Wednesday, December 11, 2002

British food found among these aisles

Harry and Sheila Caswell realized an American Dream by opening a Dayton area shop for plum puddings, kidney pies and other treats

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It looks like Christmas in another country at Harry Caswell's store.

[photo] Wise Choice is in a strip mall in Huber Heights, Ohio.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
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When visitors open the door at Wise Choice in Huber Heights, they are greeted with a near-tumbling mountain of colorful holiday goodies from Great Britain: plum puddings, stockings stuffed with chocolates, mince pies, treacle tarts and more. It's a pile of sweet treasures beyond Tiny Tim's wildest dreams.

"Come on in, lad, shouts the owner from behind the register.

A native of Wales who immigrated here 33 years ago, Mr. Caswell is the short gentleman in the gray argyle sweater with silver hair and eyebrows that arch happily when he smiles.

"We have a compact space," Mr. Caswell says in his lyrical accent, arms folded. "But we get a lot in here."

His store sits between a camera shop and tax service in a dreary strip shopping center in this suburb, northeast of Dayton. But those looking for a taste of Great Britain, including Australians, Indians and South Africans, have learned to find Wise Choice. The store's name is an acronym derived from the first letters of each of the British Isles: Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England. The flags of the four countries are displayed on a wall inside, including the striking red dragon on green and white background of Wales.

[photo] Harry Caswell sells everything from British meat pies to English china.
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"It came to me one night," Mr. Caswell says. "And when I told my wife the next morning I wanted to name the place Wise Choice, all she could say was, `What the hell does that mean?'"

They come from as far as Columbus and Indianapolis to search the shelves. If the Queen were visiting Dayton, this is where Her Majesty would come for a jar of double-Devon cream.

But customers flock here not only for their steak and kidney pies and Irish bacon, they come to talk about home. Sometimes, when business slows, Mr. Caswell offers customers a chair and brews them a proper cup of tea. It's important to be comfortable for a nice chat.

"There's an Irish woman who comes in who has lived in the States for 60 years," says Greg Mackenzie, a clerk at Wise Choice. "It's funny how she still talks about Ireland as home."

Wise Choice British Foods, Gifts & Candies
Where: 6155 Brandt Pike Huber Heights, Ohio, (937) 236-8153
Open: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday; and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
Browsing the aisles: Christmas chocolates and other candies; Cadbury biscuit collections; Welsh Hills Iced Rich Slab Christmas Cake; Jacobs of Ireland Afternoon Tea cookies; Hoppers Mince pies and treacle tarts; Mathew Walker Plum Puddings; frozen Yorkshire pudding and banger rolls; crumpets; English and Irish butter; clotted cream; Irish bacon; frozen haggis; English, Scottish and Irish tea.
Mr. Caswell's late wife, Sheila, was a wonderful cook. One of his favorite holiday dishes was her roasted picnic shoulder with crispy potatoes cooked in the same pan with the pork. Another was mashed rutabagas, a tuber commonly called "Swedes'' in Great Britain.

Sheila's Roasted Potatoes
• 6 all-purpose potatoes, peeled
• About 6 tablespoons pork fat or vegetable shortening
Bring pot of salted water to boil and simmer potatoes until nearly cooked through. Drain potatoes and cut in half or into thick slices.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Roast potatoes in fat or shortening until crisp on both sides, about 30 to 45 minutes. (Or roast potatoes in same pan with pork loin or shoulder.) Remove with slotted spoon, drain and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Mashed Swedes
• 1 large rutabaga, peeled and cubed
• 2 to 4 tablespoons butter
• Salt and pepper to taste
Simmer cubed rutabaga in salted water until soft. Drain well and add butter. Mash by hand until smooth and season with salt and pepper. Serve with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Makes 2 to 4 servings.

But Mr. MacKenzie also sometimes feels the pangs of homesickness. He moved to Dayton from his native South Africa only a year ago. He heard about Wise Choice and came in looking for Vegemite, a dark brown, salty paste used as a spread for toast. He struck up a friendship with Mr. Caswell and stayed on to work, while studying to be certified as a physical therapist in Indiana.

