By Diane Euston
Today, the name “Wolfermans” may be best associated with two-inch tall English muffins that melt in your mouth. Today, that’s one of the last things that survives of the once-thriving business.
When Fred Wolferman arrived in Kansas City as a teenager, he wanted to be a doctor. But, his father and fate had other plans for him.
Starting in 1888, Wolferman’s stands in memory as one of Kansas City’s finest grocery stores. Known for their specialty products, bakery, premium-cut meats, fine alcohol selection and restaurants, Wolferman’s continues to bring back fond memories of many Kansas Citians who were lucky enough to have traveled to one of the stores to seek out “good things to eat.”
Moving from Milwaukee and the Beginning of Fred Wolferman’s
The real vision of Fred Wolferman’s started with his father- a man who believed that hard work and determination were the ingredients needed for success. Louis Wolferman (1845-1923) along with his wife, Friedericke (1848-1942) decided to uproot their children, Fred and Elsa and move to the United States from Germany in 1881.
Their first stop was to Milwaukee where Louis worked as a cattle dealer. Likely looking at where business was booming, Louis set his sights on Kansas City where, after a visit to the town, he bought two lots. This tied him to the city, so he returned to Milwaukee and moved his family.
He didn’t speak great English, but he was able to pair up with two brothers in 1883 who had started their own vinegar and pickle manufacturing company in the West Bottoms called Zaiss Bros. In 1887, Louis “retired” from the vinegar industry and moved onto his next venture while working as a livestock dealer.
In 1888, Louis Wolferman took a chance and invested in a bankrupt grocery store at 317 E. 9th St. – he took out a $500 mortgage on his house at 1521 Charlotte to do so.
His 18-year-old son wasn’t keen on the idea of working in the grocery business. Fred had made it clear to his father that he wanted to be a doctor. In turn, Louis named the business “Fred Wolferman’s” after his son. The decision had been made; Fred would be in the grocery business.
In March 1888, father and son opened the doors to Fred Wolferman’s. On their first day open, they cashed in sales of $5.65. There were only three employees at the time: Louis, Fred, and Fanny, their trusted delivery horse.
Fred would get up at 4 a.m. and travel to the stable at the back of their two-story brick home at 15th and Charlotte to fetch Fanny. By 5 a.m., the two would head to the market and then hauled groceries to various hotels. Fanny ran that route with Fred five days a week and then was used to haul the family buggy on the weekends.
As business picked up, they hired a clerk (German, of course) to help them with the orders. Fred later reminisced on how they kept themselves occupied. “The clerk and I got pretty good at catching cranberries with our open mouths,” Fred recalled. “In fact, before long we’d stand on opposite sides of the store from each other and catch em’ nine times out of ten.”
Quality was a priority. Prior to the railroad arriving in Kansas City, grocery stores were really a general store packed with canned items that couldn’t be found in the Midwest. Even in this early stage of their grocery business, they “searched the markets of the world for the choicest edibles.”
Wolferman’s set itself apart by shipping in fresh imported products such as raisins, oranges and apples when they weren’t in season. Peas, tomatoes, cucumbers and cauliflower were available in the winter at Wolferman’s.
Fred was able to come to terms with his role as a grocer. He later recalled that he told himself, “If I have to stay in the grocery business, then I’ll be the best grocer in the grocery business.”
The First Years at 1108 Walnut
Business was so good that Fred Wolferman and his father decided to upgrade their store. In 1894, they moved to a two-story building owned by the Armour’s at 1108 Walnut. There, they added a deli, bakery, candy shop and a liquor department in the basement.
Fred always said, “We only buy what we cannot make better.” This was certainly true as the store grew in popularity. One of their original big sellers was freshly ground coffee. In order to control the quality, the Wolferman’s bought a 600-acre “coffee plantation” in Mexico.
By 1898, Wolferman’s was using the slogan “Good Things to Eat” in all of their advertising. Goods made by the company included chocolate, fruit cakes, layer cakes, homemade jellies, breads, fresh marshmallows (called “the summer candy”) and Concord grape juice.
The deli included fresh turkeys, meats and cheeses from all over the world. Customers could phone in their orders and have them delivered by horse-drawn wagon to residences nearby.
Fred would taste every item made in the morning to ensure it was up to his standards. If it wasn’t, he sent it back to be remade.
To entice people to the store, Fred used creative advertising. One year right before Easter, Fred tied a few lambs up outside his storefront to try to entice people to buy his lamb roasts. Women stopping into the store were won over by these lambs; they stopped to pet them. To Fred’s surprise, the plan backfired. Ladies couldn’t imagine buying and eating lamb roasts! That year, Wolferman’s sold a lot more ham.
