Sharon Cassella has been ensconced in Amador County’s business community even as she was growing up in the 1970s. She has been well-known in Jackson for many years and was also the owner of Strings Italian Café in Martell until two years ago. I talked with Cassella a couple of weeks ago about her history in the county and her current work as an agent for Primerica Financial Services.
Cassella was born and spent her early years in Sacramento, but her family moved to the Midwest when she was five years old. When she was 12, her family moved to Amador County so her father could help take care of his mother who lived in San Andreas. After a few years, Cassella’s parents decided to start the Home and Farm Supply store in 1975 in the location once occupied by a gas station and occupied today by Davenport Properties.
“When my parents opened the Home and Farm Supply store,” Cassella explained, I always went to work with them. As I grew up and loved it so much, I wanted to open my own business.” The business was originally a butcher supply shop, and her father went on the road to sell butcher supplies such as knives, scales, and butcher paper. Cassella’s mother persuaded her husband to let her put some decorative copper items into a room in the front of the store that came to be called the copper room.
Over time, Cassella added, the popularity of the copper items led her parents to expand into offering kitchen items. Though the name of the business remained Home & Farm Kitchen Supply, it was also dubbed The Biggest Little Kitchen Store. “When my parents retired,” she said, “my sister took over and she bought the building they’re in today.” That building at 165 Main Street once housed the Pizza Factory, and Cassella’s sister now runs the business.
Working at The Biggest Little Kitchen Store gave Cassella the itch to start her own business, especially after she graduated from Amador High School. By the time she was 23, she was already married with two kids but still had to scratch that itch. She met the woman who was operating The Candelier, a candle-making shop that provided candles to homes, businesses, and churches, at 170 Main Street in Jackson. The owner’s husband had died, and she wanted to retire as a result.
After Cassella looked over the business’s financials, she decided to buy the business and the building. “The landlord charged me such a low rent that I was able to stay in business,” she said. Cassella not only sold candles but also a lot of party items and gifts to create JB’s Party and Gift Shop. The business did well, but one day it faced a serious threat: Walmart announced that it was going to open a store in Martell.
Before Walmart opened its doors, Cassella said the Chamber of Commerce and Walmart representatives started to hold some seminars at the Jackson Civic Center about how to do business with Walmart. “My big takeaway from those seminars,” she noted,” was to create something with labor because Walmart won’t do that.”
Cassella told a story that drove the point home. “One customer came in looking for My Little Pony napkins at JB’s, and I told her we had the napkins and a lot of other My Little Pony items,” she said. “The customer told me she already bought all the other items at Walmart but she only came to JB’s because Walmart didn’t have any napkins. That was devastating.”
Do the Work
So, Cassella explained, she had to evolve or die. “If I had stuck with balloons and party supplies, you can go into Walmart and get all that stuff,” she said. “Being a small-town store, I was better off changing over to something with labor.” She started by purchasing the Huntley Trophy Shop on California Street around the corner from JB’s. Then, she trained an engraver who was recently laid off from the Martell lumber mill to provide engraving services.
And JB’s evolved from there. “I bought my own embroidery machine to do embroidered clothing,” Cassella said, “and over time JB’s could do custom rubber stamps, custom trophies, engraving, embroidery, screen printing—everything that required labor that Walmart would never do.” As JB’s expanded its services, she changed the business name to JB’s Awards and Engraving.
Once Cassella established her new services, she sold her party business to a Sacramento company so she could focus on JB’s and another new venture. “I created an online tea business until it got so busy that I didn’t have time to ship products, so I sold that business to a couple in Sutter Creek,” she explained. After 25 years of building JB’s and running her online tea business on the side, she was interested in a new challenge. Rather, three new challenges.
The Unexpected Restaurateur
The first business area Cassella looked into was financial services. “I never got go to college because I got married really young,” she said, “but learning was something I really like, and I met somebody who said I can learn financial services and get licensed.” She realized she couldn’t run JB’s and train to become a certified financial agent, so she sold JB’s and devoted her time to her training.
“I thought, ‘well, learning is learning,’ and I liked it really well,” Cassella said. She obtained her certification and became a licensed agent of Primerica Financial Services. She started at Primerica by working in an office in Sacramento even though she lived in Jackson.
As Cassella started to work to build up her Primerica business, she purchased a Strings Italian Café franchise restaurant with a partner. The restaurant opened in 2007 in the Amador Shopping Plaza in Martell, and Cassella planned to be a minority owner and let her partner run the restaurant.
Seven months after the restaurant opened, the partner decided running a restaurant wasn’t for him and Cassella had to take over the operation. “I had Strings for 11 years while I kept perfecting my financial company,” she said. “I finally decided that if I sold Strings, I would just do financial services 100 percent.”
In 2019, Cassella approached the owner of the Strings restaurant in Lodi, which is the top performer in the franchise, to buy the Martell restaurant. The owner initially refused, but she convinced him to come up to Martell and look at the restaurant, and once he saw it he bought it. As of September 2019, the Lodi owner’s son Jared now owns the Martell restaurant and recently remodeled its interior.
While Cassella owned the Strings franchise, she also purchased the nearby Baskin-Robbins franchise location with her daughter Jenny. Today, Jenny and her three children operate that ice cream parlor.
Helping the Community
After Cassella sold the Strings restaurant, she set up her own Primerica branch at the northeast corner of Highway 49 and 88 in Jackson. She now has 15 full-time agents and another 115 part-time representatives working from home through her office, and the office itself has brought attention. “I don’t think a day goes by that somebody doesn’t pop in and say they’ve been a client of Primerica for years and can you help us with our account,” she noted. “I get a lot of new clients that way, too.”
Cassella described Primerica this way: “I always say it’s like three businesses in one—insurance, investing, and mortgages. Three major industries all in one.” Primerica represents more than a few major companies like TD Ameritrade, Franklin Templeton, Fidelity, and Rocket Mortgage, and they focus on serving middle-income families by meeting with clients after business hours so clients don’t have to juggle their schedules. For businesses, Cassella said they offer retirement plans including 401(k) and SEP IRA plans.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, Cassella said, “I locked myself in my office, put my head down, and worked to help my customers.” A lot of her work in the county involves education. “One of the challenges I have is having people understand that GoFundMe is not life insurance,” she asserted. “I’d also like to see families understand from a young age to start saving and save consistently until retirement.”
Established in Jackson
Cassella has lived in Pine Grove, Ione, and Jackson, and she lives in Jackson now. “I’m happy to have my business in Jackson,” she said. Even so, she knows the city has challenges in attracting business, but she noted the city can take cues from nearby cities. “When you go to Sutter Creek, you see a lot of things the town did to enhance business,” Cassella said. “I think that Jackson can do some of that.”
She also pointed to homelessness as the biggest challenge and suggested why that is. “The fact that we have so many homeless people in Jackson that Sutter Creek doesn’t have is because of the services here,” she noted. “Jackson has always been the service town because we have the banks, the grocery stores, and the hospital.”
Despite Jackson’s challenges, she’s optimistic about the city’s business future. “I’m one of these people who sees what happened with COVID has given opportunities for new businesses and new ideas to come in. Sometimes they couldn’t come in because there were no storefronts,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunities right now.”
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