Pronto convenience store sees change in ownership

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The Elkader Area Chamber of Commerce recently welcomed Sylvester CJ’s Convenience. Board Members Ron Kuehl and Sara Hertrampf are pictured with new owner Joe Sylvester (center). (Submitted photo)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

As one journey ends, another begins, and that’s how it went for Elkader native Joe Sylvester. The born and raised Central graduate has deep roots and a deep affection for the community, having never left and proudly choosing, along with his wife, Tammy, to raise their children here. 

“We love this community and how everyone comes together when things get tough,” Joe said. 

Recently, things did get tough, and a family journey that began in 1959 came to a sad end, as the bowling alley, CJ Lanes, officially closed. Bought by Joe’s grandfather in 1959, Joe had worked there since the 1980s, when his parents took it over, before eventually assuming ownership with Tammy in 2000. The place had been a part of his life since he was born, and then, it was gone. 

“Everyone has been very understanding, but also a little bummed. I think a lot of people have great memories,” Joe said. 

The closing revolved around a couple of things. The first involved money, and for bowling alleys, this has been a reality since the late-1970s. 

“There is a lot of overhead with running a bowling center [and] there are a lot of centers that are or have been struggling or closing the doors,” Joe said.

The numbers support the stark financial reality facing bowling alleys and the declining participation among the general public. For example, an article in Bloomberg found that, in the late 1970s, over nine million Americans belonged to bowling leagues. As of 2017-2018, just 1.34 million did. Additionally, according to the United States Bowling Congress, membership has declined 83 percent since its peak in 1978-1979. 

But it wasn’t just about the money for Joe; there was something more personal that led to the decision. Something was suddenly missing after all those years of going to work, first as a young kid then on through adulthood. That something was his mom, who he worked with almost every day. After the “backbone of the place” passed away, “things were just not the same anymore,” he said. “I guess my heart just wasn’t in it as much as it was before her passing.” 

“We miss the bowling alley. We made so many good friends and had so many good times,” Joe added. 

Though there is no more bowling alley, fortunately, friends and memories travel. 

Even as that journey came to an end, a new one was about to begin. Originally, Joe was just going to concentrate on the real estate business as Tammy continued working at the sheriff’s office. Buying another business wasn’t really on the radar, but an opportunity arose. It was an unexpected one, though not too unexpected given Joe’s love for dealing with the public, a need to stay busy and history of being a business owner and manager. In hindsight, the new journey seems, well, expected. 

“We didn’t plan on buying another business, but I’m glad we did,” Joe said. 

That business turned out to be Pronto, which has been rechristened CJs Convenience. The transition to ownership has been rather easy. The Zapfs, the former owners, “have been so helpful,” Joe said. 

What has been difficult, besides the new morning hours and not having summers off, is the day to day minutiae, such as learning the rules and regulations for the gas portion of the business. Even with this, the staff, especially store manager Paula Scherf, have been excellent help. 

“Paula is my right hand and knows all the ins and outs of the store. I’m so thankful she is here,” Joe said. 

Together, they work as a team to continue what the Zapfs started, which is a business with a great customer base, loyalty, and according to Joe, “awesome!” 

“I love the little group that hangs out in the early morning. You would be surprised how much wisdom there is at that time of day,” Joe said. 

Moving forward on this journey, Joe has no desire to try to fix what isn’t broken, and he really just wants to keep the “good thing” the Zapfs had going and to let the public know that they—Joe and Tammy—“appreciate all of you.” 

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