Hiawatha Chef Supply, Inc. this year marks 65 years as a foodservice equipment and janitorial supplies distributor. The Michigan-based company originated in Escanaba and now has stores both there and in Appleton, Wisconsin. The Appleton store this year celebrates 10 years of operation.
"It's a family business," says owner and president Tracy Thompson, "big enough to serve you, small enough to know you."
Hiawatha Chef Supply was founded in 1955 by Tracy's mother, the former Lois Murker, and her business partner, Doug Wescott. It took its name from "The Song of Hiawatha," a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem set in the Upper Peninsula.
Two days after opening in an East Ludington Street storefront, the company reportedly sold its entire inventory to K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in nearby Gwinn, Michigan. The goods went to equip the first dining hall at the facility still under construction.
With cash in hand, Lois said, "I spent that entire night typing orders to replace the inventory and add more." She would spend the next five years "building inventory by reinvesting all the profits" and "traveling the Upper Peninsula and explaining who I was and what Hiawatha Chef Supply could offer."
"We have a great team here at Hiawatha," Tracy said. "Our longevity is due largely to them, as well as to our customers and suppliers, and to the support of the community as a whole. I thank them all."
As the business grew, the company moved to ever bigger quarters. It relocated first to a building farther down Ludington Street, then to its current location in the former National Guard armory at 400 N. Lincoln Rd. A warehouse was added there in 1986. Lois also changed partners. Doug left the company in 1956; in 1958, Lois married a factory representative, Ralph Thompson. He became co-owner. Together Lois and Ralph continued to grow the business. They expanded the company's product line to include not just commercial foodservice equipment and supplies, but also janitorial equipment and supplies, chemicals, paper and disposables, when they purchased Northern Chemical Company in Escanaba. For eight years, 1978-1986, they operated a branch of Hiawatha Chef Supply, Inc. in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In 1978, the company also began manufacturing its own high-volume chemicals and compounds under the Hiawatha name.
Ralph Thompson died in 1987, and Lois in 2012. She'd been retired for 17 years. By 1995, when the company's ownership was transferred to the Thompsons' sons, Terry and Tracy, the business was valued at more than $1 million. Tracy became sole owner and president, when Terry relocated to Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2003 to start his own foodservice supply company.
Hiawatha Chef Supply, Inc. is a member of the Foodservice Equipment Distributors Association, Excell Foodservice Equipment Dealer Network, ISSA: The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, and the Tavern League of Wisconsin.