Service-oriented Bluffton alumnus brings values into his businesses

By Kiera Suffel

If you’ve ever been to the Shannon Theatre, Shirley’s Gourmet Popcorn Company or Common Grounds Coffeehouse and Café, you might have been acquainted with Pete Suter since he has connections to those local businesses. Not only that, he was a student at Bluffton College and has also been a faculty and staff member at the university.

Suter grew up in Bluffton and started working at the movie theatre in town while he was in high school. He enjoyed working there and

Shannon Theatre and Shirley's popcorn represent the embodiment of the values Bluffton alumnus Pete Suter brings to his businesses. Photo by Kiera Suffel

Shannon Theatre and Shirley’s popcorn represent the embodiment of the values Bluffton alumnus Pete Suter brings to his businesses. Photo by Kiera Suffel

continued to after high school. He had thoughts of buying the theatre then, but the timing wasn’t right yet.

Suter graduated from Bluffton College in 1994 with a double major in accounting and business administration. He is a third generation Bluffton College graduate, with his father and grandparents graduating from here as well.

Suter met his wife, Kim, while in college and they married in 1996. In 1997, the two started Common Grounds Coffeehouse and Café where Bluffton Karate Center is now.

They sold the café and bought the Shannon Theatre around the same time. The theatre was always something he had wanted to own.

“Bluffton is a really special place, and it’s hard to find another community like it,” said Suter. “Most people don’t recognize that until they leave. I was fortunate enough to have a great mentor (Fred Rodabaugh) who helped me see Bluffton’s value when I was still in college.”

The theatre was a great hit for them, but they could not expand it much more. The popcorn sold at the concessions was very popular, and people would come to buy it even when they weren’t seeing a movie. People’s interest in the popcorn sparked the Suter’s idea to start a business with gourmet popcorn.

Shirley’s was created in 2007. It is named for the ticket cashier at the movie theatre who worked there for more than 25 years. In 2012, the Suters started to consider the franchising concept. In 2014, Shirley’s opened its second store in Maumee, Ohio. Then in the following years opened franchises in Findlay, Ohio; Westerville, Ohio; Lima, Ohio; and Harrisonburg, Va. The Maumee and Harrisonburg stores were opened by Bluffton University graduates, and the Findlay store was opened by a Bluffton University professor.

“The morals of the business are unlike any others that I have worked for,” said Hannah Brown, a freshman from Findlay, Ohio, who works at Shirley’s. “They genuinely care about the customers and their experience.”

Suter was a professor at Bluffton University until 2013. Before that, he joined the Advancement department at the university. He soon became a faculty member in an interim role teaching finance. During that time, he was also working on getting his doctorate in marketing. He was eventually promoted to a full-time professor of marketing with tenure.

Suter said he reached a point where he felt he needed to give something up. He didn’t have enough time to be a good family man, a good business man and a good professor. He decided to resign as a professor to spend more time with family and to continue building their business.

Suter said he has given up big opportunities, such as expanding Shirley’s internationally, because he wants to keep growing slowly and stay domestic right now. He also said a goal for the future is to open two to four stores a year east of the Mississippi River.

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