The Legacy of Dan Coborn

The Legacy of Dan Coborn -
Painting by Howard R Hanson

It is with a heavy heart that Coborn’s, Inc. announces that Daniel G. (Dan) Coborn, former Chairman, President and CEO of Coborn’s, Inc. passed away March 15, 2017 at the age of 86. Dan led the company for the greater part of the 20th century, serving as its chief executive from the late 1950s until 1999.

1982 St. Cloud Times Article
1982 St. Cloud Times Article

Dan Coborn wasn’t destined to become a CEO. It was sheer tenacity, courage of conviction and a healthy dose of luck that got him there.

Dan was born to humble beginnings as the third of seven children to Duke and Florence (Graham) Coborn. Like most Depression era children, he was put to work at a young age to help make ends meet. He – alongside his three brothers, Bob, Bill and Ron – took on odd jobs as young boys. Many were what others considered the “worst jobs.” From checking eggs under a light for freshness to filling soft drink bottles to wrapping fish amidst the pungent odor, there were few jobs the Coborn brothers didn’t do.

“I started delivering groceries when I was 10 years old,” Dan said during a 2008 interview with Business Central. “All the able-bodied men were gone because of the war. I’d put a pillow on the seat so I could see out the window when driving the delivery truck.”

“You’re the boss’s son so you got to do it all,” Dan remembered his father saying.

Dan’s youth was colorful – full of mischief, antics and risk. In later years, he wasn’t proud of the trouble he had caused but he always took the good from the bad. His childhood experiences taught him lifelong lessons of patience, enduring optimism and the power of second chances. It was this remarkable influence that helped shape Coborn’s, Inc. into the company it is today.

Dan Coborn
Dan Coborn

Dan graduated from Sauk Rapids High School in 1948. He went on to attend Saint John’s University, where he played football. Temptations outside the classroom led to poor grades. One afternoon the Abbot called Dan to his office to bestow wisdom, “You know, Dan, the world needs truck drivers, too.” Dan got back on the straight and narrow and graduated in 1952 with a degree in economics.

Dan and Mabel's Wedding Day
Dan and Mabel’s Wedding Day

That same year, Dan married Mabel Hansen of Rockville, MN. He went on to serve in the U.S. Army where he was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for two years. Upon discharge, he was accepted into law school at University of Minnesota but declined the opportunity and returned to Sauk Rapids to work for his father because he and Mabel learned they were expecting their first child. Dan quickly became his father’s right-hand man and assisted with a variety of management duties. In 1959, Dan and his brothers found themselves at the helm of the company after their father’s unexpected passing. Since Dan’s older brother Bob was enlisted in the service at the time, Dan was chosen by his brothers to be in charge.

“We were trying to eke out a living,” Dan said. “We needed to expand to support four families. One store was not going to do it.”

In 1963, the brothers purchased their second store. “The Foley school superintendent decided the grocery business was better than working for the school district,” Dan recalled. “It didn’t take long for him to decide the risk wasn’t worth it. He wanted out and we wanted in. We moved out of that building in Foley and shortly after that the roof caved in,” Dan said. “Just another example of how it’s better to be lucky than smart.”

Cash Wise Ground Breaking 1982
Left to right: Dennis Rice, Rice Building Systems
Don Wetter, Coborn’s, Inc. executive vice president
Dan Coborn, Coborn’s, Inc. president
John Rice, Rice Building Systems

Dan led the company over the years with bold vision and resolve. After opening the company’s first Cash Wise store in Willmar in 1979, Dan envisioned the next Cash Wise location in an open field on the outskirts of Waite Park. Grocers typically planned their stores around residential growth but this would break that convention. Dan was determined to build the store under the “build it and they will come” theory. The gamble would place the company as the wager. It took convincing for others in the company to see the potential but the reward wound up being worth the risk. Today, the Waite Park store has been remodeled several times and is the company’s flagship Cash Wise store among a chain of 17.

