenck’s transportation division.

By way of contrast, Fout has spent her nearly 58 years in the accounting, or finance, office. She’s worked on payroll, some in accounts receiving, and now lends her vast experience to accounts payable.

She, like so many others, was not brought in as a permanent employee, but worked half a day as a James Wood VOT student. “I had to get a working permit,” she says with a laugh. “I was only 17.”

As with Stotler, she was hired full-time by Schenck upon graduating from high school. And though she’s worked in the same office dealing with monetary matters, Fout says her job often presents a different look. Perhaps it’s the customers with whom she interacts.

“I think I deal well with other people,” she observes.

In her mid-70s, she has no thoughts of retiring. Given her love of reading and watching TV, she fears, albeit half-jokingly it seems, she would be “dead in a month.”

“As long as I am working, I am doing,” Fout says simply. “Anyway, Jason says I can’t retire. It’s nice to be well-thought-of.

But that’s the Schenck Way, it would appear — employees and customers come first, with a premium placed on honesty and quality of service.

And it’s been that way for 90 years.

— Contact Adrian O’Connor at aoconnor@winchesterstar.com

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