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Eye On | A Matter of Taste — A Leavenworth hot spot

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Jim Johnson of Chicago samples some of the many mustards available at A Matter of Taste.

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If you’re an adventurous food enthusiast, or are willing to put your mouth through all nine circles of Hell, A Matter of Taste has what you’re looking for.

Robert and Sherry Schichi have been running A Matter of Taste, 647 Front Street in Leavenworth, for 17 years.

I’ve always wanted to have my own grocery store,” Robert said. “How I got that dream as a kid I have no clue, but this is the ideal job for me.”

Robert’s parents purchased the store 20 years ago when the previous owners were going out of business. The Schichis wanted to focus on the gourmet food that the previous owners had offered, but not emphasized.

It’s changed and grown over the years,” Robert said. “We’ve focused on gourmet food and expanded that line through the years. … In Leavenworth, guys don’t have a lot to do when their wives are shopping. It started gearing towards guys and then women loved it too, because who doesn’t like to eat?”

When they first took over the business, it seemed like the perfect time to introduce a dedicated gourmet store to Leavenworth.

When we started doing this, gourmet food was not as prevalent, it was a growing industry at the time,” Robert said. “That’s how we established ourselves and made a name for ourselves.”

Instead of taking a blanket approach to selling gourmet foods, the Schichis decided to focus on dips.

In our core, we’ve always been dips,” Robert said. “That’s our specialty. We don’t have cheeses, we don’t have oils, we don’t have meats, we don’t have seasoning, we’re a dip store.”

In addition to their unique products, A Matter of Taste also seeks to give customers a different shopping experience.

Here, you get to interact. You can have fun, you can challenge people with the hot sauce,” Robert said. “You’re actually interacting with the store, and that’s what has been fun.”

A Matter of Taste offers a rotating selection of gourmet dips and free pretzel sticks to sample them with.

Every time I buy pretzels, I buy 240 pounds of pretzels,” Robert said. “People ask me how I can afford it, but I say ‘how could I not?’ Some of the stuff like pineapple coconut mango tequila sauce sounds kind of funky, but when you try you like it. Even if they don’t like it, I’d rather them try it and not buy so that they don’t take it home because then they would have a negative experience here.”

Included in the rotation of samples is a blistering hot sauce that invites daring passersby to take a sample.

We had a nun come in here that really enjoyed the hot sauce,” Robert said. “So I offer a hotter one and she says ‘yeah!’ She could handle that one too. I went out and got the hottest sauce I’ve ever sampled, and I thought to myself that I was probably going to go to Hell for trying to fry a nun but she liked that too.”

While the lava-hot liquid doesn’t encourage people to buy a whole bottle, it does get people through the doors.

Percentage of hot sauce sales are not that high, but everybody knows it,” Robert said. “You have fun with it, you get memories of it, but how many times do you buy a bottle? It’s a not a huge selling item, but you have fun with it. You might not buy hot sauce, but you might get a mustard.”

The customers that the Schichis get to interact with are one of the joys of running their business.

We meet everybody,” Robert said. “I think that we have a unique position because we see people when they’re in a good mood. Everybody is on vacation, everyone is here a weekend getaway and they want to have fun. Twenty years of meeting people has really been a huge draw. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Another huge benefit of running A Matter of Taste is experiencing all the memories that are created there.

A couple came in here and were talking about how they loved our store and it brought them memories,” Robert said. “They said, ‘my dad came in here and tried the hot sauce and he was dying and bought us all drinks.’ Well, the dad passed away a couple years after that, so every time they come here it’s a fond memory of the father.”

A Matter of Taste also offers a selection of rocks and tourist items to appeal to a wide range of different customers.

Not everybody comes in here wanting to eat,” Robert said. “Maybe they come in here to sample and they see the T-shirts, or a kid sees the rocks, or the grandma sees the personalized chain for the grandchildren. You have to have some of that stuff in your store.”

The additional items on the shelves helps to create the unique experience that the Schichis are trying to create.

We try not to duplicate things that people have in town,” Shelly said. “We’ve always tried to set ourselves apart. You can walk in half the stores in town and they all have the same thing. We try to stay away from that.”

Having a wide selection of products also helps the Schichis make good use of store space.

Utilizing every inch of space that you have,” Robert said. “If I don’t magnets on this pillar, the pillar goes to waste. The pillar is now making me money because I have some Leavenworth souvenir magnets on it.”

The varied product offerings and interactive environment are enjoyed by Leavenworth residents and tourists alike, according to Robert.

You could have anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand (customers a day),” Robert said. “At Christmas lighting, it’s packed in here. It’s like a herd of traffic. You could see thousands of people come through the store on a 12-hour shift.”

Those customers are pulled from all walks of life.

Every demographic, every age. I could tell you so many stories,” Robert said. “We have nuns come in here, we have older folks in here. Food’s a universal draw. There isn’t a particular percentage of our population that likes looking at food, everybody does.”

Robert said that while the Leavenworth atmosphere is very positive, it can present some challenges.

I would love to have a store where we have the same sales year-round and we don’t have to budget and set aside money,” Robert said. “That’s a challenge of running a business in Leavenworth, it’s so seasonal. You see businesses go out all the time, but overall I wouldn’t trade it. It has its challenges, but it’s fun.”

A key to tackling those challenges is a keeping a supply of capital in reserve to make it through seasons with less business, Robert said.

You have to set money aside,” Robert said. “If you don’t have money set aside to weather some storms, you’re going to go out of business. When half the year is busy, and half the year is not busy, you have to have a plan.”