Dan would admit that not all decisions were the right ones. Perhaps the biggest flop was Fountain Fresh – a bulk soda attraction, where customers could choose from 30 flavors of soda – some of the more unusual choices being peach, banana, sarsaparilla and piña colada – or mix their own combinations “soda-fountain style.” Cash Wise in Waite Park was the first store in the five-state area to carry Fountain Fresh but the concept just never caught on.

Dan was the eternal optimist. Even during the toughest of times, he didn’t dwell on them. “We made some bad decisions, but nothing that took the company down,” Dan said. “In the history of the company, we never missed a payroll except for four people – my brothers and me. And that didn’t happen very often. I never lost faith in the fact that it was a good business. People have to eat. They have to get their food from someplace.”

Dan & Mabel Grocers on the Green
Dan & Mabel Coborn Grocers On The Green Fundraising Event 2010

Dan had the ability to say so much while saying so little. His basic principles for business, leadership and treating others well, endure throughout the company today:

  • “It’s better to be lucky than smart.”
  • “You can’t sell from an empty shelf.”
  • “Talk is cheap. It still takes money to buy whiskey.”
  • “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

Dan felt a tremendous sense of duty to his community. In 1967, he and his wife Mabel became charter members of United Way of Central Minnesota. He was also a founding member of the Boys & Girls Club of Central Minnesota board, which both he and Mabel served on at different times. In addition to that, he served on the Board of Trustees. Dan mobilized others to give back, as well. Coborn’s retired Chief Operating Officer, Bob Thueringer, who was with the company for 47 years, remembers Dan speaking to him as a high school student. “You may be a student; you may not make a whole lot; but you have a responsibility to this community,” he said.

Dan’s leadership in the grocery business and commitment to his customers and community earned him recognition over the years. In 1987, he was named Minnesota Grocer of the Year by Minnesota Grocers Association. He also received accolades from College of Saint Benedict, National Grocers Association, St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce, St. Cloud State University and United Way of Central Minnesota. In 2002, he received the Father Walter Reger Distinguished Alumnus Award from Saint John’s University – the highest honor they bestow – for outstanding service to the Saint John’s community by an alumnus. He was never in it for the recognition but he appreciated it.

Dan’s success in business created opportunities for him and the company to give back. His generosity touched many organizations and institutions but he had a special place in his heart for education. He provided gifts to Cathedral High School; College of St. Benedict; Saint John’s University; St. Cloud Technical and Community College; St. Cloud State University; and others.

St. Cloud State University Herb Brooks National Hockey Center
St. Cloud State University Herb Brooks National Hockey Center

He also tirelessly gave of his time. He served on countless boards and participated in many civic organizations, including CentraCare Health, Friends of the College of Saint Benedict, Sauk Rapids School Board, and others. He was a Sauk Rapids volunteer fireman for many years. While serving on both the MNSCU and St. Cloud Hospital Board of Directors, Dan learned about the shortage of nurses in Central Minnesota. He worked behind the scenes to connect the right people, lobby and advocate, and ultimately succeeded in helping to establish a nursing program at St. Cloud State University. Dan and his son, Chris, were instrumental in bringing Division I Hockey, Herb Brooks and the National Hockey Center to St. Cloud State University.

1999 The  Most Generous Company in America Award
1999 The Most Generous Company in America Award

Dan’s philanthropy was born out of wanting to give back to those who had been so good to Coborn’s. In 1999, he was honored to receive an award on behalf of the company when Coborn’s, Inc. was named one of the Ten Most Generous Companies in America. The award was sponsored by John F. Kennedy Jr.’s magazine, George, and was presented by Kennedy and actor and philanthropist Paul Neuman. “I thought it was a joke at first,” Dan said. He and Mabel flew to New York to receive the honor. “We all share responsibility for the health of our communities,” Dan said upon receiving the award.