In December 1908, he got into the “exhibition cheese” business when he purchased a 2,207-pound block of “mammoth cheese” from Pennsylvania. The block of cheese was five feet wide and took over 22,000 pounds of milk to make.
Getting the big cheese inside the store was tricky. The Kansas City Star wrote, “A large plate glass window was removed to allow the cheese to be put on exhibition. It was too large to pass through the doors of the glass enclosure.”
The retail price was $662.10.
This gimmick was so successful that the following year, Fred bought a 2,150-pound block of American cream cheese that had to be cut for customers with a piano wire. They sold out in one day.
Because Fred and his father couldn’t always get their hands on the freshest dairy, they decided to buy up land east Holmes near present-day 97th St. and start their own dairy farm in 1908. What started as 80 acres grew to 240 acres by the 1940s. The farm, called “Twin Sycamore,” produced fresh milk, butter and eggs that were sold exclusively at their store. Louis Wolferman made it his special job to attend to the farming operation. Fred also added a delivery truck- an upgrade of the horse and wagon routine- for the first time.
A Fire Leads to a New Building and Quick Expansion
On December 29, 1909, a fire did extensive damage to the two-story Fred Wolferman’s store and a loss of over $75,000 in stock was reported. What was originally a tragedy ended up being a turning point for Wolferman’s.
In January 1910, the Armours decided to offer to build a bigger structure. A six-story fireproof building made of brick and terra cotta was built in its place.
The changes were breathtaking. A grand staircase greeted guests while a balcony offered a view of the store. The first floor featured the retail grocery store. The second floor housed the Tiffin Room where specialty teas were served along with light breakfast and lunch. The third floor included a stockroom for the floor displays, and the fourth floor included the general offices and order department. The fifth floor held the warehouse and on the sixth floor, the new bakery would cook up the finest foods. The basement became the new location of the cigar and wine department.
The Tiffin Room became a favorite spot for business lunches and a stop for ladies while they shopped. Rolls straight out of the oven, Wolferman’s homemade thousand island dressing, mayonnaise from scratch, cereal with cream made fresh at the dairy farm, pies, nut bread pudding and ice cream were all items that people enjoyed in the Tiffin Room. What would become a bestseller in the future- English muffins- got their start on the plates of the Tiffin Room in 1910 and were formed using tuna cans.
Things were looking up both professionally and personally for Fred Wolferman. In 1912, he married Etha Patton and went on to have four children in six years: Ethelbert (Bert), Elsa, Barbara and Burleigh. Shortly after their marriage, Fred took a gamble on some land to the south- he wanted to expand.
In July 1912, he bought a lot at 59th and Main St. When he opened the store, its nearest neighbor was a 28-acre cornfield. He strategically chose a place along the streetcar line to make shopping as convenient as possible. This grocery store and meat market grew with the development of the Brookside neighborhood.
In 1918, he furthered his business opportunities when he bought a large grocery company with a location at 3943 Main. After consolidating the stores, he was catering to the Westport area.
When Prohibition destroyed his liquor sales, Fred didn’t let any space go to waste. He quickly opened “the Grillette” in the basement of his downtown store that included a soda fountain. Its ice cream treats (made from scratch at a new facility at the dairy), sherbets and sodas became immensely popular, and Fred was known to treat himself to a chocolate soda every day at 3 p.m.
In 1924, five stores, including a new Country Club Plaza “Sunset Hill” location at 47th and Wyandotte, were doing great business. In the first week it was open, the Plaza location had over 10,000 customers. If you wanted the best food and customer service in the city, Wolferman’s was the place to go.
Tragedy struck the family when Louis Wolferman, the man who “forced” his son into the grocery business, died at the age of 78 in 1923. He had watched his son grow into a wealthy businessman with a vision beyond what he had ever dreamed.
Fred and his family moved to a 10,000 square foot mansion at 5725 State Line in 1925; its professionally-designed landscaping included “cascading water rushing into a swimming pool.”
By 1929, Wolferman’s had five locations in Kansas City, one location in Tulsa, 40 fleet vehicles and over 400 employees. He was widely known across America “by reason of his accomplishments in a period of terrific adjustments in the grocery trade.”
Keeping Up with the Times
In order to be the best gourmet grocery store, bakery and restaurant chain in the area, Fred had to continuously remodel his locations and add new technology. In 1935, he added a $35,000 air conditioning unit to keep shoppers and diners cool in the summertime.
A year later, he completely remodeled his Brookside location and added “a system of refrigeration by which all vegetables are chilled not only while they are in display counters, but also in the order room as delivery orders are fulfilled.” This may not seem very innovative now, but it was cutting edge in the 1930s.
