But grocers can’t be so predictable. Like any business providing a service to the public, grocery stores must be accommodating, diverse and above all flexible. Grocers with an unbending attitude toward change probably won’t survive.
That’s one of the reasons Cooke’s Food Store remains Cleveland’s lone home-owned, family-operated grocery after 75 years. It’s also a reason company president Dan Cooke stayed in the industry. A University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate with a bachelor’s in business administration, he could have pursued a master’s degree and moved on ... but he stayed.
“When I got out of college, my intention was to go back to grad school so I started working in the store for what I thought would be a short period of time ... but I never got back to school,” the 60-year-old, award-winning entrepreneur said. “Things evolved ... so I just stayed and grew with the store.”
He’s never looked back.
And with no regrets.
“You fall in to where you’re supposed to be,” he offered with a knowing smile. “I guess I did.”
But it hasn’t been a piece of cake. Operating a local grocery — and growing it — has required a willingness to adapt to people’s needs, to find a niche in the grocery market that these days is dominated by “big box” stores and national chains, and to value the magic line between neighborhood grocer and big business.
Last week’s grand reopening of the popular Keith Street store that grew from 35,000 to 37,500 square feet — and which added new customer-friendly services like a floral department, pharmacy and seating area for its deli — is a huge example.
“We updated the front of the store and on the inside we put in all-new equipment, new flooring, new lighting, and we reviewed and updated our inventory ... the products we carry,” Cooke said.
It’s all about supply and demand.
It’s even more about flexibility and embracing change.
Any size business — small, medium or large — understands this mandate; at least, those who expect to remain in operation.
Shoppers don’t always notice gradual change, but it has been a part of the grocery business for decades. Nowadays, it is more evident because of increased competition.
“We used to be ingredient providers,” the soft-toned businessman explained. “What we sold was flour, oil and sugar ... the raw ingredients ... and people actually went home and prepared food with those ingredients. Now, we’re a solution provider. We’ll still sell you those ingredients but now we provide anything from those raw ingredients to a complete meal.”
He added, “That’s how the whole industry has changed. We’re providing it (food) in any state of preparation you want it.”
Providing solutions is not limited to food. It’s also about added services and customer convenience — kind of a one-stop-shop concept; hence, the decision to add the pharmacy and floral department to the expanded Keith Street store.
Like the grocery business itself and its growing inventory selection, the customer base also evolves, Cooke acknowledged. These changes are often age- and competitor-driven.
“(The times) aren’t what they used to be,” Cooke pointed out. “Used to, especially when we were downtown, you knew everybody who came in or if somebody missed a week you knew it. The way things have evolved and the options people have ... you still see the older customers every week but the younger people I think have so many more options on what they do, where they go and where they purchase ... much more so than people had years ago.”
He added, “You still see the people, but you don’t see them on a regular basis like you used to.”
Although Cooke’s Food Store might still be considered a small business to old-timers, the truth is it is ever-growing. The Cooke’s grocery on Keith Street is the only one operating under that name, but the local franchise also owns and operates a string of Super Saver Cost Plus — a no-frills, price-driven grocery concept — stores in six sites: two in Cleveland on Spring Place Road and at the intersection of Highway 60 and Paul Huff Parkway, one in Ocoee, two in Georgia (Blue Ridge and Eton) and one in Bryson City, N.C.
The Super Saver on Highway 60 is in the modern structure that formerly housed a rare Cooke family business that didn’t survive — The Season’s Harvest, a gourmet-style grocery that Cooke believes is an excellent concept but that didn’t attract a large enough customer base because of a lack of population density and the fact that it opened at about the same time the U.S. economy began to plummet.
Even in the business world, the time-tested adage came into play ... when one door closes, another opens. Such was the case here. When The Season’s Harvest closed its door, the same one reopened with the relocation of an existing Super Saver.
Cooke also operates another enterprise, CSC Investments, which runs 19 Panera Bread Bakery Cafes in four states — Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina. One operates in Cleveland on Huff Parkway. Cooke opened his first Panera Bread restaurant and bakery in 1998 in downtown Chattanooga. The successful franchise will expand into Louisiana soon.
