In the late 1930s, Henry and Sylvia Lueken opened their first bakery in Springfield, South Dakota.
Joe Lueken started working with his father in their bakery. By the age of 7, he could bake any of their products and would manage the bakery when his father was away. When he wasn’t baking, he was helping deliver Lueken’s Pan Pride Bread to stores in nearby towns. In the 40’s, a loaf of bread was 10¢. He would often remark that the bakery could pay all of their costs including delivery and sell each loaf for 9¢ to the store, who would then sell it for 10¢ and everyone could still make a living. Another example of the economics of the time was that ground beef was 35¢ for 1lb or 50¢ for 2lbs – 'but you still bought only 1lb because you couldn’t afford 2”. This was the world that formed Joe and taught him to work hard and to remain humble.
In 1952, Henry Lueken family moved his family to Mitchell, SD where they opened a new bakery. Joe told stories of the first week they were in town, sleeping on the floor at the bakery and working all day to be prepared to open the first day. When that first day came, his dad opened the empty cash register, reached into his pocket and pulled out all the money he had, which was about 35¢ and that was the cash flow on which they began. They grew to be a very successful bakery that lasted over 50 years.
The advertisement to the right appeared in Mitchell's newspaper, The Daily Republic, on March 9, 1961. In the coming years, Joe began working for local for local grocery store called, Randall's, in Mitchell and Yankton, South Dakota.
In 1966, Joe received a call from his brother, Hank, who found an opportunity to purchase a small grocery store in Bemidji, MN and asked if he would join him as his store manager. Joe agreed and on July 18, 1966 Lueken’s Foods opened its doors for the first time. Joe eventually bought out his brother and became the sole owner of Lueken’s Foods in 1969.
Joe continually looked for and experimented with ways to improve and grow his business. In 1976, Joe found an opportunity to build a new store on the north side of Bemidji. The store was completed in the summer of 1978 and Joe was able to realize a dream of building a store with a bakery. For the first year, Joe worked around the clock, stopping only to eat and surviving on about 4 - 5 hours of sleep. It took many years and the very hard work of Joe and his team and by the early 80’s, the north location began to thrive.
Again, Joe continued to look for and experimented with ways to improve and grow his business. In 1981, Kraft held a nationwide contest to find stores who could design the best promotions featuring their products. Lueken’s Foods Stores won 1st prize and Kraft took his promotional ideas, giving them to their own marketing division as a model of innovative thinking. The original Lueken's North building in Bemidji included two other stores: Swedmark's Hardware Hank and Glass Block Drug. In 1984, Glass Block Drug closed and Lueken's expanded into the additional space and remodeled.
In February of 1986, Econofoods was opened in Wahpeton, ND.
In 1995, the North location in Bemidji, Minnesota was remodeled and expanded. In 1999, Lueken's North and South locations as well as Econofoods in Wahpeton, North Dakota were expanded by building warehouses in the back of each location to allow for greater buying power.
In 2012, after 46 years as CEO, Joe Lueken gave his company to his employees through the establishment of an Employee Stock Ownership Program. In the years that led to his decision, he worked shoulder-to-shoulder with his employees and together, they grew and prospered. He often cited his employees as being largely responsible for his success. With his firm belief and practice of 'thinking local', the idea of the ESOP was a reflection of his values and dedication to his employees and to the communities he served.
In 2016, we achieved Joe’s goal of 100% employee ownership. As of 2020, we are proud to announce that the Lueken’s organization has achieved the requirements as a Certified Employee Owned company. Becoming a certified employee owned company is a means to embed consistent high standards in the way we operate, through a path of continuous improvement in best practices, transparency, and inclusion to create the most positive experience for our owners and community. Only 1 in 200 businesses meet these standards to become Certified Employee Owned.
Joe Lueken's memory and entrepreneurship are still strong and thriving in his employee-owners.
Our founder, Joe Lueken, understood the value of community and believed in the principle of growing together through mutual support, which was evident in the way he lived and operated over 46 years. He believed that employees, families, and community need one another and by giving his company to his employees through the establishment an ESOP, he could dedicate his life's work to that purpose. That purpose is exemplified in the story of the redwoods, which is the inspiration for our new company brand. Employees, Families, and Community are represented by three redwood trees that are rooted together; connected and mutually supporting.
Proudly, this organization and its future is in the hands of his grateful employees and together we will keep alive its spirit of entrepreneurialism and generosity. In honor of the history of the Lueken’s organization and our founder, we affirm our purpose to serve and to grow together, standing strong as one united organization.
It is through stronger employees, families, and community that we will continue to grow and thrive.- The Employee Owners of Econofoods and Econo Wine & Spirits