“It looks like another great store is soon to be added to the ‘good old days’ list,” wrote Jack Redash on Facebook. “Walked by The Cheese Store earlier today and saw the bad news … Enjoy your retirement Mitch and good luck!”
Open since April 1977, the Cheese Store on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst has provided its customers with smiles as they shop for high-quality food. Now those patrons will have to find another such store as owner Mitch Rakita is retiring on March 30.
Rakita began the business as a venture with his father, Louis, after he graduated SUNY Oneonta. “[My father] worked in an office and he couldn’t stand it,” Rakita said. “He said do you want to do something with me, and I was a dumb college kid and I said alright, now I don’t have to write a resume.”
His father became ill three years after the opening, and died two years later, however, it’s remained the family business as Rakita’s sister, Tema, followed in her father’s footsteps. Tema does the accounting and bookkeeping, while Rakita’s wife, Barbra, and their three daughters would work there occasionally. Now their daughters are adults and from time to time the Rakitas’ three grandchildren will file through the store.
“A lot of people find it difficult to work with their family,” Rakita said. “We never had that problem.” “It’s just far away,” Barbra said with a slight laugh, about the distance between the store and their home in Lake Grove. “53 miles door to door,” he added. Barbra is a retired teacher and is eager for her husband’s retirement to begin, “No more having to drive so far,” she joked. “And its just time.”
The Rakitas are planning on spending their retirement with their family as much as possible. They have one daughter and two grandchildren in East Islip, and two daughters and one grandchild in upstate New York. Mitch also said he’s looking forward to having time to go to the gym again, and agreed with his wife that it’s time, “41 years is a long time to walk behind that counter.”
Rakita prided himself on knowing the latest food trends, often visiting trade shows to stay on top of what the next big thing would be. His hope is that they are able to find a buyer for the Cheese Store who will continue their legacy and retain all the employees. The store closes for Passover every year, so he said that March 30, the first night of the holiday, felt like the right time.
There are five employees, with tenures stretching from nine to 35 years. Rakita said they’re the heart and soul of the store. “Apart from a few things, there’s nothing you can get here that you can’t get somewhere else,” he said. “It’s the staff that keeps people coming back.” The store’s connection to the Five Towns is worn on its sleeve; the walls are covered with photographs of customers, family and of company picnics in the Rakitas’ backyard.
Decorated Styrofoam cups hang from the ceiling. A décor choice inspired by a bar Mitch and Barbra would visit in Oneonta, but they also serve as piggybanks as Rakita said children would often leave their change in the cup on their way out.
Looking around the store, the sense of community is tangible. Employees said they loved seeing their customers, particularly the children mature before their eyes. “We watched them grow up, have kids and get married,” said Antoinette Ortiz, who’s worked there for 20 years. “They really are such a good bunch.”
Although he’s excited to begin the next phase of his life, Rakita has gotten emotional about leaving his place in the Five Towns, which has left him with so many fond memories. “I had customers come in crying when they saw the sign [that announced his retirement] and of course that brought me to tears too,” he said adding that he stayed away from working on the sale. “When you talk about selling the store, I’m out of it. I can’t deal with that, it’s way too emotional.”