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Born On One Coast & Based On The Other, Cohn Wholesale Serves Small Towns In Between

Wager Super Foods in Wagner.
Wager Super Foods in Wagner.

Editor’s note: This story is part of the Dakotas Market Profile, which can be found in the February 2018 print edition of The Shelby Report of the Midwest.

by Terrie Ellerbee/editor—Midwest and Southwest

The Cohn name likely is familiar to some in the Midwest, where Cohn Wholesale once operated 20 stores. The family business, however, began in New York with Fred Cohn, who operated a small corner store in Queens. He and his family lived above the store.

When his son, Philip, was ready to make his way in the world, he and his wife Alice headed to the Midwest where they built a chain of grocery store in small towns across six states.

This is a family business whose story started on one coast and now is on the other. Today, Aaron Cohn is the third-generation leader of Cohn Wholesale, and he is based in San Diego, California.

Winner Super Foods in Winner.
Winner Super Foods in Winner.

Of the company’s nine grocery stores, four of them are in South Dakota. They are located in Mission, Pine Ridge, Wagner and Winner. The company just bought the Wagner store about three years ago.

The name of the parent company—Cohn Wholesale—has stuck, but the business today is strictly retail. Cohn is continuing a tradition handed down from his father and grandfather. That’s one reason he hasn’t changed the name.

His father was a truck driver.

“He founded his first store in O’Neill, Nebraska, and the second store in Winner, South Dakota,” Aaron Cohn told The Shelby Report. “He kept his truck driving job and he would work nights at the stores. Instead of taking a salary for that or money for those hours, he would get a small percentage of the business and slowly buy his way into those stores.”

Philip Cohn later got his pilot’s license and bought an airplane that he flew to the towns where the stores were located. The family lived in Sioux City, Iowa, then, and Philip Cohn operated three stores there. Cohn later sold those locations to the store managers.

“I grew up in the business, sweeping the floors and stocking the shelves and carrying out,” Cohn said. “I started working with him on a full-time basis after college. That was around 1974.”

One of the first things he did was bring barcode scanning into every store.

“They were using a price gun, putting a price on every can of peas, every can of corn,” Cohn said. “The first thing that I did was bring a lot more technology to the stores.”

Turtle Creek Crossing Super Foods in Mission.
Turtle Creek Crossing Super Foods in Mission.

The company strives to keep existing stores up to date. The Wagner store it bought a few years ago has been remodeled.

“We always seem to be remodeling and upgrading the technology in the stores. It’s a constant process,” Cohn said. “It keeps your interest in the stores and gets you excited.”

As the company has remodeled its stores, some have changed over to the Super Foods name, said Mike Steckelberg, Cohn Wholesale’s retail director. The store in Wagner now is Wagner Super Foods. Cohn Wholesaler also operates hardware and liquor stores, including Wagner Liquor Store.

Other South Dakota locations are Turtle Creek Crossing Super Foods and Mission Ace Hardware in Mission; Sioux Nation Shopping Center in Pine Ridge; and Outlaw Trading Post and Winner Super Foods in Winner.

Steckelberg, who has been with the company for 25 years, lives in Chamberlain, his hometown.

“I used to be a retail director for a company called United AG, a grocery wholesaler out of Omaha,” Steckelberg said. “They were Aaron’s wholesaler at the time, and he offered me a job working for him. I ended up working better if I was based out of Chamberlain than Omaha, so I moved back home and am kind of centrally located with a lot of the stores.”

In Nebraska, Cohn Wholesale stores include Gordon Super Foods in Gordon, O’Neill Super Foods in O’Neill and Rushville Ideal Market in Rushville.

Some things never change

Every one of Cohn Wholesale’s grocery stores has meat cutters.

“There are companies out there that would supply us with pre-packaged meat from a plant like you see in the big cities and even in some small towns. But we don’t want to go there,” Cohn said. “We’d rather cut it for the customer and try to talk to the customer and see what they want and then adapt it toward what they want and need.”

Small towns deserve that kind of service and more.

About five or so years ago, the company introduced a frequent shopper program.

Cohn Wholesale grocery stores often hold special birthday sales or other promotions through its frequent shopper program.
Cohn Wholesale grocery stores often hold special birthday sales or other promotions through its frequent shopper program.

“That’s been a huge success,” Cohn said. “The customers get free items if they have enough points. Each week it is different. They love them. We also do a lot of drawings and other things through our shopper card for grand openings or birthday sales and other promotions.”

Cohn said economically speaking, South Dakota’s small towns are doing well.

“The environment and the economics are very good. Small towns are strong and the people are resilient,” he said. “They help each other and they shop where they’re getting good service and shop at home.

“I’ve always felt that if you were in a big city, one hot price or one hot promotion could take a customer for a while. But in small towns, if you treat your employees well and your customer well, they’re very loyal and they’re very family-oriented,” he added.

That’s an advantage of being in a small town.

“But it comes down to really the service levels that you provide and treating people respectful and taking care of not only your customers—everybody tries to do that—but taking care of your employees,” Cohn said.

As for online grocery shopping and home delivery, that could come one day. But it is like that pre-packaged meat he mentioned.

“It’s not the same as being able to service them,” he said. “You don’t have the personal interaction when you can’t talk to them and be there for them. You just have a person that drops off five bags of groceries and that’s it, or leaves it at the front door and you pick it up when you get home. It’s very impersonal.”

Personal service has been a staple for the company. If technology is left out of the equation, there is more that hasn’t changed than has in Cohn Wholesale’s business.

“If you do the basics well, I believe you’re going to be successful,” Cohn said. “If you get away from the basics, then there are problems.”

Keep reading:

SpartanNash Reopens Two S. Dakota Stores Under Family Fare Banner

North Dakota Baker Wins IDDBA’s Annual Cake Challenge

The Dakotas 2017 Market Profile

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