The following was originally published in BusinessMonday,
Intelligencer Journal, April 22, 2002, Lancaster, PA
Used with Permission
Ristenbatt clears a path to fame
Intelligencer Journal photo by Dan Marschka
There's not a speck of lint, not a hint of dirt on the carpets
of Ristenbatt Vacuum Cleaner Service's Manheim showroom, and that's
fitting: David Ristenbatt, who's been part of the
operation nearly his whole life, is a member of the Vacuum Cleaner
and Sewing Machine Dealers Hall of Fame. And his business isn't
restricted to the Lancaster area, or even Pennsylvania, anymore.
BY DAVID GRIFFITH
Intelligencer Journal Staff
It's a classic success story - a booming business begun years ago
in a garage.
For David Ristenbatt, it was a defining moment in an 8-year-old
boy's life when his father opened the original Ristenbatt Vacuum
Cleaner Service store. The details of his father's career, which
eventually became his own, get fuzzier the farther back in time he
goes. After all, David was only 3 months old when his father, S. E.
Ristenbatt, sold his first Air-Way vacuum door-to-door. That was in
For the next eight years the elder Ristenbatt worked full time as
a millwright at Trojan Boat, canvassing neighborhoods selling vacuums
in his off hours. A back injury sidelined him, however, and in March,
1957 he decided he enjoyed working with vacuum cleaners enough to go
into business for himself.
He bought a stand at Green Dragon Market in Ephrata, then opened a
couple more market stands. About two years later, the basement of the
Ristenbatt home in Manheim was turned into a workshop and half of the
two-car garage made the perfect, if modest, salesroom.
Today, David Ristenbatt is listed in the Vacuum Cleaner and Sewing
Machine Dealers Hall of Fame. His company boasts two stores and a
pair of market stands, all offering what Ristenbatt says is
Lancaster's most diverse selection of vacuum and steam cleaners, with
more than 75 models on display.
Ristenbatt was nominated for a place in the hall of fame by the
Eureka Company. He was inducted in 1995. The hall of fame was
established just a year earlier, and now includes 115 members. To be
inducted, a dealer must have more than 20 years of experience, and
have conducted his or her business in a way the Vacuum Dealers Trade
Association considers positive.
David Ristenbatt has trouble recalling exactly when he learned
what about vacuum cleaners, because he grew up tinkering with
customers' machines. He knows that by the time he was 12, his father
counted on him as a part-time employee. "I basically grew up in the
business. I learned it by growing up in it, and working on
(cleaners). I'm very mechanically inclined. I'm also a techie," he
said. "Initially, my father taught me what he learned, but he learned
it all on his own, too."
David Ristenbatt said he remembers a day when his father doubled
the size of that first store by tearing out a partition in the
garage. "In 1966, we more than doubled our size again when we built
the Manheim store adjacent to our home, but facing Route 72," he
A second store was opened in 1971, inside a renovated BP gas
station on Lincoln Highway East, once again doubling the size of the
business. He called that move a major step because it brought the
business closer to Lancaster and its population. "That was a big
move for us at the time," he said. "My father's goal was to make our
stores as warm and inviting as possible, well lit, clean and nicely
In addition to the two stores, at 1038 Lancaster Road in Manheim
and 1724 Lincoln Highway East near Lancaster, the company maintains a
stand at Green Dragon on Fridays, and Roots Country Market on
Customers are welcome to try as many machines as they like,
choosing from manufacturers like Miele, Lindhaus, SEBO, Hoover,
Eureka, Panasonic, Royal and Shop-Vac.
Prices range from less than $100 for a Eureka upright, to more
than $1,000 for a Miele, a Germany-made machine Ristenbatt said is
worth every penny. "They're very good machines, very quiet and yet
powerful," he said. "We sell a lot of vacuums around the $200 to $300
range. The Hoover WindTunnel's very popular."
Ristenbatt's induction into the vacuum hall of fame in 1995
coincided with the company's entry into cyberspace. Ristenbatt said a
year later, his company was one of the first vacuum dealers to appear
on the Internet and utilize the online frontier as a marketing tool.