In his later years, Dan found satisfaction spending winters with his wife Mabel in Florida and playing golf with friends. He loved watching his son Chris and his management team lead the company into new possibilities. Well into his 80s, Dan would drive from his home in Sartell to the former Coborn’s, Inc. office on the East side of St. Cloud, just to be there and read the paper. He moved a little slower in his later years but he never missed an opportunity to attend a Friday morning staff meeting. “It’s good to see you, Dan,” employees would tell him. “It’s good to be seen,” he’d reply.

“It is rare that a person has the opportunity to work so closely with their father for most of their life,” Chris said. “I was blessed to have had my dad be such an influential personal and professional mentor. He was absolutely extraordinary.”

Chris and Dan Coborn Employee Ownership Celebration 2012
Chris and Dan Coborn Employee Ownership Celebration 2012

In his interview with Business Central Magazine, Dan summed up success in these simple terms, “You work hard, you know what the goals should be, and if you want to put in enough blood, sweat and tears, you’ll succeed.”

Dan was adored and beloved by so many at Coborn’s, Inc. He will be deeply missed but we honor his memory with his favorite toast, “Friends may come and friends may go, friends may peter out you know. But we’ll be friends through thick or thin, peter out or peter in.”

Dan and Mabel Coborn 2009
Dan and Mabel Coborn 2009

Dan married Mabel Hansen of Rockville, MN in 1952. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Mabel, and his five children, Shelly Coborn, Chris (Becky Bergner) Coborn, Suzy (Marty) Ellis, Duke (Amy Armstrong), Tom Coborn; grandchildren, Danny (Tina) Coborn, Maria Coborn, Emily Coborn, Michael Coborn, Peter Coborn, Maggie Ellis, Jack Ellis, Charlie Ellis, Duke Jr. Coborn, Willy Coborn; 1 great-grandchild, Dahlia Coborn; and his sister, Nancy Fandel. He was preceded in death by his parents, Duke and Florence (Graham); brothers, Bob, Ron, Bill and Neil Coborn; his sister Betty and his grandson, Nicholas.

A Little Luxury Gift without a Luxury Price Tag

Simple and Delicious Gift Idea - - Crafty Creations with Lynell

Need a special gift that is a true luxury without a luxury price tag? Simply pair a couple apples with a package of Four Brothers Creamy Caramel Dip and wrap it up. This year’s apples are particularly delicious – juicy and crisp and very flavorful. They are the perfect complement to this Coborn’s exclusive, rich and creamy, gourmet caramel dip. These “sweet” gifts are great for co-workers, party hosts, neighbors, and even close friends. They are simple, gourmet, inexpensive and oh-so-delicious!

Caramel Apple Holiday Gift
  • 1 Green Apple
  • Red Apple
  • 1 Container Four Brothers Creamy Caramel Dip
  • 1.5 Sq. Ft. Clear Cellophane
  • 1 Ft. Holiday Ribbon
  • Holiday Décor Garnishments
  1. Place the caramel dip container on the center of the cellophane.
  2. Place the apples on top of the caramel dip. You can use two smaller apples or one giant one.
  3. Pull the cellophane up to surround the caramel dip and apples, and then tie your ribbon around the top.
  4. Finish the gift by tying on some holiday décor garnishments, whether pine boughs and a cinnamon stick or some Christmas bulbs.

The Four Brothers Creamy Caramel Dip is one of the signature Coborn’s family products that honors the company’s heritage and history. It was the four Coborn brothers in the third generation in the company who really began the growth of the Coborn’s chain of supermarkets. Click here to read more about the Four Brothers brand.

Coborn’s, Inc. Graphic Designer

Click Here for more blog articles written by Lynell. - Crafty Creations by Lynell


