by Kathy Wolfe
These businesses have become household names, but how did they get their start? This week, Tidbits delves into the humble beginnings of some of our best-known businesses.
• The nation’s number one pharmacy has been around since 1901, when 28-year-old Charles Walgreen opened a 20 x 50-ft. drugstore on Chicago’s south side. Competition was tough, with more than 1,500 drugstores already in operation. He brought a little experience with him – he’d been working at a neighborhood pharmacy since 1889, when he was 16, then became a registered pharmacist at age 20. A Walgreens employee invented the malted milkshake in 1922, and customers stood in long lines to purchase the new treat. Fifteen years after opening the first store, Walgreen had nine stores, and ten years after that, the number was an astounding 525! His son carried on the business after Walgreen’s death in 1939, and remained in charge for 30 years, when he handed it over to Charles Walgreen III. The chain opened its 1,000th store in 1984 and its 2,000th store in 1994. It only took six more years to add another 1,000, then just three years for another 1,000! Today’s total? Nearly 9,000 Walgreens stores in the U.S. serve about 8 million customers in stores and online every day.
• Three friends who had met at the University of San Francisco joined forces to found Starbucks in 1971. An English teacher, a history teacher, and a writer wanted to peddle high-quality coffee beans and opened the doors of their first store on Seattle’s Pike Street, naming it after the first mate in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick. The store didn’t offer brewed coffee for sale, just beans. The only coffee served was in the form of free samples. After eight years, the trio sold the business to a former employee. Soon the store was a coffee shop offering espresso drinks and pastries. Today, there are close to 34,000 Starbucks locations in 80 countries. About 15,500 of those stores are located in the United States.
• On Labor Day weekend, 1995, Pierre Omidyar launched AuctionWeb from his San Jose living room, listing his broken laser printer for $1, which eventually sold for $14.83. It was Omidyar’s intent to “bring together buyers and sellers in an honest and open marketplace.” By June 1996, $7.2 million worth of merchandise had been sold on AuctionWeb. In May 1997, the site sold its one-millionth item, a Big Bird jack-in-the-box toy. Later that year, the site was officially renamed eBay. eBay Motors was launched in April 2000, and sold its 2 millionth passenger vehicle in 2006. Notable high-ticket items sold on eBay include the oldest known pair of Levis, which sold for more than $46,000 in 2001. Also that year, a Gulfstream jet sold for $4.9 million on eBay. In 2006, a yacht became the most expensive item ever sold on eBay, with a price tag of $168 million. A copy of the first Superman comic book was snapped up for $3.2 million in 2014. From his humble beginnings in his living room, Pierre Omidyar has been ranked the 24th-richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of $21.8 billion.
• Bernard Kroger was 23 years old in 1883, and made a brave decision to invest his life savings of $372 (about $10,000 in today’s dollars) in a tiny grocery store with a 17-foot storefront in downtown Cincinnati. With a business motto of, “Never sell anything you wouldn’t want yourself,” he adopted the idea of “one-stop shopping,” becoming the country’s first grocer to establish his own bakeries and to sell meats and groceries under one roof. The store also offered delivery to customers, delivered by Bernard in a wagon pulled by his horse Dan. By the time Kroger was 45, he had more than 100 locations. Today, the chain operates 2,800 stores in 35 states, with annual sales exceeding $132 billion. The company operates 18 dairy plants, 7 grocery plants, and 9 bakery plants. Kroger was a pioneer in private label manufacturing and, in 1972, was the first grocery retailer to test electronic scanners.
• The luxury department store Nordstrom’s was founded in Seattle by John Nordstrom, who arrived in America from Sweden in 1887. Just 16 years old, with $5 in his pocket and not a word of English, he headed to the West Coast to work in mines and logging camps. After ten years, he was off to the Klondike to find gold. Two years later, now with $13,000 in his pocket, he teamed up with a Seattle shoemaker named Carl Wallin to open a store on Fourth and Pike. They opened a second store in 1923, which, in 1960 was America’s largest shoe store, and with a total of eight locations, the nation’s largest independent shoe chain. It wasn’t until 1963 that the company branched out into women’s apparel, adding men’s and children’s departments in 1966. Nordstrom’s didn’t expand to the East Coast until 1988. Brothers Pete and Erik Nordstrom, who serve as co-presidents of the company, are the fourth generation to run their great-grandfather’s firm.
• Michael Dell started his computer company in his University of Texas dorm room at age 19 the week before final exams. With $1,000 to spend, it was Dell’s intention to sell IBM-compatible computers built from stock components. He produced the first computer of his own design the following year. It didn’t take long before he was making up to $80,000 a month, grossing more than $6 million in the company’s first year. Dell dropped out of school, and four years later, his company went public. In 1992, at age 27, he became the youngest CEO to earn a ranking on the Fortune 500. He has an estimated net worth of $35 billion.
• In 1952, after careers as a farmhand, gas station employee, and insurance salesman, 62-year-old Harland Sanders opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Salt Lake City. He’d already been peddling chicken since around 1934 from a gas station, then expanding to a 140-seat restaurant in 1937. By 1956 the Colonel had eight franchises, including one owned by Dave Thomas, who went on to establish the Wendy’s hamburger chain. Just seven years later, there were more than 600 KFC franchises in the U.S. and Canada, and it was the largest fast food operation in the U.S. A year later, Sanders sold his company for $2 million (about $16 million in today’s dollars.) That first franchisee in Salt Lake City, Peter Harman, was the one who coined the famous slogan, “It’s Finger-lickin’ good.”
• 7-Eleven, the world’s largest convenience store chain, got its start in 1927, when a Dallas ice company employee began selling eggs, bread, and milk from a stand outside one of the company’s ice houses. The idea developed into a company with several Texas locations known as Tot’em. The name was changed in 1946 to reflect the stores’ operating hours. Today, there are more than 78,000 7-Eleven stores in 19 countries across the globe.