By MICHAEL MILLER | For The Prairie Advocate News
September 1967: Jim Morrison and the Doors run into network censor trouble by using the word “higher” in the song “Light My Fire” during a live performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Vietnam War rages on, despite growing and divisive opposition, the RMS Queen Mary arrives in Southhampton, on her last transatlantic voyage. In 1967 a gallon of gas could be purchased for just 33 cents, and a postage stamp was a nickel. The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) basketball team finished their regular season undefeated, at 30-0, under the guidance of Coach John Wooden.
And John and June Sullivan moved to Savanna, Illinois, purchasing a grocery store, and beginning a long history of business success that would grow exponentially as time went on.
John took a job as a meat cutter, part time, while serving in the military. After returning home in 1959, he landed in his hometown of Stockton, Illinois, where he became a full time meat cutter, before moving onto Platteville, Wisconsin to be employed by another grocer. He learned a lot about being a grocer at that job, particularly about being fair to your customers, vendors and employees.
After starting up a store in Savanna, John bought out his partner eventually, and tore down the old store to make room for more parking. The success at the Savanna location led to expansion, first to Stockton, and later to places like Morrison and Princeton.
Today, Sullivan’s Foods has locations in Savanna, Stockton, Morrison, Princeton, Mendota, Kewanee, Harvard, Winnebago, Lena, Freeport, Rochelle, and a Sav-A-Lot as well.
John and June have six children, all of whom are involved in the family business in some capacity. Each began as a meat cutter, stocker, or cashier and have grown with the business. John is the CEO, Scott Sullivan is President, Kathy Christensen the Vice President of Human Resources, Bryan Sullivan is the Vice President of Advertising, Susan Sullivan-Dauphin is the Property Manager, Mike Sullivan is Vice President of I.T., and Julie Sullivan-Mensendike is the General Manager and also a teacher.
45 years later, Sullivan’s is not only surviving, but growing.
Kathy Christensen, Vice President of Human Resources (and John’s daughter), spoke about how the business has managed to stay vital and competitive through the years, the challenges it faces, and how it celebrated it’s recent anniversary. The business gave away 45 bags of groceries at each location, hot dogs and soda were sold on Fridays for 45 cents, there were giveaways, including TVs, a year’s supply of ice cream, a cakewalk, and more.
Kathy credits the remarkable longevity of the business to “a lot of hard work . . . trying to keep up with the times, having new ideas, thoughts, activities, promotions, anything that’s exciting.”
Asked about what some of the challenges the business currently faces, Kathy says that the battle against the Super Walmart is the major one.
“Every community reacts differently to a SuperWalmart,” Kathy says. “But we’ve held our own with it.”
Loyal Associates another key
Part of Sullivan’s survival story is the amount of “loyal associates” the business has managed to retain throughout the years, Kathy comments. She says some of these folks have been able to come up through the ranks with the business, some having been with the company since their teenage years.
Kim Lawfer, who started out as a carryout person back in 1967, is now employed by the company as a store manager and does price controlling.
Other longtime employees include Mike Virtue, who has been with Sullivan’s for over 35 years, and Pam Green, who is in her twenty-seventh year with the company.
Green took a few moments to reflect on her time with the company. She says that the business has grown a lot in the nearly 27 years she’s been there. When she first started, there were only five people employed at the corporate office building in Savanna, and now there are fifteen. She said she was the only non-family member employed there at that time. All checks were written by hand when she started, as well. There were, she says, no computers. And the business only encompassed five stores.
Kathy also credits employees who have been hired for specialty departments, such as specialists in meat, produce and bakery/deli operations.
“These people allow the company to have an advantage because of their focus on these areas,” Kathy says. “This, in turn, helps the company stay ahead of pricing trends.”
Another way the company keeps pricing down is by use of their own trucking firm, including their own drivers and trucks. This also helps provide more employment for the community.
John is still very active in the company, Kathy says, as he currently sits on the Board of Directors for Central Grocers, the warehouse that Sullivan’s purchase their goods from. He attends board meetings at least once or twice a month and helps advise the board on what the consumer is looking for, what the retail side of the business is looking for, and so watches over that aspect of the business.
The future of Sullivan’s? “Continued growth” is the plan, Kathy says. “We’re looking at new ways to sell groceries that are new and innovative - maybe go back to the basics.”
The Doors, John Wooden, the five cent stamp and the 33 cent gallon of gas are long gone, but 45 years later, Sullivan’s Foods is still here, and from all indications, could easily be here another 45 or more.
(Thanks to the official Sullivan’s Foods, Inc, website for historical information @ www.sullivansfoods.net and also to www.1960sflashback.com.)