BETHPAGE, N.Y. -- King Kullen Grocery Co. here is marking its 75-year anniversary this month -- which also marks the 75th anniversary of the modern supermarket, according to the Smithsonian Institution.While many companies lay claim to the distinction of being the first supermarket in the U.S., King Kullen takes great pride in the designation on its corporate logo as America's First Supermarket and
BETHPAGE, N.Y. -- King Kullen Grocery Co. here is marking its 75-year anniversary this month -- which also marks the 75th anniversary of the modern supermarket, according to the Smithsonian Institution.
While many companies lay claim to the distinction of being the first supermarket in the U.S., King Kullen takes great pride in the designation on its corporate logo as America's First Supermarket and cites as its authority the Smithsonian, which says the King Kullen store that opened in Queens in New York City in August 1930 was the first to meet all five criteria that define the modern supermarket: self-service, separate departments, discount pricing, chain marketing and volume dealing.
Although each of these elements existed before King Kullen, it was the company's founder, Michael J. Cullen, who had the vision to combine them into one package, a company history points out.
King Kullen kicked off its anniversary celebration in mid-May by rolling back prices on selected items to 75 cents. A week later it began a sweepstakes promotion that culminated last week with a $75,000 cash prize awarded to one winning customer. Additional prizes -- including trips to Disney World, free groceries for a year and gift certificates up to $2,500 -- were also awarded.
King Kullen operates 48 of its 49 stores on Long Island in New York and a single store across New York Harbor in Staten Island. Its portfolio includes 46 conventional supermarkets and two Wild by Nature natural food stores. Stores average 38,000 square feet, though some run as large as 62,000; the company's newest store, which opened in June in East Setauket, is 40,000 square feet.
Sales last year were estimated at $800 million.
King Kullen remains a family-owned business, run by the Cullen and Kennedy families. "For a company in the supermarket industry to remain family-operated this long is truly amazing," Tom Cullen, vice president of government and industry relations, told SN.
Two members of the second generation are still involved in the business: Bernard D. Kennedy, the 80-year-old chairman, who still comes in to work on a daily basis, and his brother, Eugene Kennedy, a board member.
Two third-generation cousins oversee the company on a day-to-day basis as co-president and co-chief operating officer: Brian C. Cullen and J. Donald Kennedy, grandson and grand-nephew, respectively, of founder Michael J. Cullen. Twelve other family members are also active in the business, including some members of the fourth generation.
"One of the things about growing up in this family is, if you want to be in the business, you have to be an active member in the operation of the company," Tom Cullen said.
The company takes pride in its status as a Long Island-based operator, he told SN. "We started on Long Island, and we stayed here," he said. "We are a regional chain, and we've lived on Long Island all our lives. We live here, work here, give to charities here. We employ Long Islanders, we're community-minded, and the money we spend on the company stays here."
Michael Cullen, the company's founder, was born in 1884 and spent 17 years with A&P before moving to the Midwest to work, successively, for Mutual Grocery Co. in Illinois, Bracey-Swift in Missouri and finally for the Herrin, Ill., branch of Kroger Grocery & Baking Co.
By 1929 Cullen envisioned what he thought was a better way to operate a grocery store -- one where low prices and self-service would draw customers, who could leisurely shop for all their needs under one roof in a large, roomy facility.
So he wrote a letter to William Albers, Kroger's chief executive officer, pointing out the efficacy of a cash-and-carry system that had already been demonstrated by Henry Krohl, a New Jersey retailer, and proposing that Kroger open five test stores, to be called Cullen Stores, anywhere in the U.S.
Cullen's letter described stores that would be 80% self-service, located outside a city's main business center; stores capable of doing $10,000 a week in grocery sales at a net profit of 2.5% and $2,500 a week in meat sales at a 3% net profit; and where 300 items would be sold at cost, 200 others at 5% above cost, 300 more at 15% above cost and another 300 at 20% above cost.
"I would convince the public that I would be able to save them from $1 to $3 on their food bills," Cullen wrote. "I would be the 'miracle man' of the grocery business. The public would not and could not believe their eyes.
