WHOLESALE GROCERS. Cleveland's wholesale grocery industry has played an important role in feeding the city—and the region—for more than a century and a half. The industry developed as the pioneer forwarding and commission merchants, who dealt in all types of goods, began to specialize in groceries alone. Many Cleveland-based wholesale grocers have come and gone over the years, but a few left a special mark on the city and deserve mention.
Most of the town's earliest wholesale grocers carried dry goods or other types of products. Up through the 1850s, these firms were all located in the FLATS, close to the necessary water transportation: the Ohio Canal, the Cuyahoga River, and Lake Erie. Among these pioneer firms was Charles Bradburn & Co., which was in existence from the 1830s to the 1870s. Bradburn (1808-1872), also known as "the father of Cleveland schools," built the first warehouse for a wholesale grocery in the city. WILLIAM J. GORDON, who today is best known for leaving GORDON PARK to the city of Cleveland, headed the first Cleveland wholesale grocery to gain a regional reputation. His firm, which operated from about 1839 to the 1870s, was at one time the largest in Ohio.
By the 1860s the industry had established a clear-cut identity. Needing larger quarters, companies began to move out of the Flats, concentrating on West 9th St. in the WAREHOUSE DISTRICT. Here the grocers continued to have access to the waterways as well as to the new mode of transportation: the railroads. The first firm to make this move was an old one, Hilliard and Hayes, which was in existence from 1824 to the 1850s. In 1850 a structure was built for the company at 1407-15 West 9th that still stands as of 1995.
The 1850s saw the establishment of several significant or long-running firms including the WILLIAM EDWARDS CO., W. P. Southworth Co. (better known for their retail stores), Babcock & Hurd, and the A. J. Wenham Co. The latter two are noteworthy primarily for their longevity—both lasted into the 1910s. In 1861 the WEIDEMAN CO. was established, while the Haserot Co. followed in 1889.
These wholesale grocers relied heavily on the sale of dried, canned, and bottled goods and served not only as distributors and importers but also as processors and packers of goods. Edwards and Weideman, for example, established canning, bottling, and packing plants in their enormous West 9th St. warehouses. Most wholesale grocers, however, left the sale of perishables to others, such as the markets (see MARKETHOUSES).
Success in the wholesale grocery business could be a springboard to success in other enterprises. MARCUS A. HANNA, ore and shipping magnate and a leading figure in national politics, had his earliest business experience at Hanna, Garretson & Co. (established 1852), wholesale grocers. The founders of Edwards, Weideman, and Haserot also branched out into other enterprises but continued to operate their wholesale grocery business.
By the first decade of the 1900s several of the wholesale grocers had relocated to the CENTRAL MARKET area as trucks began to play a larger role in the transportation of goods. By the late 1930s, only Edwards, Weideman, and Haserot remained of the many firms founded in the 1800s. The rest had either gone out of business or disappeared during mergers. The William Edwards Co. was established by Massachusetts-born William Edwards (1831-1898) in 1853. The company was for many years the oldest firm of its kind between New York and Chicago. For over a century, Edwards brand products could be found on Cleveland-area grocery store shelves (and are still available in the New England area). The Weideman Co., established by German-born JOHN C. WEIDEMAN, was from the 1890s through the 1940s one of the largest wholesale grocery firms in the U.S. as well as one of Cleveland's largest companies. Weideman's was known for carrying the finest goods on the market, and their "Weideman Boy" brand foods were distributed throughout the Midwest. The youngest of these three companies, Haserot, was founded in the 1880s by Francis H. and Samuel F. Haserot. The firm, which gained a regional reputation as an importer, canner, and distributor of fruits and vegetables, was credited with having "affiliations extending to all quarters of the globe."
The 1940s saw major changes in the industry. Reliable home refrigeration brought about consumer demands for different types of products. Revolutions in the transportation and food processing industries reduced public dependency upon canned and dried goods, the backbone of the wholesale grocer's trade. Canned and dried goods now had to also compete with fresh produce and meats trucked in or flown in year round as well as frozen goods, production of which was concentrated in a few national giants. Circumventing Cleveland's established wholesale grocers, none of which strongly adopted the new methods, these out-of-town giants opened their own distribution centers in the city in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Food Town was an example of another new trend in the industry: the retail market creating the wholesaler. Food Town Purchasing Co. was founded in 1947 by the heads of several Greater Cleveland supermarkets: Julie Kravitz, MARTIN RINI, Carl Fazio, Sam Costa, and Joseph Giunta—all familiar names in the retail marketplace. The firm soon became one of the region's largest wholesale grocers.
Mergers were not uncommon in the industry. For example, Edwards had acquired Southworth's in 1927, while Weideman's acquired Edwards in 1947. But beginning in the 1950s, mergers became commonplace. In 1952, Weideman's was acquired by Consolidated Grocers of Chicago which sold the Edwards division to Food Town. Seaway Wholesale Grocers (see SEAWAY FOODS INC.) was established in 1957 by the merger of four local firms including Eagle Wholesale (est. 1905). Cook Coffee Co., through its Pick-N-Pay subsidiary, purchased the Food Town chain in 1959. Lastly, the Haserot name disappeared in a 1970 acquisition and merger.
Through continued acquisitions and mergers, the Cleveland area had become the headquarters of three significant wholesale groceries by 1995. Riser, the 19th largest wholesale grocer in the nation, was the successor to Seaway. Heinen's was a result of their retail chain (est. 1928). The third firm was FIRST NATIONAL SUPERMARKETS, INC. (FINAST), the result of a 1978 merger of that out-of-town firm and Pick-N-Pay. These three companies all have suburban locations: Riser in BEDFORD HTS., Heinen's in WARRENSVILLE HTS., and First National in MAPLE HTS.