"We were on the Web even before most of our manufacturers," he said.
The company's Web site, www.ristenbatt.com, offers Facts About
Vacs, a comprehensive site including articles about performance,
efficiency, construction and design of vacuum cleaners, along with
detailed descriptions of what Ristenbatt recommends and sells.
"Early on I realized that we could present much more information
to the public on the Web than we could in any other media,"
Ristenbatt, who developed and continually updates the site, said.
A Web site is never done. It has almost become like a hobby to me
since I invested so much of my personal time working on it. People
are very impressed with the amount of information on our site."
Ristenbatt said the site generates sales from around the world,
and he enjoys receiving e-mail inquiries from prospective buyers.
"With the Internet, it keeps us more price-conscious. I put
thousands of hours in the Web site," he said. "I spend a lot of time
doing it, and I thoroughly enjoy it. I enjoy computer programming,
too. I never went to college, but I never stopped learning, either."
Ristenbatt said prices of vacuum cleaners are about the same as
they were 20 years ago, making for a tough marketplace. "We have to
be competitive with the department stores and those guys," he said.
"We are typically going to spend between a half-hour and an hour with
a customer. They get to talk to someone who can answer their
questions. "It's tough, because your overhead goes up. Labor rates
have gone up some. You basically have to do it in more volume." he
And in a throwaway society, many consumers prefer a less-expensive
vacuum cleaner and are happy with the three to five years they get
from it. A mid-priced vacuum, like the Hoover WindTunnel that sells
for $250 or so, will last five to seven years, Ristenbatt said.
"The days of doing the complete overhaul, where you tear a motor
apart, which you used to do every five to seven years, you don't do
that anymore because it's too labor-intensive, and most vacuums
aren't worth it," he said. "We don't do nearly the repairs we used to
do at our Lancaster store, but in Manheim we do. Here we have more of
an agrarian, rural clientele, and they tend to buy the better
products. In Lancaster you have the more urban clientele, a lot of
times lower income.
David Ristenbatt's role in the business, which was incorporated in
1979, gradually became larger. And he took over management when his
father died in 1980, although his mother, Mabel, was president for a
few years. It remains a family operation, with David's sister, Ruth
Burkholder, handling accounting for the company on a part-time basis,
and his son and daughter, Daniel and Debra, as full-time employees.
David's wife, Donna, also has helped out.
In all, the company employs eight people full time, all of whom
are both technicians and sales representatives. "We pay our
employees better than most of the competition, and that way we have
good long-term employees," Ristenbatt said. "Most of our employees
have 10 or more years here. It's efficient because although we could
pay a salesperson less, the nice thing is, when a customer comes into
the store, they're talking to someone who really, really knows the
Ristenbatt himself has always had a fascination with electronic
and computers. "Today, geeks rule the world," he said. A ham radio
operator, Ristenbatt was licensed by the Federal Communications
Commission in the 1970s to work on radio and television transmitters.
He is a member of a small corporation which owns an FM translator,
which rebroadcasts signals to the Lancaster area from Christian radio
station WKDN in Camden, N.J.
Ristenbatt's love for technical things has paid off for his
company, which now sells a third of its cleaners over the Internet.
"It's a blessing for us I never expected," he said. "We offer free
shipping and we have competitive prices, but it's because of our
expertise. It really shows us as vacuum cleaner experts."
Ristenbatt said most Internet buyers are in the market for a good,
durable machine, but many are also shopping electronically because
it's easier in some ways. Often, after viewing the Web site, customers
use a toll-free number to call and ask more questions.
"We're used to hopping in the car and being at a store in a half
hour or less," Ristenbatt said. "In a lot of areas, you have to drive
farther to get to a major store or city. It is a convenience factor.
Plus, we have a very liberal 15-day return policy. All they pay is the
shipping back to us.
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Mr. Ristenbatt Honored by Vacuum Industry's Hall of Fame