In 1965, he was one of three stockers at a then company-owned Fairway Foods store in Aberdeen. The manager at the time was told by the company that he had to lay off two of the three stockers. Liking all three workers, the manager decided that drawing straws was the fairest way to decide who to keep. Fiedler pulled the long straw.
He certainly didn't know then that the moment would lead to his owning a chain of supermarkets in the northeast corner of South Dakota. But Sunday, his original store — Ken's SuperFair Foods — begins a celebration of its 40th anniversary.
Fiedler, 70, didn't set out to be a grocer. He just needed a job. He was working at the gas station in Java, his hometown, in September 1962, when Marvin Pfitzer, who owned the Red Owl in town, asked Fiedler if he wanted a job at the store. Fiedler, preparing for his wedding, jumped at the chance without even asking how much he'd make. He came to learn that Pfitzer would pay him $200 a month. And he came to learn, from Pfitzer, many of the lessons he'd use in his career.
In the two years Fiedler worked at the Java grocery store, he did about every job there was. He was a butcher, a bagger, a stocker and a store cleaner. In 1964, he took a job at the new Fairway Foods store in Aberdeen. The next year, he survived the drawing of straws. By then, he figured he'd try and make a career in the grocery business.
Fiedler was made manager of Fairway Foods in 1967, but still had no inclination that he would ever own the store. In 1972, Fairway Foods was selling some company-owned stores, including the one in Aberdeen. That's when a friend and business partner pitched Fiedler an idea. Jerome Klocker and his brother-in-law, Bob Rader, operated Blue Valley Dairy in Hoven. The dairy provided Fairway Foods with milk. Wanting a continued market for the milk, Klocker asked Fiedler if he'd ever thought about buying the Aberdeen store. Not having much money, Fiedler said he never had. But Klocker and Rader fronted the bulk of the money and, with Fiedler as a minority partner, they bought Fairway Foods, renaming it Ken's Fairway Foods.
The men had a plan to operate a handful of supermarket-style stores in the region. The same year they bought the Aberdeen store, they bought one in Ipswich, and the modest chain of Ken's stores was born.
Now, Ken's Supermarkets Inc., as the company is formally called, operates stores in Aberdeen, Ipswich, Groton, Eureka, Clark and Britton.
While the company is a success, there were struggles along the way, Fiedler said. Ken's opened a store in Watertown in 1977. But when a competitor came into town, business at Ken's dropped. When the store's lease came up, it closed in 1983. That, Fiedler said, was the only failed Ken's store.
A store opened in Miller in 1984 and closed after it was bought out by a competitor in 1992. Miller probably wasn't big enough for two grocery stores, Fiedler said, but selling the store was a business decision rather than a failed endeavor. The Miller store was profitable, he said.
There's never been a fear that the Aberdeen store would have to close, Fiedler said. But it did have to expand to give customers all they expected.
In 1976, it grew from 12,000 square feet to 18,000 square feet by adding a deli, bakery and liquor department. It grew again in 1996 with a major expansion to 45,000 square feet. That space includes a convenience store and gas station.
"We knew if we were going to survive in this community, we had to expand it," Fiedler said.
And though the store isn't adding square footage, the improvements continue. A drive-through branch of First State Bank of Warner opened earlier this year. And the store is opening a pharmacy later this month, Fiedler said.
Aberdeen is unique in that it supports two independent, family owned supermarkets. A Nash Finch-run Econofoods store closed last year. The company had a presence in Aberdeen before Fiedler arrived. Years ago, there was a Nash Finch warehouse in town and a Prairie Market run by the company. In the 1980s, Prairie Market gave way to Food Bonanza, which later became Econofoods. All three stores were operated by Nash Finch.
Fiedler said Aberdeen's history of supporting family owned grocery stores and supermarkets dates back to the days when Bud Tonner owned a Piggly Wiggly on Main Street. There were other locally owned grocery stores in town, too. Now, Ken's and Kessler's remain. Fiedler said Ken's and Kessler's have mutual respect for each other. The city's history of locally owned stores has resulted in good competition that might have kept larger chains away, he said.
Independent grocers are proud to be independent and do a good job of taking care of their stores and customers, Fiedler said.
Ken's has even been able to withstand the arrival of aWal-MartSupercenter, which opened in Aberdeen and started selling groceries in 2006. The previousWal-Martstore, in the Lakewood Mall, didn't offer groceries.
Fiedler said his store had to change the way it did business as the result of the supercenter. Prices got more competitive, and gross profit was lost. But, he said, the impact was never as bad as expected. A loyal Ken's customer base helped. So did keeping fresh, quality products in meat, bakery and produce departments, he said. And, he said, staffers renewed their effort to personally greet, help and thank customers.
Working with people is what Fiedler most enjoys about the grocery business. He still bags groceries and talks with customers.