"Weekdays would be Saturdays, rainy days would be sunny days, and then when the great crowd of American people came to buy all those low-priced and 5% items, I would have them surrounded with 15%, 20% and in some cases 25% items. In other words, I could afford to sell a can of milk at cost if I could sell a can of peas and make 2 cents, and so on all through the grocery line."
To stress his belief in this approach, Cullen offered to invest $15,000 of his own money "to prove this will be the biggest money-maker you have ever interested yourself in."
At the end of the letter he wrote, "Before you throw this letter in the wastebasket, read it again and then wire me to come to Cincinnati, so I can tell you more about this plan and what it will do for you and your company."
Albers never responded to Cullen's letter -- it turned out years later that a subordinate had not passed the letter on to him -- so Cullen left Kroger and moved to New York, where he took out a lease on a vacant garage in the Jamaica section of Queens and opened the first King Kullen on Aug. 4, 1930.
Spelling It Out
How did Cullen become Kullen? In 1937 Cullen's wife Nan explained in a newspaper interview:
"Our son Bobby was sitting by his table very eagerly engrossed in some sort of a drawing. It was a picture of a globe, and on top of it a man was seated. And across the bottom he had printed the title 'King Kullen.' Actually, it was because Bobby thought 'Cullen' was spelled with a K. But the title struck Mike at once."
Cullen promoted his initial store with a barrage of newspaper ads and door-to-door circulars that listed columns of brand names and low prices under the heading, "King Kullen -- The World's Greatest Price Wrecker." According to the company, the store was an immediate hit, drawing customers from up to 100 miles away.
Cullen began opening additional stores in the New York metropolitan area that continued to draw large crowds. According to a newspaper article in the early 1930s, "So great was the crowd [at one store] on a Saturday throughout the entire day, police reserves were called upon to keep the eager shoppers in line."
Cullen's stores caused a sensation across the grocery industry, and he was visited by other retailers who hoped to emulate his success in their operations. According to Tom Cullen, one of those early visitors was George Jenkins, who launched the Publix Super Markets chain in Florida the same year as Cullen started, in 1930.
In a 1933 newspaper interview, Cullen revealed his aspirations for his efforts in the midst of the Depression: "These are tough times, and I am on the level when I say I will do more than any other man in this country to save the American people money. I am making it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to get all they want to eat. I am just going to paddle my own canoe and give people a break."
By 1936 King Kullen was generating $6 million a year at 17 locations in New York City and Long Island, most of them in converted garages, and Cullen was planning to expand to new markets when he died of peritonitis following an appendectomy at age 52.
His widow, Nan, took over management of the company. "King Kullen had been built up with such tremendous work that it all would have been lost if I had sold it," she said in 1938. "And besides, I felt a responsibility to our numerous employees and their families. I knew that if I sold out, I might be getting some extra dollars for myself, but it threatened the position of our men.
"So I called the men together and told them that if they were ready to stand by me, to work for the continued success of the organization, I was ready to go on with it. I never had one moment of regret."
According to the company, Mrs. Cullen ran King Kullen "with invaluable assistance provided by her brother-in-law, J. Donald Kennedy," and by her brother, J.P. Danaher.
Among the company's first moves under Mrs. Cullen was to raise all salaries, provide medical insurance and give all employees a week of vacation with pay.
Michael Cullen's son James Cullen succeeded his mother, with the titles of chairman and chief executive officer, in the early 1950s and held those titles until his death in 1973. He was succeeded by his brother, John B. Cullen, with his cousin, Bernard D. Kennedy, holding the title of president; in 1999 Cullen began sharing the titles of chairman and CEO with Kennedy.
Since John Cullen's death in 2003, Bernard Kennedy has continued as chairman and CEO, with his nephew Brian Cullen and his son J. Donald Kennedy serving as co-presidents and co-chief operating officers.
SN will celebrate the 75th anniversary of supermarkets in the Dec. 5 issue. A number of pioneering companies built the initial round of supermarket formats in 1930, including King Kullen, Ralphs Grocery Co., Weingarten's Big Food Markets and Henke & Pillot.