THE CHEESE PEDDLER
WITH BIG IDEAS
By: EUGENE WHITMORE
W HEN J. L. KRAFT obtained a job in a small grocery store in Canada somebody jokingly told him that he would receive his first raise in salary when he learned to slice off half pound wedges of cheese accurately. In those days no package cheese was available. Cheese came in big “wheels” and the grocer did a masterful job of guessing when a customer asked for half a pound of cheese; sometimes the grocer got the better of the deal and at other times the customer obtained an ounce or two extra because it was not customary to trim the original slice, or to add another slice if the scales showed that the big wedge of cheese was over or under weight.
This guesswork bothered Kraft. He thought cheese should be accurately weighed and put up in neat, individual packages which would preserve the product’s flavor, moisture and taste and deliver it to the customer “untouched by human hands.” Kraft though that his plan was sound, both for the dealer and the customer. It insured better quality, more accurate weights and vastly improved sanitation.
No one seemed interested in Kraft’s idea. Cheese had always been packed in these big wheels; it would be too much trouble for the cheese makers to pack cheese in small, convenient units. Besides it would cost too much. Kraft maintained that the loss from drying out, the loss from careless cutting and weighing, and the waste from spoilage would more than offset the small extra cost of individual packages. The more Kraft tried to interest people in his idea the more they opposed it. He kept on thinking about it until the idea of cheese in small, sanitary packages became almost an obsession with him. He quit his job, moved from Canada to Chicago.
After continued discouragement and constant ridicule of his idea Kraft set himself up in a tiny room on Chicago’s old Water Street, where the city’s produce and perishable foods were handled. He bought the big wheels of cheese, sliced them into small, accurately weighed units and put the small units into individually wrapped packages. When he tried to interest wholesalers in handling his products they laughed at him; brokers thought the idea ridiculous and told him so. After all the negative advice he received Kraft should have, by all the rules of logic, shut up his little shop, forgotten his stupid idea and gone to work for somebody else. Instead of quitting he started out to sell direct to grocery stores. With a basket of packaged cheese over each arm Kraft started out each morning peddling his cheese packages, a few at a time to any store owner he could sell. Sometimes he would return to try and sell a repeat order and find none of his cheese had been sold. But he continued to preach his gospel of cheese in small, sanitary packages until a few stores began to build some trade on it.
He worked at night packaging the cheese; after a long time he saved enough money to buy a horse and wagon. His horse was named Paddy and before long was a familiar sight on certain Chicago streets. Gradually his business increased. Kraft even hired a salesman and bought another horse and wagon. It looked as if his idea was catching on. Right when prospects brightened, on the very second day that both his wagons were on the streets, a trolley car and one horse and wagon collided and the Kraft cheese wagon and horse came off definitely second best. The horse had to be destroyed and the wagon was wrecked beyond repair.
On the following day old Paddy—good old Paddy—laid down and died. Kraft was back on foot, a basket over each arm, once more peddling cheese to his customers. A proud man, Kraft had taken a lot of abuse and ridicule from some grocery merchants. One in particular thought the idea of selling cheese in small individually wrapped packages was little short of insane. During an argument one day this grocer, who had the best trade in Chicago, told Kraft to “get out and stay out.”
Meanwhile his trade was growing, again. He acquired more horses and more wagons and had an established trade in some stores. Then, out of a blue sky, so to speak, this crusty grocer, who had once ordered Kraft out of his store, sent word for Kraft to call on him, saying that he wanted to stock Kraft cheese products. Kraft knew that his products were getting established when this call came, and although he needed the business from this prestige account he was human enough to tell that grocer ‘‘where he could go.’’ He refused to call on the snooty old grocer, explaining that he could well afford to get along without his business.
Practically every man, woman and child in America today knows the remainder of this story. Kraft Foods, as the company is now called is housed in a big private office building on Chicago’s lake front. The company owns processing plants in many parts of the country and produces or processes a long line of food products. Mr. Kraft retired some years ago, but his spirit lingers on because his success, after heart-breaking discouragement, is proof that it pays to hang onto a good idea, to have faith boundless in self, and to snap your fingers in the face of even the direst adversity.
Today there are many thousand Kraft customers who now buy each year much more than the total sales of Kraft cheese to all customers back in the early days of the business. Some of these customers, whose purchases run into the millions probably never have learned that the great Kraft food enterprise was started by one man, walking along Chicago’s streets, with two baskets on his arms, selling a few dollars worth of cheese at a time.
Here is a typically American story of courage, enterprise, persistence and final victory against odds that would discourage all but the stoutest hearts. Somewhere in America today, probably in some little corner store, or tiny shop, other men are developing ideas, dreaming dreams, putting down the roots of enterprises which will, in time, produce and sell in multi-million brackets.
The piper he piped on the hill top high
“Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese,”
Till the cow said, ‘‘I die,’’ and the goose said, ‘‘Why?”
And the dog said nothing, but searched for fleas.
—Ballad of the Period, CHARLES S. CALVERLEY
Faith is the substance of things, hoped for,
the evidence of things not seen.
—Hebrews Xl. 1
As a lyke to compare in taste, chalk and cheese.
Proverbs, John Heywood
Or thinke, that the moone is made of a green cheese.
—Epigrams and Proverbs, John Heywood
The Joy of Words
Copyright @1960, (pgs. 219-222.)
J.G. Ferguson Publishing Company,
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