BEMIDJI -- It all started in 1940 with a country grocery store in the tiny community of Edinburg, N.D., a mom-and-pop business run by John and Thelma Johanneson.

Today, it’s a multi-faceted enterprise that is celebrating its 80th anniversary with more than 800 employees doing business in three Midwestern states. And those employees will soon have an opportunity to become the company’s owners.

Johanneson’s Inc. has its headquarters in Bemidji. The company includes Marketplace Foods in Bemidji and four Marketplace stores in Minot, N.D., with four liquor stores and three gas and convenience stores in Minot as well. It also operates five KJ’s Fresh Market stores in Moose Lake, Minn. and Wisconsin. Related companies, including Pace Development and Icelandic Properties, which are involved in real estate and residential development projects, also are under the Johanneson’s umbrella.

Keith Johanneson, CEO of the company, said his late father, John, would not recognize what has become of the business that started 80 years ago.

“I think he would be rather shocked,” Keith said, “because I think his dreams were realized when he built his first store, Super John’s, here in Bemidji (in 1962). That was the platform for the whole company to grow. But I think if he saw the size of the facilities and the technology we’re using and the presentation of food, he’d be pretty shocked.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

John and Thelma grew out of that Edinburg store and relocated to Fargo in the early 1950s, opening a neighborhood grocery store. In 1957, they made the move to Bemidji and opened their first store in northern Minnesota. Sons Keith, Lance and Rich all eventually joined the business. Lance and Rich have since retired, while Keith has overseen much of the growth in recent years.

“I took over the company when I was quite young,” he said. “So I’ve actually run it for 45 of the 80 years. When I took it over we had three stores. We’ve just plugged along and added a store here and there, but today we’re a whole different company. We have significant volume in the company. We’re a very profitable company.”

At 73, Keith now sees himself as more of an ambassador for the company.

“The great part about it for me is I can kind of work part-time, but I get to make all the big decisions. I enjoy working with people. I talk to people about their families, anything we can to help them out, pat them on the back for a job well done. And create some new enterprises that create new jobs.”

At its most recent meeting, the company’s board of directors made the decision to turn all but the real estate sector into an Employee Stock Ownership Plan.

“That’s a big decision for me,” Keith said. “It’s time for me to help with the transition to the next generation. It puts us in a tremendous position to grow, to generate capital and to keep our facilities in tip-top shape.”

There will be another Johanneson involved as the company emerges. Keith’s daughter, Marya Johanneson, is the company's human resources director.

“She will play a key role in the evolution of the company,” Keith said. “We’re still seeking opportunities to grow.”

In fact, Johanneson’s recently acquired franchise rights in North Dakota for Pet Supplies Plus, a national chain, and is planning to open stores in that state.

All this is a far cry from that humble beginning 80 years ago in Edinburg. Keith was asked if his dad would be proud of the legacy.

“I think so,” Keith said with a grin. “He’d still tell me I’m doing everything wrong, but that’s OK. He was a tough old Icelander.”