"That's what this place is all about," Mr. MacKenzie says. "Home.''

Retail mission

The idea of opening a British foods shop in the Dayton area came from Mr. Caswell's late wife, Sheila

"This was all for her," he says. "Sheila wanted to be independent. It was her dream."

The Caswells opened the store in 1997, but Mrs. Caswell died three years later from lung cancer.

"She was happy while she was here," Mr. Caswell says.

After her death, he kept the store open with the help of employees. And in May, Mr. Caswell retired from his job as an engineer at Delphi Automotive Systems in Dayton to work at Wise Choice full-time.

His retail mission is simple: Import the British foods that aren't available in American groceries. And provide personable service to customers.

"That's what people want these days," Mr. Caswell says. "Good service."

Sales have an increased 80 percent, this year, he says, and much of that growth is due to a new Wise Choice Web site. An English friend designed the Web site, which was posted this summer. Customers around the world can now go on line, buy their favorite food and have it shipped anywhere. In fact, Mr. Caswell has already received orders from customers in Great Britain who want to ship gifts to friends and relatives living in America.

Mr. Caswell credits his parents for any success he has enjoyed in life. He grew up in a small coal-mining village in South Wales called Cwmgwrach ("Valley of the Witches"), but his father was determined his son wouldn't work in the mines. At age 15, his parents sent him to apprentice as a machinist.

"My father worked in the coal mines for awhile and drove an ambulance," Mr. Caswell says. "He had seen the awful things that happen down there.''

[photo] English candies are sold in Christmas packaging
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Like most others in the village, the Caswells were poor. They certainly didn't enjoy the kind of treats he sells at his store. Mr. Caswell remembers he and his four older sisters eating roasted goose at the family's modest Christmas celebrations. The best gift he received as a child was a wooden sled his father made using oak timbers from the mines.

"He could build anything," Mr. Caswell says.

He met his wife-to-be at a rugby dance in the village. He was 23; Sheila was 18.

"I had been watching her for months, but I was too shy then to ask her to dance," Mr. Caswell says. "So one night, I just nodded to her to follow me to the door and she did. She had been watching me all that time, too. She was a typical beautiful Welsh girl."

The couple soon married, and less than 10 years later, Mr. Caswell decided to move to the United States with his wife, 11/2 year-old son, Rans, and 3-month-old daughter, Sian. Mr. Caswell's oldest sister, Fay, moved to America to marry a serviceman in 1947, and his three other sisters followed later.

"My mother didn't want to see us all go, but she knew we could find a better life here," Mr. Caswell says.

In 1969, he and his wife moved to Detroit, where Fay lived. Two years later, the Caswells moved to Dayton for Harry's job with Delphi.

Living the dream

[photo] Commemorative china celebrates the Queen's jubilee.
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For nearly 15 years, Sheila delivered newspapers and worked other odd jobs around Dayton. But for years, she talked about opening a British foods store. The Caswells first heard about the opportunity to buy an existing store's stock in December 1996. They opened Wise Choice six months later.

"Sheila was there from the beginning,'' Mr. Caswell says. "This became her full-time job.''

She continued to work, ordering stock and chatting with customers, until her cancer struck in December 1999. She died less than a year later.

"The cancer came from her smoking,'' Mr. Caswell says. "I tried to convince her to stop for years.''

So now, with the help of Mr. Mackenzie and two other clerks, English immigrant Daphne White and Aoife Butterly from Ireland , Mr. Caswell lives his wife's dream.

"I meet so many nice people here,'' he says.

It all could've ended two months ago, when an arson fire at the rear of the store caused severe smoke damage. The police woke Mr. Caswell at 1 a.m. Oct. 1 to tell him his store was on fire. Now, he admits he thought about just taking his losses early that morning, and not reopening Wise Choice.

"But I couldn't do that," he says. "What would I do? Retire? You can't go on vacation forever."

So Mr. Caswell replaced the damaged stock, and repaired the building. He reopened the store in early November, in time to bring in all those holiday goodies from across the water.

He knows it's what Sheila would want.

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