Aldi, Kroger and More Surprising Chains That Started as Small Businesses

Joni Hanebutt / Shutterstock.com

Joni Hanebutt / Shutterstock.com

Big chain stores are often so ubiquitous and popular that they seem like they’ve just been around forever, always in their current corporate form.

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But a surprising number of the big chains you know and frequent actually started quite small, humbly even, and several of them — like Aldi — in other countries. Here are six big chains that have very small, frugal beginnings.

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In 1883, when Barney Kroger put everything he had, $372, into opening one single grocery store in Cincinnati, he probably had no idea that nearly 140 years later there would be more than 2,700 of his grocery stores successfully reaching customers all over the U.S.

According to Kroger‘s website, its founder had a simple motto: “Be particular. Never sell anything you would not want yourself.” And that motto clearly paid off.

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Walgreens is a go-to pharmacy/drugstore for many people when it comes to medication, cosmetics and other household needs. This institution not only seems to have been around forever, but its humble origins date back to 1901, when a man named Charles R. Walgreen opened his first pharmacy in a 50×20 foot shop in Dixon, Illinois.

According to the company’s website, Walgreen had lost a part of one of his fingers in an accident, which derailed his athletic career and pushed him toward another way to make money. His company’s success speaks for itself.

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Though Nordstrom may seem like a quintessentially American retailer, its roots go back to Sweden. Its founder, John W. Nordstrom, emigrated from Sweden at age 16 to the United States in 1887, speaking no English and with $5 to his name, according to the company website.

After laboring in mines and logging camps, he made his way toward Alaska in search of gold. He was successful, earning $13,000 as a result of his stake. A while after that, a man named Carl F. Wallin asked him to join forces and open a store, called Wallin & Nordstrom, in Seattle. Years later, when Wallin retired, he sold his shares to Nordstrom’s sons, thus the company eventually reflected only Nordstrom’s name.

The company is worth $3.78 billion today, according to Macrotrends.

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Aldi is another well-known American company that actually has humble, international origins. Aldi — short for Albrecht Discount — was first opened in Essen, Germany, by Anna Albrecht in 1913, according to Business Insider.

Anna’s sons, Karl and Theo Albrecht, officially expanded and established the Aldi brand in 1946 after World War II, according to CNBC. Both brothers were enlisted to fight for Nazi Germany during World War II, in fact, but survived the war and went on to live peaceful lives as grocers.

They made a name for their frugal approach, and refusal to advertise. The first American Aldi opened in Iowa in 1976, and there are now more than 2,000 stores over 36 states.

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The convenience store you know as 7-Eleven began in 1927 in Texas, but not with one in every urban neighborhood. A man named Jefferson Green, known as “Uncle Johnny,” ran an ice house, and started selling staple items he noticed customers needed, such as milk, bread and eggs, according to the company website.

He figured out that if he sold these goods on Sundays, when major grocery stores were closed, he’d build a following. Eventually he changed his store’s name to “Tote’m” (referring to how customers toted away their goods). In 1946, the store changed its name to 7-Eleven, which referred to the store hours, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days per week.

Later, in the 1960s, company President John P. Thompson expanded operations, kept some locations open 24 hours a day, and started franchising out its stores. Now 7-Elevens can be found in 18 countries, including Canada, Mexico, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Australia, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

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There really was a Colonel Sanders, (an honorary title given to him by the Kentucky governor), a man named Harland Sanders, born in Henryville, Indiana in 1890, according to the company’s website.

A steamboat pilot, railroad fireman and farmer, it wasn’t until 1939 that he became a professional chef, and would gain the skills to develop the “11 herbs and spices” that make up the Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe.

The first KFC franchise was opened in 1952 in Utah. After some setbacks, he and his wife set about building the franchises, and by 1963 there were more than 600 restaurants selling Kentucky Fried Chicken. He eventually sold his own stake in the company to a venture capitalist for $2 million (about $15 million in today’s dollars) and the rest is history.

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