“Let’s open a grocery store” – The Story of Sidney & Mollie Ball
He was back from World War I and newly married. Even at 24 years old, he was a focused, no-nonsense man, acutely aware of his responsibilities. So Sidney Ball went looking for a way to meet those responsibilities.
He studied the Midwest towns he passed through. Searching, analyzing. What do the people here need? What business would work in this town? He considered a furniture store. Then a hardware store. It was his new bride who came up with the idea that stuck. Let’s open a grocery store, Mollie Ball said. She knew more than a little about what she was talking about. Her father and her brothers owned a grocery store, and Mollie Ball was certain there was room for one in the rapidly growing Kansas City area.
Open a grocery store they would.
Sidney and Mollie scraped together $1,000 in 1923 for a building on the corner of 16th and Stewart Streets in Kansas City, Kansas. The investment allowed them the privilege of waking up six days a week at 4 in the morning so they could head to the produce market before racing back to get deliveries from the meat wagon and the bread and ice man. Then Mollie would get on the phone to take orders, making sure to provide a rundown of what meats and produce were particularly appealing that day. After Sidney filled the orders, a delivery boy was dispensed through the neighborhood on bicycle.
Mollie kept a running tab of the daily orders, and the customers paid on a monthly credit system. Which is not to say they always paid on time. One customer asked to delay her payment because she needed the money to make a payment on her wooden leg. Pay when you can, said Mollie Ball, who had seen the woman lose her leg in a car wreck right in front of the store.
It was a steady, sturdy business. But hardly a prosperous one. “Many times the employees at the store would make more money than my father would,” recalled Fred Ball, their son, who years later would take over the business.
The Depression didn’t help matters. Millions of people across the country were unemployed, and thousands of businesses failed. Nobody had any money. Everybody was bartering and buying food on credit.
But Sidney Ball – always focused, always looking for new ideas, and Mollie Ball – the people person, full of energy and enthusiasm, forged ahead.In 1934, Sidney had a new idea. Having survived the worst of the Depression, he and Mollie opened a new store at 21st Street and Quindaro Boulevard. The store implemented a cash and carry system, offering lower prices in return for immediate cash payments. The system was new to Kansas City, and everyone told Sidney and Mollie Ball that it would never work. Everyone but the customers, who came in droves to the store, leaving their cash behind and taking their groceries with them. The cash and carry system would be the first of many innovations that set Sidney and Mollie Ball’s growing empire apart from much of the grocery industry.