DULUTH, Minn. — Food retailers have faced as much consolidation as farmers have over the years.
Stephen Arkulary grew up with a proud, progressive grocery retailing family. His father, John F. Arkulary — “ahead of his time, along with being an eccentric dynamo” — opened his first grocery store in Viroqua, Wis., in 1936. The town of about 4,000 is southeast of La Crosse.
“After nine children under the roof, he had envisioned his sons and daughters operating several food markets under his guidance,” Stephen said. In 1957, John “packed his family in a three-seat Chrysler station wagon and moved to Duluth (Minn.).”
At Duluth, John became involved in Twin Ports Grocery, a cooperative-owned warehouse. The co-op paid dividends based on grocery store co-op purchases. In 1957, Duluth was “full of big and small home-owned food markets,” with familiar names like Crystals, Gershgol’s, Piggly Wiggly, Super Valu, and national chain Red Owl and National Tea stores.
John died unexpectedly in 1965. His widow, Frances Arkulary, sold the Piggly Wiggly and built a smaller store that she could handle, employing five sons and two remaining daughters through college.
At age 19, Stephen stepped into the role of controlling inventory, the facility and the labor. At 21, he left his studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth to pursue the grocery business so his mother could retire comfortably.
The Arkulary business grew over the next decade, as smaller competitors left the business.
“The support of Twin Ports Grocery helped us through the decades of cash flow problems and assisted us in procuring and installing new equipment to upgrade our store to stay competitive and portray a quality image equal to or rated higher than our competitors.”
1979 — Stephen and his brothers purchased a grocery store at Solon Springs, Wis.
1983 — The Arkularys purchased a warehouse market location that fails in 1986.
1988 — The co-op-owned wholesaler is sold to Gateway Foods, promising efficiency and buying power.
1993 — Gateway Foods sells to Scrivner Inc., which in turn is sold to Fleming Inc., then the largest food wholesaler in the U.S. Each acquisition promised efficiency and buying power.
1993 — Stephen and his brothers built a state-of-the-art 15,000-square-foot store, with a reputation for fine meats and deli products. (About this time they purchased the dairy truck, as a billboard and for parades, now owned by John Larson of Moorhead, Minn. Dairy truck delivers nostalgia) “We were often compared to (TV bar) Cheers, where everybody knows your name,” Stephen said.
2000 — Fleming put dairy retailers on a cash-on-delivery basis. “We lost five days of ‘float’ that we had grown dependent on,” Stephen said, referring the time between writing checks and clearing the bank account on which it is drawn. This came after Fleming went into a relationship with Kmart. Arkulary’s folded. Stephen went back to school,
2003 — Fleming filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy and various other companies buy the company’s grocery business. Stephen graduated with degrees that allow him to establish his own tax preparation business.
2004 — Core-Mark Holding Co. Inc., of San Francisco, emerged from the Fleming bankruptcy.