Richard Ransom Founded Hickory Farms Chain: 1919-2016

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Richard Ransom, shown in 2003, founded Hickory Farms in the early 1950s. The first store was a converted gas station in Toledo, Ohio. ENLARGE
Richard Ransom, shown in 2003, founded Hickory Farms in the early 1950s. The first store was a converted gas station in Toledo, Ohio. Photo: The Blade

From the 1950s through the ’70s, when U.S. supermarkets tended toward the bland, Richard Ransom offered alternatives to Velveeta cheese and sliced bologna. He was willing to try just about anything—even, briefly, chocolate-covered grasshoppers.

Mr. Ransom, who died April 11 at age 96 in Toledo, Ohio, founded the Hickory Farms store chain. After selling the business, he created a charity that finds homes for children who are usually overlooked by adoptive parents.

His ideas for the business included systematically giving customers more cheese or sausage than they requested and thrusting freshly cut samples at passersby before they could refuse.

Richard King Ransom was born Sept. 13, 1919, in Toledo into a family that grew vegetables. When he was 14, his father died in a car accident. The younger Mr. Ransom, who never went to college, served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific during World War II, managing ammunition supplies during combat on Okinawa.

After the war, Mr. Ransom helped deliver the family produce to grocery stores. He also grew and sold Christmas trees. The less symmetrical trees were chopped into bundles of boughs and sold separately. That left his lot filled with the better-looking trees. In the summer, he sold Swiss cheese sandwiches for a quarter at flower shows and other events.

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He founded Hickory Farms in 1951. The first store was a converted gas station in Toledo. To draw attention, he painted the building yellow and put a large fiber glass cow out front. When the cow failed to generate as much attention as expected, he painted it purple. Soon people were stopping to take pictures.

His son, Robert, recalls that early offerings included chocolate-covered grasshoppers and bees. Those didn’t last, but dried banana chips were a surprise hit.

His four children helped out. One day, his daughter Carol noticed that an insect had landed on one of the customers. Carol discreetly brushed it off before the customer noticed. “I tracked it down and squished it,” Carol said. “I thought, ‘Dad, you owe me one.’”

Mr. Ransom began setting up company-owned and franchised outlets across the U.S. and Canada. The chain eventually topped 500 stores, mostly in malls.

Employees were instructed to give out samples aggressively, often as people walked past the front door. “His theory was that if you have a good product you want to get it in their mouth,” Robert said.

If a customer asked for a pound of cheese, employees were trained to cut a piece weighing two or three ounces more and ask the customer if the larger size was OK. “Invariably, they would say yes,” said Mike Eicher, president of the chain in the late 1970s. “You’d increase your sales 15% to 20% from that strategy alone.”

Mr. Ransom believed customers wanted to see bountiful supplies. To avoid skimpy-looking stocks, he used fake plastic cheese under the real thing. “It looked like you had 30 pounds of cheese, and you had about five,” Robert said.

Though only about 5-foot-6, Mr. Ransom made clear he was in charge. When he decided Hickory Farms should participate in Jerry Lewis telethons, donating a percentage of sales, some franchisees expressed misgivings. “That wasn’t a question,” he said.

Franchisees could be unruly. Mr. Ransom reluctantly accepted some regional variation in offerings, such as hot pepper cheeses in Texas. But when he found a franchisee packing prime display space with Coca-Cola, he was furious.

By the time he was 60, running a nationwide chain was becoming a strain. In 1980, Mr. Ransom and other shareholders accepted a $40 million takeover offer from General Host Corp. Hickory Farms has changed hands several times and is now owned by Modjule LLC, an investment firm. The products are sold online, through catalogs, at mall kiosks and at supermarkets.

After selling the company, he pursued property development and philanthropy. He founded Adopt America Network, which helps find homes for children with disabilities or other special needs. The organization has found adoptive families for more than 4,300 children. Its website shows photos of scores of children, from Aaliyah to Zerendity, awaiting families.

Wendy Sowers, an assistant to Mr. Ransom, organized auctions for decades to raise money for the charity. In a moment of fru
stration, she once told him she wanted to step down from that role.

“He said, ‘That’s OK, Wendy,’” she recalled. “‘You just do that. The only person you’re hurting is that little kid who can’t find a home.’” He mimed the motions of kicking a child into the gutter.

Ms. Sowers reconsidered. “I didn’t really have to think very long,” she said.

James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com



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