What started as an errand has become a 15,000-square-foot country store.
In 1986, LeRoy Hochstetler went to Ohio from his home between Nappanee and Bremen. Amish neighbors asked if he’d bring back some cases of oil for them as well.
He did, and soon he was also getting mixed candies and nuts, as well as farm supplies, for them.
“Just grew from there. Took off,” said his son Dennis, who now owns Rentown Country Store with his wife, Leah.
1533 Third Road, Bremen
Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday
LeRoy never intended to go into the retail business. Dennis and Leah never intended to take it over.
On May 4, the store moved across Third Road into a new space that’s double the size. Hundreds came to a grand opening May 16.
“Sales have totally skyrocketed,” Dennis said.
It’s not because he doubled the amount of product. “We didn’t add one product and our square footage doubled,” he said, noting that people are seeing the products in a way they couldn’t in a store where if you stopped in the aisle, a line of customers might stack up behind you.
The Amish store has a delectable mix of items, not all of them edible. Kitchen gadgets, games and toy horses are on the shelves. The Ausbund, a historic Amish songbook, is available for purchase along with German Bibles.
The focus is food, along with bread, pie and a version of Twinkies from its own bakery. If you want to do your own baking, you can get a 50-pound bag of flour.
The shelves have fudge from Veni’s Sweet Shop in Nappanee and Leman’s mint candy that originated with local mint oil. Bags of nuts and candies are still part of the mix, as is cereal, local maple syrup and deli meat.
“I wanted it to be a unique grocery store,” he said.
Some grocery stores put milk in the back of the store as a way to drive traffic and sales. “Our big thing is cheese,” said Hochstetler.
Ohio and Wisconsin cheese is in a large cooler in the back — unless it won’t fit in the cooler. A wheel of cheese weighing 1,087 pounds sat on a table until Hochstetler and his employees cut it into smaller chunks last week.
You can get a lot for a little money at Rentown. Hochstetler still stocks items for the Amish customer, the local customer. But now it’s also a stop for tourists. Last week, a German man visited.
“Our main clientele goes from Chicago to Knox,” Hochstetler said. Some will come every few months to stock up on butter, cheese and other items. Newmar Corp. and Amish Acres will send its customers to see the store as well.
It’s not something you stumble upon easily south of U.S. 6. It’s usually a destination.
Hochstetler had purchased the 19 acres across the street from the original location, and after sales kept growing, he made the decision to build and move across the road.
LeRoy and daughter Rose Hochstetler, Dennis’s sister, are planning a restaurant in the former store, but that will take some time to develop.
Dennis enjoys talking to customers, but Leah is more outgoing. Dennis is an Amish man who loves baking and cooking. When he worked at Keystone RV, that’s what he enjoyed doing in the evenings.
He prayed for a way to get out of the factory. “I thought it was a dead-end road,” he said, adding, “You’re never promised tomorrow.”
When the Great Recession came in 2008, he and Leah had just built a new house and weathered the tough economic times. In 2011, a family member was running the store for his father, but it wasn’t working out, so LeRoy asked Dennis to take over.
Dennis and Leah’s house sold quickly and they moved back to the farmstead.
After it came together, he learned Leah had been praying for a way out of the factory for him as well, though they hadn’t discussed it.
“I think it’s definitely an answer to prayer. And we love what we do,” he said.
During the recession, Rentown’s business didn’t suffer much. People were cooking and eating at home.
Rentown and other stores, including Grandma’s Pantry in Wakarusa and E & S Sales in Shipshewana, offer a way to find interesting ingredients and have a different kind of shopping experience. I love trolling such places looking for values and flavor.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.