Totaled, the Cooke’s Food Store, Super Saver Cost Plus and Panera Bread businesses employ about 800 workers, and that’s another reason the successful businessman and civic servant remains in the industry.
“I stay in it because of the people,” he said. “One, you’re providing a want and a need of the people; and two, from the employee side you have a lot of (long-term) people who are almost family. They do a great job for you. They make it worth being here.”
Another payback is giving young people an opportunity.
“One of the best things to happen for me is to have a kid who you gave his first job to ... to come back and tell you the impact you had on his or her life,” Cooke acknowledged. “That makes everything worthwhile.”
As a locally operated grocery, Cooke’s Food Store is likely still perceived as a small operation; at least, compared to its national competitors. And maybe that’s an advantage.
“Depending on which way you look at it, in some ways it’s easier (being home-owned),” Cooke stressed. “You can make your own decisions, and adapt and change quickly. If something happens today, we can react to it. If I’m part of a chain, I have to go up a ladder.” And that takes time.
Cooke also believes grocery chains don’t have the advantage they once enjoyed because wholesalers provide regional operations like his with some of the same benefits and resources. He can offer a competitive product selection but his buying power is more limited.
Cooke’s remains a generational enterprise. It debuted in 1936 when Dan’s grandfather, Jesse M. Cooke, and his father, Carl Cooke, opened the first store in downtown Cleveland on Inman Street with four employees. In 1958, Carl purchased the family business and opened a new store in 1962 on Broad Street just down from the original Courthouse Square site and across from Johnston Memorial Park. That’s the store most people remember.
Dan officially joined the business in 1972 — he and his sister, the late Becky Cooke Smith actually worked in the family store as kids — and within five years opened two new locations on Spring Place Road (1974) and the Keith Street store (1976).
In 1992, Carl Cooke won the prestigious M.C. Headrick Free Enterprise Award from the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce. Dan and Becky became the second generation in the family to win the same award in 2006. They are the third generation to run the family business. A fourth generation is already up and coming.
Britney Cooke and Lindsey Wagner, daughters to Dan and Janey Cooke, both work for the company. Britney coordinates marketing and Lindsey works in administration. A fifth generation is also in the offing — young Tristian, the 17-month-old son of Lindsey.
It’s not all about business. The Cooke’s leader also has a strong civic side.
Dan and Janey Cooke co-chaired last year’s fundraising campaign for United Way of Bradley County Inc. on opposite sides with Dr. Paul and Darlia Conn, and have served as longtime contributors. Dan is a former Chamber board member and still serves on the boards for the Chattanooga Better Business Bureau and the Cleveland Country Club. Janey is a board member for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland.
The family business supports many local nonprofit causes, and sponsors each year the Becky Cooke Smith Memorial Golf Tournament whose proceeds support the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
“We are a member of this community ... and that is very important to us,” Cooke said, and added, “For me, it’s more a personal responsibility as a part of this community to give back. In some small way, I want to be able to touch the community and to try and make it even better.”
A former avid runner, Cooke says he still manages a 45-minute jog four or five times a week. He laughingly calls it a “trot” because age and knee injuries have taken their toll.
At 60, some might be looking ahead to retirement.
Not Dan Cooke.
“When there’s less work at home than here (at the office) maybe I’ll retire,” he offered with a big laugh. “I just enjoy being active. I’m not ready to slow down yet.”
As for Cooke’s Food Store, the businessman recognizes its success is community-driven.
“I feel blessed because everyone has continued to support us,” he said. “We haven’t had to go away or had to consider selling out. We’ve always had good support from the community and good response.”
Competition is tough and he knows it could get even tougher because potential competitors loom over the horizon. Rumors of additional, and larger, grocery chains coming to the Cleveland area are often heard.
But it’s not always about size.
“We’re not really trying to tell everybody I’m this big or that big,” Cooke said in closing. “I’m just in business to take care of people. It doesn’t matter how big you are but how you service people’s needs.”