The Launching of a New Brand: Honoring a Rich Family History

Coborn's New Four Brothers Brand - www.cobornsblog.comAt Coborn’s, we’re always looking to create new and exciting ways to please our customers and introduce new items.  I’m excited to announce the debut of our own new brand, “Four Brothers,” a unique product lineup that touts our company heritage and history that dates back to the company’s origins in the early 1900s.  “Four Brothers” pays tribute to the 3rd generation of Coborn’s brothers, Bob, Dan, Bill and Ron, all credited with taking Coborn’s, Inc. to new levels under their leadership in the 1960’s through today.  In addition, we’ve also just released a wonderful coffee-table style book, “Behind the Store Shelves” that details the rich history of the supermarket chain from our early days, way back in the late 1800’s actually, when Chester and Lee Coborn opened Coborn’s Bros Feed Store in 1884 through today.  You can find “Behind the Store Shelves” at all St. Cloud area Coborn’s stores.  And I promise, if you’re a history fan at all, or have any connection at all – either through your own employment with Coborn’s at some time, or have any connection at all to the Coborn’s family, you will certainly want to pick up a copy.  It’s an outstanding tribute to one of Central Minnesota’s most revered companies.

Coborn's History Book -

The Rich History of Coborn’s, Inc.

Chester A. Coborn is credited with starting the “original” Coborn’s Grocery in 1921 in Sauk Rapids’ oldest landmark, the Bell Building.  His sons, Chester C. and Duke Coborn took over the business in 1929.  Bob, Dan, Bill and Ron, the “four brothers” and sons of Duke, were all involved in the family business starting in the early 1940s during WWII.  They became increasingly more involved in the business, taking over significant leadership roles in 1957.

Throughout the years that the four brothers served as the company’s leaders, the company grew from a handful of Coborn’s stores to the company we are today, with more than 120 business units including our flagship stores, 30 Coborn’s stores located in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota, and 14 Cash Wise Foods stores, located in Minnesota and North Dakota.  From a few hundred employees back then, to more than 7,500 today, the four Coborn brothers took the company to new heights.  Dan Coborn, now 84 years young, still serves as the company Chairman and can still be seen several days a week around the office, despite the fact he “retired” in 1999.

The Launch of a New Brand

So with that rich history in place, we felt it a natural fit to honor the four brothers when we began looking at how we could create a “destination” brand in our Coborn’s stores.  With months of brainstorming and research behind us, we agreed that paying tribute to Bob, Dan, Bill and Ron would be an appropriate way to recognize their leadership.  “Four Brothers” will showcase unique, one-of-a-kind fresh items, primarily in our meat, bakery, deli and produce departments, staying true to the company’s roots, where Coborn’s started first as a produce market, and then opened its first smokehouse, meat market and fresh bakery in Sauk Rapids in the 1960s and 70s.

Coborn's Own Four Brothers Cheezy Garlic Loaf -

Cheezy Garlic Loaf

Our first Four Brothers item has already arrived in your favorite Coborn’s bakery department.  Cheezy Garlic Loaf is a delicious artisan gourmet bread, loaded with cheese, and the perfect accompaniment to any great family dinner.  Eat it right out of the bag…and it’s difficult to stop once you start, I can attest.  Or, wrap it in foil and heat it in your oven or on the grill for a delicious addition to your favorite BBQ or Italian meal.  As the calendar turns to fall, it will be a great addition to your chili meals, as well.   You can find it now in our bakery departments.

Flame-Seared Ribs

Jayne R., our wonderful meat and seafood department merchandiser, introduced you to Four Brothers Flame Seared Ribs in her blog earlier this week.  And they are delicious!  Meaty, savory, and most of all, convenient…simply heat and eat.  Be sure to slather on your favorite BBQ sauce, too, for a little added punch.  You’ll find Four Brothers Flame Seared Ribs in the service case in our meat departments.

Creamy Caramel Sauce

In the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing a wonderfully decadent Four Brothers Creamy Caramel Dip.  As we move into fall and the apple harvest, there’s just nothing better than a crunchy crisp apple with a sweet, smooth caramel sauce to top it off.  Watch for Four Brothers Creamy Caramel Sauce, arriving soon in our produce departments.

In the weeks and months to come, we’ll be introducing several new Four Brothers items as well. We have plans for new items in all of our fresh departments – bakery, deli, produce and meat.  We hope you’ll come to love this exciting lineup of new items as wonderful additions to your family table to make memorable meal occasions.


