When coffee was sold door to door

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By Marcie Harrison

It was 1908. The first Model T rolled off the assembly line and sold for $850. William Taft was elected president and Jack Johnson became the new heavyweight champion. The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research has made an astonishing prediction: one day it will be possible to replace diseased organs with healthy ones. It was also the year a young Lithuanian immigrant opened a small retail grocery store in Chicago that would one day become the largest out-of-home coffee roaster in the country.

Harry Cohn, at the age of 18 with his cousin, Walter Katzoff, founded The Superior Tea & Coffee Company. They had very little capital, but lots of enthusiasm and a willingness to work hard. Located on Chicago’s west side at Roosevelt Road and Kedzie Avenue, the little shop sold tea, coffee, butter, eggs, and spices.

Aggressive and hungry for success, the two young men came up with the original idea of ​​establishing a home delivery service rather than waiting for customers to enter their store.

In the beginning, Mr. Cohn personally delivered all orders – on foot. But as the business grew, the store made its first major acquisition – a horse and cart. In 1914, the wagon cost $203.50 and came with a one-year warranty. Like most entrepreneurs, Cohn and Katzoff worked long hours, teaching housewives the benefits of in-home service. In fact, Mr. Cohn admitted to never taking a vacation in the first ten years he was in business.

From the start of World War I to the Great Depression was an extremely prosperous time in the United States and that was certainly true for Superior Tea & Coffee. In 1916 the company moved to a larger facility at 3637 W. Ogden Avenue. In the early 1920s, a fleet of orange and blue trucks replaced horses and wagons, allowing Superior to deliver coffee to homes as far away as Milwaukee.

In the 1930s, during the Depression, customers could no longer easily afford the many items they once relished. For the first time, Superior, like so many other companies, lost money. Not to be discouraged, Harry Cohn’s business acumen guided the company into two new areas that would chart Superior Tea & Coffee’s future direction and secure its leadership position in the coffee industry.

First, the company began to focus on door-to-door sales for the benefit of restaurants and institutional sales. Equally important, Superior has started roasting its own coffee. Mixing varieties according to personal taste, they offered customers a choice of four or five varieties.

As the country emerged from the Depression in 1936, Superior moved to a larger facility at 2010 W. Lake Street. Three years later, Earl Cohn, Harry’s son joined the family business.

At the start of World War II, coffee, like so many other commodities, was rationed and Superior saw its green coffee supply drop by more than 30% and its consumption drop. In response to these economic challenges, Superior sold its retail accounts, focusing entirely on institutional sales. To increase her income, she runs her own brewing equipment allowing the company to position itself as a single source of coffee. The company helped the war effort by supplying coffee to Illinois Army bases at Ft. Sheridan in Lake Forest and Camp Grant near Rockford.

Benefiting from the post-war boom, Superior expanded its routes to nine, including Wisconsin and Indiana. With business growing, the company moved its roasting plant and headquarters to 2278 N. Elston, Chicago and continued to expand by purchasing adjacent property.

In 1951, Harry’s other son, Sanford, joined the company full-time as first vice-president. Additional sales personnel were added, allowing Superior to expand geographically. The company’s expansion continued for more than 20 years through acquisitions and the creation of a food division.

The post-war boom gave birth to a new industry: retail. Recognizing a tremendous business opportunity, Superior’s research staff began working with vending machine manufacturers to help perfect a special coffee grind and roast specifically for the developed vending machines.

In 1966, the acquisition of King Coffee Company of Detroit, considered Michigan’s largest coffee company, was an important step in helping Superior become a nationwide foodservice provider. Superior could now serve new customers throughout the eastern part of the United States. The acquisition gave the company the Café Royal® coffee blend which has become one of the company’s best-selling restaurant roasts.

1968 was a memorable year as Superior Coffee celebrated its 60th anniversary at Sherman House. Among the special guests were members of the Cohn family: Mrs. Harry Cohn and Mrs. Walter Katzoff, wives of the founders. Earl and Sanford Cohn, son of Harry and Jack Russcol, son-in-law of Walter Katzoff. In honor of its 60th anniversary, Superior released a booklet of gourmet coffee recipes and asked chefs and housewives what their favorite uses for coffee were. Some of the suggestions included washing faded nylons in coffee to make them look like new or using coffee as a hair lotion and even taking a coffee bath for an artificial tan.

In March 1970, the first shipment of Kona Coffee arrived in New Orleans. Considered one of the best coffees in the world, it was the only coffee grown in the United States. The company purchased nearly all of the 1970 Kona crop, valued at over $2 million. Superior’s potential impact on Hawaii’s economic health was recognized by the Governor who declared August 9-15 Kona Coffee Week and officially thanked Superior for its efforts to improve the Kona coffee industry in Hawaii.

Superior’s success in marketing Kona coffee led to the creation of the company’s gourmet division. The marketing of Kona coffees along with other estate blends earned the company recognition as a pioneer in what is now called the specialty coffee industry.

In 1973, Earl Cohn became the company’s first president, and Sanford Cohn became president. That year, the company owned 235 trucks, including 13 tractors and 20 trailers. Superior also purchased a roasting plant in New Orleans to serve the southern half of the country.

Due to the volatility of the coffee market in 1975, Sanford Cohn decided to take a closer look at the profitability of the company’s gourmet business. He saw that this segment had great potential. In response, Superior developed a proprietary flavoring process, which allowed it to become one of the first coffee companies to introduce flavored coffees like ‘Café Cinnamon’, ‘Dutch Chocolate’ and ‘Almond Amarreto’.

As Superior celebrated its 70e anniversary, it had nine major distribution centers, 10 regional warehouses and a fleet of 306 vehicles and 800 employees and 100 routes serving 20,000 accounts. The food factory now produced about 200 food items.

The 70th anniversary also marked a turning point in the company’s history. The Cohn brothers decided to sell the business to Douwe Egberts, a Dutch coffee company, owned by the Sara Lee Corporation. The sale allowed Superior to leverage Douwe Egberts’ technology and gain access to freeze-dried coffee, essential to its vending machine business. Shortly after the sale of the company, the sons of the founder retire.

The 1990s brought about a revolution in coffee – not only were the public drinking more

coffee – but they drank a better cup of coffee. The trend, which began in retail cup sales, quickly spread to foodservice, and Superior responded with new products and a new $5 million specialty coffee roasting plant in Harahan, LA.

The business grew steadily under the Sara Lee name and acquired Chicago-based Continental Coffee in the fall of 1998. Jacob, Harry’s younger brother, had originally worked for Superior during its early years, but left in 1914 to establish a competing company, Continental. Coffee. After decades of competition, sometimes friendly, sometimes not, the dreams of the two young entrepreneurs and coffee brothers were united.

And in 1999, the company was renamed Sara Lee Coffee & Tea until it was sold in January 2012.

Source: 90 Years of Great Coffee by Marcie Harrison

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