By Frank J. Rich
Some time ago I stopped at a store while driving through New England. The sign on the front read Rucki’s General Store. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, I just stopped to stretch my legs and look around. Outside the store were a number of signs announcing the goods inside – Home Raised Quality Beef, Fresh Corn, Blue Seal Grains (and pet food), and fresh milk. I wondered about this last one; what in the world was “fresh” milk, I thought. Isn’t all milk fresh?
I stopped for a moment to inquire about the milk. Mr. Rucki, as I recall, was tall, spindly, and bespectacled. He had an expectant look on his face as though worn down by the many passersby who lived the experience I was having. “What’s fresh milk?” I asked, adding, “Isn’t all milk fresh?”
“Yup,” he said, answering the last question first. “Some fresher than others,” he added. At that moment I was reminded of one of Will Rogers’ quips – “Nothing you can’t spell will ever work.” I decided to keep it simple and not ask him to describe the processes of homogenization, pasteurization, and airborne bacteria.
“Comes from down the road (long pause), at Rich’s Farm. The ice cream too; best around!” I waited patiently for the next issue from Mr. Rucki, who seemed quite at ease with the pace of his measured responses. I was taking a quick liking to him.
“Pretty much, they send it down to me near right after the cow gives it. Milk on the bottom, cream on the top.” Instantly, my mind worked to make science of what he said; the milk was not homogenized.
“But don’t they heat it first to kill the bacteria,” I asked. “Course,” he said. ‘Ya’ got to do that.”
In a flash, I knew that the milk was pasteurized, safe to drink. But what of this milk that was thick with cream at the top and thin with milk on the bottom. And milk in a bottle? I must have been living in Westchester too long, I thought.
Anticipating my next question (there were now regular customers in the store), he moved quickly to the bottom line. “Never tasted anything better. Give it a whirl; you’ll like it.” I did, along with a sandwich of tongue and mustard, which I thought only shipped to Jewish delis in New York. Even the rye bread on my sandwich was baked locally, by a customer who sold it only through the general store. It was like corn rye, heavy and earthy tasting.
I walked around the store to take in the remainder of his stock. There were things there I had not seen since I was a kid. A bottle top machine that crimped tops on the neck of coke bottles, reverse pliers to open a chain link, washboards hanging on a rack (as though people came in to buy them daily), and pots and pans of real tin, some covered in porcelain – the mottled blue enamel stuff.
As I finally approached the checkout counter, laden with things to eat and drink, and a host of gadgets I knew I’d never use or see again anywhere else, I found Mr. Rucki waiting by the cash register for me.
“How’d you like the milk,” he said? I answered quickly, with the most unimpressive remark that would neither offend nor encourage delight in him. “I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything like it,” I answered. Then, in a moment of reflection and guilt, I added, “I really like it!” He smiled.
“What about the ice cream,” I asked.
“Follow your back, about a mile down the road. You’ll see the stand in your left eye,” he said, adding, after another long pause, “You never tasted anything like it, either.”
While at the counter, and already in a conversation with him, I mustered the courage to ask him an uneasy question: “You’ve got some amazing things in the store,” I started. “Things more common many years ago, right up to contemporary items like a voltmeter.” Then came the hard part of the question. “Is there a call for all this stuff?” I asked sheepishly.
His reply was as fluid as a Marshall Goldsmith model for critical feedback – positive, simple, focused, and fast!
“I don’t carry anything people don’t want. They tell me what that is, I get it, and I keep on gettin’ it ’til they stop buyin’ it. Gotta get what the customer wants! Ain’t that the way it’s done where you come from?” It was the voice of wisdom.
I bought a farm in the next town the following year. I decided to take Mr. Rucki’s advice and see if I could raise farm products for a local market, profitably. It worked, and for 6 ½ years I enjoyed the fruits of living on 12 beautiful acres, surrounded by 500 uninhabited acres of woods, hay fields, and ponds, and trading Hereford beef, fresh and canned vegetables to a local market. I never raised anything they didn’t want, and I never worried about business or much of anything else, either. I even learned to like fresh milk, which I traded for beef with a local dairy farmer.
Mr. Rucki died eventually, and his place closed. It’s still there, signs and all. But, he isn’t; and like Rucki’s, things have changed. Nowadays, Rene Zellweger and Brian Dennehy live up the road a bit. Rich’s Farm remains, a dairy farm that also makes the best ice cream in the country. I know something about that, always on the trail of the best of the best in my business travels. Linda Rich and her family still run the place (no relation to me).
When I think about Rucki’s, and my years on the farm, I’m reminded of one more of Ol’ Will’s quips: “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” It’s good advice for most organizations … and the rest of us.