Hiawatha Chef Supply, Inc. first opened its doors March 11, 1955, in the old Sherman Hotel building downtown Escanaba, Michigan. It took its name from “The Song of Hiawatha,” a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem set in the Upper Peninsula.
The company was founded by former schoolmates and co-workers Lois Murker and Doug Wescott, with just $1,200 in capital. Two days in, they sold their complete inventory to K.I. Sawyer Airport in Gwinn, to equip the first dining hall there. Lois said, “I spent that entire night typing orders to replace the inventory and add more”—and the rest of her career growing the business.
That growth required moves to ever bigger quarters. The Escanaba store and the company’s main offices have been housed in the former National Guard armory at 400 North Lincoln Road since 1961. A warehouse was added there in 1986.
Lois also changed partners. Wescott left the business in 1956 to pursue a career in education. In 1958, Lois married Ralph Thompson, a factory sales representative she met when he called on her at the store.
Together, Lois and Ralph expanded Hiawatha’s product line to include not just commercial foodservice equipment and supplies, but janitorial equipment and supplies, chemicals, paper and disposables. Hiawatha today represents hundreds of nationally known brands.
The company began manufacturing its own high-volume chemicals and compounds under the Hiawatha name in 1978, and, in 1982, acquired the inventory of the Escanaba-based Northern Chemical Company. NCC’s owner was hired to manage the more extensive line of maintenance supplies.
For eight years, 1978-1986, the couple also operated a branch of Hiawatha Chef Supply, Inc. in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
By the time the company’s ownership was transferred to the Thompsons’ sons Terry and Tracy in 1995, Hiawatha Chef Supply, Inc. was valued at more than $1 million.
Tracy has been sole owner and president of Hiawatha, since Terry left to start his own business in 2003. Under Tracy’s leadership, the company bought Dixie’s T & S Restaurant and Bar Supply in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 2010, and now operates a store at 2604 West Wisconsin Avenue in Appleton.
Over the years, Tracy says, “We’ve done hundreds of foodservice installations at restaurants, schools, churches, hospitals, clubs and numerous other institutions throughout Michigan and Wisconsin. Contact us for a sample listing of satisfied customers.”
Ralph died in 1987 and Lois in 2012, eight years after retiring.
Hiawatha Chef Supply, Inc. is a nearly 55-year member of the Foodservice Equipment Distributors Association (FEDA) and a member of Excell Marketing, ISSA: The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association, and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. It can be found on the Internet at www.hiawathachef.com.