Coborn's Guest Blogger and VP of Marketing, Dennis -

– Dennis H.
Coborn’s, Inc. VP of Marketing / Guest Blogger

The Wonder of Watkins Naturally Close to Home with Rhonda

One of my favorite Minnesota brands is J.R. Watkins. They started out in Plainview, Minnesota, back in 1868 selling their pain relieving liniment. It is rare that a product is so effective and popular that it is still for sale 145 years later!

They built the business through door to door sales and independent distributors. I am sure many of you recall seeing Waktins Distributor signs in the yards of your neighbors. You can still spot a few today and I saw a nice couple selling them at a booth at the county fair recently. The wonder of WatkinsOf course, some things need to change, at least a little, and in 2003 Watkins began selling in retail stores. Coborn’s was thrilled to be a part of this expansion. We consider Watkins to be a true partner in business. They support our community activities, providing many samples for our customers to try.  They continue to innovate, adding a Natural Home Care line of cleaning products, which are some of the best you will find. They smell wonderful, without being overwhelming, and are just the ticket for some cleaning inspiration. We could all use that, right?  And the Body Care line is amazing! The lemon scent is my favorite. It smells like a sweet treat but without the calories. The wonder of WatkinsWhen you shop at your local Coborn’s, you can buy Watkins Spices & Extracts, as well as their Home Care and Body Care at stores with Natural Foods Departments. But there are still certain items that you can’t buy from us, as Watkins has kept certain items only available through their independent distributors. To me, that shows their commitment to the people that helped build their company from their humble beginnings in 1868.

If you find yourself in Winona, stop by their headquarters for a tour. They are open to the public, but feel free to tell them I sent you!

Natural Foods Category Manager
Coborn’s, Inc.

Click Here for more blog articles written by Rhonda

Naturally Close to Home with Rhonda -


The Donut, an American Classic • Check out this blog. Coborn's Bakery Plant Manager tells an interesting story about how the donut came to be. A really "sweet" blog.June 7th is National Donut Day this year.  Did anyone ever question where donuts came from? Today you can go to any bakery and some bread stores to get your fill of various types of donuts; chocolate iced, raspberry filled, glazed. I am sure there is one out there for everyone. But going back to my original question, where did the donuts get their start?

Bakers always had problems with what to do with leftover bread dough. They found if they took a strip of dough, tied it in a knot and then dropped it in hot pork grease, the fried confection had a unique but good flavor.  The Dutch called them, English translated, dough-knots.

As time went on bakers filled the middle with apples, prunes or raisins but a major problem occurred; the centers were never fully cooked or, as some may say, had “raw centers”.  Bakery folklore is thought to have said that a sea captain’s mother from New England made these for her son with nutmeg and hazelnuts or walnuts in the middle.  She would call them dough-nuts.  However, when he went to sea he had his cook make them and like before the centers never fully fried so out of frustration he told him to leave out the filling, thus creating a hole. Is this true or a legend?  I don’t know but it sure sounds good. • Learn the story behind the "Doughnut Girl" and WWI "Doughboys"During World War I donuts had become very popular and many of you may have seen the Salvation Army poster titled “My Doughnut Girl.”  She was always handing them out to the GIs at the train station, reminding her “Doughboys” to come back home.  These ladies then went to Europe and their sole purpose was to make doughnuts for the Doughboys.

When the Doughboys came back from war they were in love with the doughnut.  Like popcorn today, they were sold as a popular snack in movie theaters. To satisfy the increasing demand a Russian immigrant created the first donut machine. At the 1934 World Fair in Chicago the donut was declared the food hit at the Century of Progress Fair.


We at Coborn’s will be celebrating National Donut Day on June 7th with the Salvation Army by selling specially boxed donuts with a portion of all proceeds going to the Salvation Army. The donut still remains the one confection that anyone from the age of 2 to 102 can enjoy with their favorite beverage of milk or coffee. Healthy?? Sorry, that could be another blog. It truly is an American Classic.