Kohl Wholesale

Even in the face of increased competition and a shrinking customer base, Kohl Wholesale of Quincy, Ill., refuses to abandon the time-tested practices that have kept the family owned distributor in business since 1873. That means while the competitors pass fuel and other operational costs onto its customers, Kohl Wholesale merely prices its products to reflect this.

“We really take pride in being customer-driven, so we don’t put up a lot of barriers,” Director of Sales Ted Meyer says. “Our customers tell us what they want to buy and the brands they believe in. The competition tells them they can’t have this or this is only what they can buy. But we strive to get the customer what they want.”

That concentration on customer satisfaction is what has kept Kohl Wholesale in business since it was founded as N. Kohl Grocer in 1873. When Nikolaus Kohl arrived in the United States from Germany in 1857, he took employment in the wholesale grocery business.

Even in the face of increased competition and a shrinking customer base, Kohl Wholesale of Quincy, Ill., refuses to abandon the time-tested practices that have kept the family owned distributor in business since 1873. That means while the competitors pass fuel and other operational costs onto its customers, Kohl Wholesale merely prices its products to reflect this.

“We really take pride in being customer-driven, so we don’t put up a lot of barriers,” Director of Sales Ted Meyer says. “Our customers tell us what they want to buy and the brands they believe in. The competition tells them they can’t have this or this is only what they can buy. But we strive to get the customer what they want.”

That concentration on customer satisfaction is what has kept Kohl Wholesale in business since it was founded as N. Kohl Grocer in 1873. When Nikolaus Kohl arrived in the United States from Germany in 1857, he took employment in the wholesale grocery business.

By 1873, Kohl had purchased shares of the firm that employed him, which created Austin & Kohl Wholesale Grocers. By 1896, Austin retired, and Kohl continued operating the company as N. Kohl Grocer Co., Importers, Wholesale Grocers and Coffee Roasters with the help of his four sons.

Coffee roasting became the company’s specialty, and Kohl soon grew into one of the largest coffee roasters in the region as well as one of the best-stocked wholesale grocery firms in the Midwest.

Today, Kohl Wholesale is led by Mark, Matt and Rick Ehrhart, who represent the fifth generation of family ownership. The broadline distributor service has more than 4,000 customers in Illinois, Missouri and Iowa in markets including restaurants, hotels, supermarket delis, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, retail groceries, caterers and taverns.

As a broadline foodservice distributor, Kohl Wholesale offers frozen meats, soups and entrees; specialty cheeses; fresh and frozen produce; dry groceries; kitchenware; disposables; and equipment. In 2000, the company opened Kohl Cash & Carry to expand its footprint within its own community in Quincy by offering the same products and services it delivers in its three-state market.

Family vs. Corporation

Kohl Wholesale can please its clients the way it does because of its family ownership. That means the only stakeholders Kohl Wholesale must answer to are the clients who keep the company in business.

“We let our customers determine what vendors we buy from,” Meyer emphasizes. “Being nationally branded, we don’t put up those barriers.”

Kohl Wholesale proves this point repeatedly when clients request special orders. While many of Kohl’s competitors might scoff at splitting cases, low drop sizes and purchasing items not in their catalog, Kohl’s makes it a point to go the extra mile to make this happen through purchasing partners like Brakebush Brothers, Litehouse Foods, ConAgra Foods, SCA and Simplot Foods.

“By having the ability to access special orders, if we don’t stock something we’ll reach out and get it,” Meyer says. “We are old fashioned, without a doubt, but people like the service. When they open our product guide, all key staff telephone numbers – including those of the owners – are right in the book. I don’t know of any company where you have the access that we offer.”

Industry Consolidation

One of the toughest challenges Kohl Wholesale faces today is the ongoing growth of chain restaurants. As a result, many independent operators are struggling to compete. Kohl Wholesale steps in to offer products that will keep its customers’ own operational costs reasonable so they can maintain competitive price points for their own customers.

“We try to keep our customers healthy by doing things that are intuitive to them,” Meyer says.

“As labor costs go up, we have value-added products that are being sold or custom cut in response to that,” he adds. “Everybody is looking for ways to be smarter.”

For instance, independent restauranteurs are finding it more difficult to keep a baker on staff. Kohl Wholesale has responded by increasing the number of baked goods available in its product offerings.

“Companies like us need to have the capacity and ability to keep growing,” Meyer says. “Our business model is such that we’re blessed with growth.”

Strengthening the Work Force
Kohl Wholesale has added industry expertise to better serve independent restauranteurs and the rest of its client base, according to Meyer. The company’s salespeople are adept at dissecting the costs their customers’ operational costs and explaining how sourcing products through Kohl Wholesale will cut overhead in the long run.

“The ways of taking an order on our end is the biggest change in the industry,” Meyer says. “Our salespeople can handle all the data coming at them. Today, you have to be a pretty good resource, as well, as offer the value customers want.”

It helps to maintain a staff that has culled this industry expertise over the course of their careers. Meyer says the company has less than 3 percent turnover annually with its 288-employee work force, and it offers training on all of its processes.

The company also offers leadership training for potential managers through its own leadership academy. Kohl’s Human Resources Director Darla Rischar, SPHR, runs the program that starts every April and concludes in November for a class of only 12 employees.

The program includes 10 courses that cover topics ranging from how to manage employees to addressing difficult situations appropriately. Since starting the program four years ago, 36 employees have completed the coursework.

“Upper management will come in and speak on our vision and how the whole vision angle meets our company expectations,” Meyer says. “Also, how does that vision turn into how we delegate and get things done that need to be accomplished.

“We are big on our people having upward mobility within our company when the opportunity arises,” Meyer adds.

Onward and Upward

Even with more than 130 years in business, the employees at Kohl Wholesale believe there are still plenty of ways to improve. For instance, to meet the demand for healthier products, the company has two registered dietitians on staff. Kohl Wholesale also offers on-site training on a variety of topics for school foodservice and healthcare customers.

Meyer says the plan is to become the top wholesaler in its region in the next 10 years.

“There’s no doubt that our vision of the future is to be the leading distributor within our marketplace,” he says. “Our intent is to become the regional powerhouse in our market.

“We’re never going to be a national company, but we are the leading independent in our market,” he adds. “We just want to be known for being very good at what we do in the Midwest.”

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