In 1936, Wolferman’s closed their 39th and Main store and moved to a brand-new store at the southwest corner of Armour and Main. By 1947, Fred leased 7,000 square feet of a warehouse space at Bannister Rd. and Troost to employ women to wrap cheese, fruit cakes, fruit, meats and other items for the holidays.
The Wolferman dairy farm also saw vast improvements over the years. The farm was converted from a dairy farm to a 2,000-strong turkey operation. The chickens remained along with an ice cream plant.
In June 1950, a fire starting in an ammonia line of the ice cream plant destroyed three buildings. Firemen from Hickman Mills were able to stop the flames before they hit a structure that held 12,000 chickens. Damage was estimated at $200,000.
By 1955, the farm had been sold off for development. Mid-year, Fred suffered a heart attack and on Oct. 3, 1955, he passed away. Under his careful eye, Wolferman’s grew to be one of the most recognizable brands in Kansas City.
Acts of Charity
Some charitable acts, such as feeding hospitalized children every Christmas or donating to the Red Cross made the headlines. The Kansas City Star wrote, “Fred Wolferman was behind the scenes of many worthy causes. His great modesty never allowed him to stand under the spotlight.”
There was a poor woman he bought turkeys from in Kansas who suffered through a major drought one summer. Her turkeys were in danger of not surviving, so Wolferman advanced her $6,000 so she could get the feed she needed for her flock.
There was also the touching story never told of how Wolferman hired Alfred Kohlman, a Jewish refugee who at 16 years old left his parents in 1938 and made his way to Kansas City. The plan all along was for him to send enough money for his parents to come to America. Alfred had been a baker’s apprentice, and in 1939 he got a job at Wolferman’s.
Letters traveled back and forth, and Alfred sent half his earnings to his parents in Gurs, France where they had been moved and held. Alfred asked his boss, Wolferman, if he could help by sponsoring his parents to America. Not only did Wolferman agree, but he gave the money needed to get them to the States in 1941. A letter from his mother read, “We were also very happy that you dear Alfred were given a raise. Please write us how much you are earning now. While I am writing here, your photo keeps me company. It stands in front of me on a little pedestal.”
This was the last letter Alfred would receive from his parents. Shortly after, they were transferred to Auschwitz where they lost their lives. It was years before he knew what happened to his parents.
Decades later, Alfred’s daughter, Rosanne Kohlman Rosen wanted to ensure the Wolferman family knew about this kindness and wanted to thank them. “To Mr. Wolferman, it was probably just a small act- but it means the world to my family even today that he was willing to do that,” Rosanne explained.
The Fall to the Box Store
Bert Wolferman, Fred’s only son, took over the business at a time of great change in the city’s landscape and the grocery business. The suburbs were the future- along with the Safeway and the Milgram chains.
At its height, Wolferman’s had six Kansas City locations and satellite operations in Blue Ridge, Ranch Mart and Englewood Shopping Centers. To compete with the large grocery chains with warehouse-sized shopping space, Wolferman’s built their largest store at 89th and State Line at Ward Parkway Shopping Center in 1962. Included was an additional space next door for a restaurant they called Wolferman’s Parkway House.
In 1966, they closed the Plaza store and shortly after, their Armour store.
The 1970s was the final decade for a company founded in 1888. In 1972, they closed their downtown store and sold the building to make way for a parking lot. Within months, Wolferman’s announced they were “going out of the grocery business.” They sold their Tulsa store and gradually closed their location in Brookside and their 10-year-old store at Ward Parkway.
In 1973, Bert Wolferman passed away, and the baton was passed to the next generation as the trend toward large stores continued.
Family Carries on the Name
Fred Wolferman, Bert’s son, saw the success of their mail-order bakery and gourmet food business. As the stores closed, he started Wolferman’s Original English Muffin Company with the help of a 40-year veteran baker.
There was a brief resurgence in the 1980s of Wolferman’s in Fairway and downtown, but that didn’t last very long- but it did prove the English muffins were a hit. Wolferman’s catalogues were distributed through the holidays, and it wasn’t uncommon for there to be 4,000 daily orders for muffins alone.
Wolferman’s left the family’s control when the manufacturing passed to Sara Lee in 1986. After two more sales, the company finally rested in the hands of Harry & David in 2008 where customers across the nation can still order those two-inch-thick English muffins.
Starting in 1888, Fred Wolferman and his father joined forces to launch one of Kansas City’s finest food markets- a place where only the best was manufactured, served and delivered. Many can still recall special outings to one of their stores where quality was paramount- where you were always guaranteed “good things to eat.”
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.