Telling the story of Sheetz, from dairy to empire

For Blair County residents, the familiar red and yellow Sheetz sign is as much a part of Pennsylvania as the mountains that surround them. But few know the story of how the company, founded in 1952 by Bob Sheetz, became the familiar sight we know today.

A new book hitting the shelves on Monday looks to change that.

“Made to Order: The Sheetz Story” is a collaboration between the Sheetz family – particularly Bob and his brother, Steve, and Bob’s son, Stan, the company’s current chairman – and author Ken Womack, a professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona, where he also serves as senior associate dean for academic affairs.

“We’d been talking at Sheetz for a while about doing a book,” Steve Sheetz, who joined his older brother’s fledgling company part time in 1960 and still serves as chairman of the Sheetz Family Council, said in a joint interview with Womack at the Sheetz Corporate Office in Altoona. “None of us are getting any younger, and while Bob and my memories are still there, we thought it’d be good to do. It’s only a matter of getting someone to sit down and force us to do it.”

Published by Arcadia Publishing, the book takes a look at the humble beginnings of the Sheetz empire. The story truly begins with Bob and Steve’s grandfather, James E. “J.E.” Harshbarger, who in 1907 formed J.E. Harshbarger Dairy Company in Altoona to give area farmers a way to distribute their excess milk. The company grew quickly and only got stronger with the addition of J.E.’s son-in-law, Jerry Sheets, in 1930 (when he married Kathleen Harshbarger).

The company got its future identity when Jerry attended a dairy conference and found two name tags – “Jerry Sheets” and “Jerry Sheetz.” To his wife’s surprise, he picked up the tag with the “z,” explaining “I like this one better.” Despite the protests of family members, Jerry went through the then-long process of changing his name, giving his family a distinctive name that would eventually extend far beyond their Altoona home.

The J.E. Harshbarger Dairy Company eventually became the leading dairy operation in the area, with a large distribution center and several Sheetz Dairy Stores to serve the community. In 1952, Jerry Sheetz agreed to sell his son Bob the company’s unprofitable 2601 Fifth Ave. store and the Sheetz story truly began.

Bob’s new store brought the business away from the dairy, adding a large deli and a variety of grocery items. The store thrived and Bob opened another location, Sheetz Kwik Shopper, in 1962. Through the next 40 years, Sheetz added gas pumps, restaurants, car washes and, of course, the company’s signature Made to Order food menu. Today, there are more than 400 Sheetz stores in six states.

Not everything was a success.

“The mistakes we’ve made – I don’t even call them mistakes anymore, we look at them as growing opportunities,” Steve Sheetz said. “Like, the first time we did a car wash. It was like an igloo. It froze up and we bulldozed it down. And now we have almost 140 car washes. We had 11 restaurants and now they’re not there. And the [financial] struggles in the ’80s. That’s kind of the history, you know?”

According to Womack, the book’s development began about three years ago. The initial talks with Steve were about the Sheetz “story arc.” Filling in the background was Bob Sheetz, now 79, who retired to Florida in 1984.

“I went down and spent a week with Bob in Boca Raton [Fla.] about two and a half years ago,” Womack said. “That was important because that gave me a chance … to ask really wide-ranging questions and try to help Bob capture his memories about those times.

“I spent about the same amount of time with Steve, capturing those memories and filling in the blanks and extending beyond Bob’s day-to-day operation time with Sheetz, and then [did] the same with Stan.”

In all, Womack says he interviewed about 25 people who were part of the Sheetz story. Though Steve Sheetz, 65, knew most of the history of the company, he was eager to put it in print to let the story live on.

“Our mother lived til she was 96 and she had captured a lot of history on her side of the family,” he said. “So we had pictures and the history that she had told us about.

“There are now, I think, 80 of us [descended] from my mother and father, with a lot more coming. [The book] was really trying to capture that for the next generation. Not only where the family came from, but how the business got started, going back to our grandfather.”

The book is blunt about the company’s struggles, including a down period in the 1980s that led to a more customer-friendly business plan and the company’s struggle with a breakout of salmonella among its locations in 2004. In the latter case, the Sheetz family came out – against the wishes of their lawyers and public relations people – and admitted that the salmonella outbreak almost certainly came from Sheetz stores.

Despite the hit in business – food sales fell by 40 percent – customers stayed loyal in other areas of the store and the food business eventually recovered.

“I had always admired Steve and his family and the story of Sheetz,” Womack said. “But I knew I really wanted to tell the story and be a part of it the more I learned about the salmonella crisis and what I believe is the heroic way the family and the company stood up and protected their customer base.

“It was not just heroic, but the ethical and right way to live and conduct your business.”

Steve Sheetz is happy with how “Made to Order” came out, but says the story is hardly over.

“Today, you kind of wish your book was online, because every day things are changing,” he said. “We’re adding people, we’re adding stores, we started a Sheetz Family Council.

“The book is done, so you kind of look at it like ‘OK, that’s the last 60 years, but how are we going to capture what’s going on from here?'”

Womack said the book’s development gave him a chance to know the Sheetz family and company, which welcomed him with open arms.

“Once you become a part of the Sheetz culture, you really stay in that place,” he said. “When I’d go to the distribution centers or [the corporate office], a lot of good friendships have developed. People, without being prompted, care very much about their part in the Sheetz story.

“I’ve had people I just pass in the halls who will email me several days later and say, ‘Ken there’s one more thing I want to tell you,’ or ‘Did you know how Steve and Bob helped my mother?'”

Steve Sheetz says that as the company transitions from generation to generation – Joe Sheetz Jr., the son of Bob and Steve’s brother Joe Sr., just took control as the company’s new CEO in October – “Made to Order” will help those working there realize where Sheetz came from.

“When I started working for Bob, we had eight people back then, in 1960,” he said. “We served about 400 customers a day. Today, we have more than 16,000 people working to serve over a million customers a day.”

“That’s the ‘transaction’ – that every day, over a million people depend on us.”

“Made to Order: The Sheetz Story” will be available in bookstores, at Sheetz stores and on e-readers beginning on Monday.

Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.