Rosko the Reindeer Retailer

Oh, deer: Customers hoof it to rural store with North Pole magic.

Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

Article Preview: 

Rich Rosko smiles over the counter of his convenience store in rural Illinois, chatting with a customer and her children.

“Do they fly?” asks one kid, pointing to the photo on the wall of Rosko bottlefeeding a reindeer calf outside the store.

Rosko chuckles. “Only on Christmas Eve,” he says, watching as the little boy’s eyes go wide.

“Are you Santa?” the boy asks.

Rosko’s pointer fi nger rises to his lips. “Shhhhhhh!” The kids erupt into fi ts of giggles. Rosko’s Reindeer Mart is just off Route 173 in the Village of Wadsworth, a small community between Milwaukee and Chicago.

“It’s a real country-type town,” says Rosko, who’s lived in the area for 30 years and opened his c-store there three years ago. “It’s full of blue-collar people, good people—the kind who care about supporting family businesses.”

That, and reindeer. Rosko’s store is appreciated for its family staff: Daughter Danielle manages the store and wife Karen works there occasionally. But it’s famous for the seven live reindeer that serve as the store’s mascots. Rosko and his son, John, are caretakers to two male “bulls” and fi ve female “cows” and, boy, do they cause a stir in Wadsworth.

“People absolutely love them,” Rosko says.

During mating season, the reindeer live in a 100-year-old dairy barn on Rosko’s 6-acre property, but several times a year the animals are kept in a pen at the c-store: in August, when the animals’ antlers are at their fullest growth; and in December, for obvious reasons.

“We put signs up so customers know when they’re coming, and literally hundreds of people show up on those days to see them and take photos,” Rosko says.

And, on those days, business gets better. Rosko says he sees a 30% increase in sales when the reindeer are at the store. They’re curious animals, he says, and they know their own names: Canaan, White Pine, Norway, Noble, Angelina, Balsam and Clarice. Many of the reindeer were named by contest winners. “We ask customers to submit names, and we give gas gift cards to the ones whose names we choose,” says Rosko, who is currently looking for input from customers for a new store slogan. “ ‘Fly On In’ is what we’ve got now, but it needs some work.”

Customers love the contests almost as much as they love watching the reindeer eat treats. If you whistle, they’ll come on over and eat out of your hand. “They’ll eat any dried fruit, but they go crazy for raisins,” Rosko says. “They’ll buck me for raisins.”

Rosko’s enthusiasm for the animals beams through in his voice. He talks about the creatures as if they were his own children.

“Nutrition is so important,” he says. “I try to always feed them on third-cutting alfalfa hay and Purina chow. … If they’ve got a great set of antlers, they’re very healthy.”

He makes sure the animals have fans to keep them comfortable in summer months, and he watches with delight as they enjoy their winter prime.

“They love the cold weather,” Rosko says. “If it’s freezing—20-below wind chill— they’re sleeping outside and loving it.”

Rosko gushes about the “wonder” of the live birth of Clarice he captured on camera and gleefully anticipates the birth of more calves in the spring. He can talk forever about the nuances of the personalities of each of his animals (“The baby bull think’s he’s the boss”) and tell you every detail of the antler shedding cycle. In short, Rich Rosko is a passionate man.

And What About Retailing?

Rosko started off as a bagger in a Dominick’s, a big Chicago grocery chain. He worked his way up through the grocery business to the managerial level and did Christmas tree farming on the side. And what’s a good Christmas tree farm without a few reindeer?

“When we bought the gas station three years ago, we thought, ‘What a perfect complement to it all,’ ” he says.

Being relatively new to the industry, Rosko says his supplier, State Oil Co., has been a wonderful resource: “They really have been excellent in guiding us through decisions and helping us grow.” What Rosko doesn’t know about gas, he makes up for inside the store. His experience in the grocery industry has proved to be invaluable to his successful transition to c-stores, because, he says, “Everybody knows that in convenience, you make your money on the inside of your store.”

As a grocer, Rosko knows the importance of making sure everything, especially dairy and deli items, looks fresh and “bountiful.” “When you walk into a store and the cooler and shelves aren’t full, you start thinking, ‘How long has this can been here?’ ” Rosko says.

 He makes sure his shelves are full and everything is in stock. He’s always open to stocking products requested by customers and offering the newest items on the market. He is certain to sell automotive products, and does a good job with lottery ticket sales, but his bread and butter is beer, wine and liquor.

“We’re in a city that’s kind of dry,” he says. “We have bars, but other than big grocery chains, nobody sells alcohol. We’re on the outskirts of a pretty religious town and most of the mini-marts can’t get licensed.”

That advantage is a big one. Beer, wine and liquor do a lot to boost his overall sales. And when you combine a liquor license with the curious draw of live reindeer, an average c-store becomes a Christmas miracle.

Rosko’s holiday cheer blossomed into a new business venture, but he didn’t stop there. The Village of Wadsworth has asked him to bring the reindeer to treelighting ceremonies, and he’s more than happy to oblige. The reindeer have made Rosko and his family famous.

“I just want to be innovative,” he says. “You try to find something that no one has ever done. You can get gas and beer anywhere. You have to stand out.”

Rosko owns just one station now, but he’s looking to expand. And it’s a good thing, too: After a new round of calves next spring, he’ll have a new store’s worth of mascots. 

The Reindeer Lineup

Rich Rosko is one creature short of a fleet fit for Santa. The reindeer names:

1. Canaan 2. White Pine 3. Norway 4. Noble 5. Angelina 6. Balsam 7. Clarice 

Rosko’s Reindeer Mart

Who: Richard (Rich) Rosko Where: Wadsworth, Ill. Years in Business: 3 Main Draw: Live reindeer outside the store 

Click here to download full article