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James Lewis Kraft

cheese entrepreneur

James Lewis Kraft

James Lewis Kraft was born on a dairy farm near Stevensville, Ontario, Canada on December 11, 1874, the second of eleven children. Educated locally, he began working at a general store in Fort Erie at the age of eighteen. He subsequently moved to Buffalo, New York, where he invested in a cheese company. In 1903 he went to Chicago, Illinois, to manage a branch of the company, but while there his partners dissolved the business.

Stranded in Chicago with only $65 in his pocket, Kraft bought a horse and wagon and began buying cheese wholesale and reselling it to local merchants. Because most small merchants found it too difficult and costly to travel to Chicago's wholesale warehouse district to buy the cheese they sold in their stores, Kraft's venture quickly prospered. By 1909 several of his brothers had joined the company as permanent employees (Charles H., John H., Fred, and Norman), and the business was incorporated under the name of J. L. Kraft & Bros. Co. that year.

Until Kraft entered the business, cheese was produced in large wheels and had a tendency to spoil quickly when cut because most grocers and consumers had no access to refrigeration. Kraft solved the problem by developing a revolutionary process, patented in 1916, for pasteurizing cheese so that it would resist spoilage and could be shipped long distances. The sale of six million pounds of "processed cheese" to the U.S. Army during World War 1 insured the fortunes of the company.

Over the years, Kraft introduced many other innovative products and used progressive marketing techniques to make his company one of North America’s leading food producers. As early as 1911, he was advertising on Chicago elevated trains, using outdoor billboards, and mailing circulars to retail grocers. He was also among the first to advertise in consumer journals and to use coloured advertisements in national magazines. In 1933, Kraft started to use radio on an extensive scale. The company sponsored the one-hour weekly musical and variety show "Kraft Musical Review," which headlined notable show business personalities. He also helped create one of the first major television programs, the “Kraft Television Theater,” which ran from 1947 until 1958.

James Kraft died in Chicago on February 16, 1953, and was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery, Skokie, Illinois. He was survived by his wife Pauline and daughter Edith. Now known as Kraft Foods, the company he founded has grown to become the second largest food and beverage company in the world.

History of Business
Illinois Hall of Fame

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This page was last updated on December 11, 2017.