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RACINE — When it came to sales, Racine native Robert Walter “Bob” Buhler had a golden — not silver — tongue.

Years ago, he used considerable charm, flattery and congeniality to sell milk door to door for Racine’s old Marigold Dairy.

In 1966, Buhler channeled his salesmanship and business skills into expanding Open Pantry Food Mart from a single store in Chicago to one of the earliest convenience food store chains in the country.

Buhler, a franchising pioneer who still held the title of chairman emeritus for the company at 93, died Oct. 6 in Tucson, Ariz.

“He was an entrepreneur and a gentleman who loved to bring joy to everyone he met,” according to his obituary. “He would pay a compliment to any stranger or acquaintance, waiter or salesperson.”

Buhler was born in Racine to Walter and Irene (Septon) Buhler. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

He served as president of Marigold Dairy and pioneered the cream-top milk bottle, which uniquely separated milk from cream for use in cooking.

But recognizing that home delivery of milk would soon become obsolete, Buhler helped develop Open Pantry Food Marts into one of the largest convenient food store companies in Wisconsin.

According to a Journal Times story published in 1997, Buhler discovered convenience store franchising by accident. He was looking for a way to market his dairy business when Buhler stopped at an Open Pantry Food Mart in Chicago.

Buhler talked with the Open Pantry owners. Instead of talking him into buying a store, the owners asked him if he would like to become a franchiser, someone who recruited franchisees and developed stores.

They offered him a $1,500 refundable deposit to be the franchiser of Open Pantries in a 14-county area in southeastern Wisconsin. He took the challenge and continued to run the dairy business while recruiting franchisees.

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After developing 12 stores, Buhler gave up the dairy business and moved to franchising full-time.

By 1997, Open Pantry Food Marts of Wisconsin had 40 franchised stores and 15 corporate stores, 30 of them with adjoining gasoline station operations. Annual sales were about $65 million, The Journal Times article said.

All in the family

Eventually Buhler transitioned the responsibilities of the chain to his son, Robert A. Buhler — who worked in his father’s stores as a clerk.

“I grew up as we all grew up, following my father’s good example of work ethic, drive and optimism,” the younger Buhler told The Journal Times in 1997. “All the children in the family have, though not in the convenience food store business, used those important basics, although it is hard to keep up with his drive.”

That drive extended into the elder Buhler’s personal life. He proposed to Eunice Jean Berg after dating her for only three days. They married and stayed together for 53 years.

The couple raised three children: Elizabeth “Betsy” Buhler of New York, Rebecca (Doug) Emmons of Brookfield and Robert (Violetta) Buhler of Lake Forest, Ill.

Aside from working, Buhler was involved in the First Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, the Kiwanis Club of Greater Racine, the Racine Rotary Club, the Racine YMCA, the Racine County Safety Council, and the Chamber of Congress Economics Club of Tucson.

Visitation for Buhler will be held on from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14, at Maresh-Meredith & Acklam Funeral Home, 803 Main St., Racine.

There will be additional visitation at 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at First Presbyterian Church, 716 College Ave., Racine, followed by funeral services at 10:30 a.m. A procession to Graceland Cemetery will follow the service.

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