Established more than a century ago, Friedman & Cohen has become a unique shopping venue with a tradition of personalised service and quality at affordable prices.
Friedman and Cohen History
A young man by the name of Benjamin Friedman escaped from the pogroms in Russia and arrived from Lithuania at Cape Town in 1903. He managed to get a job at the docks in Cape Town where he worked for 2/- (20 cents) per day. After approximately six months, he felt that, as he had saved a little money and taught himself to speak a little English and Afrikaans, he should try to start his own little business.
He bought a bicycle for 10/- (1 Rand) and cycled all the way from Cape Town, past Goodwood, Parow, Bellville, Kuilsriver, Faure, and Firgrove, to Somerset West. At Somerset West, he learned that AECI, or, as it was then known, the Cape Dynamite Factory, was being started and it would employ a large number of people.
He went to the Magistrate and, for 2/6 (25 cents), he obtained a general dealers license. He then hired a shop in Station Road, Somerset West (where Mrs Sybil now has her furniture store) and proceeded to Cape Town to purchase stock.
The wholesaler at that time was Messrs. JW Jagger & Co, who refused to open an account without references. This Mr Benjamin Friedman was unable to supply as he had never traded before and knew nobody in the trade. He then suggested that they send the order COD. He admits that he has never been able to establish what made him suggest that they send the order COD as he obviously would not have the money to release the order. However, he was a man of great faith and always said the Lord will provide.
When he arrived at the station he found that, by mistake, they had not marked the goods COD. He took delivery, sold the goods, and immediately went in to Jaggers to let them know that they had not sent the goods COD and that he had come to settle the account. Recognising Mr Friedman’s good faith, Jaggers opened an account for him and he was in business.
Two years later he married Miss Anna Cohen, and his brother-in-law, Mr Shio Ben Cohen, joined him and they decided to open their store in Strand. Strand was then only a little fishing village and the sea used to push up at Spring tide, right up to where Friedman & Cohen is now. Mr Friedman bought the land where the shop is now situated, much to the amusement of the old residents, as they said the customers would need a boat to get to the shop.
A typical country store was built and it had a few groceries, crockery and kitchenware, and dress materials. Behind the shop was Mr Cohen’s house, the stable, and the stores.
In 1928, Mr Abe Friedman joined the firm.
A few years later, the great depression of 1933 took place. Business was extremely bad. Businesses were considered lucky if they could remain solvent. Unemployment was rife, and people were happy if they could get jobs as labourers on the roads and railways.
During the great depression, the partners decided that, as in the days of Joseph when the seven fat years were followed by the seven lean years, so also this depression will be followed by a boom. They decided to enlarge the shop, to install new fittings and fixtures, and to turn the store into a departmental store by opening a furniture department, a shoe department, and a showroom.
Mrs Cohen ran the showroom in one of the rooms in her house at that time. This proved to be a very wise decision because, on account of the depression, all these improvements were carried out at a very low cost and when the country kicked out of the depression, Friedman & Cohen was ready to enjoy the boom to its full extent.
In 1948, Friedman & Cohen bought an adjoining property that belonged to the Mochomovitz Bros. for 25 000 pounds (R50 000). This was the highest price that had ever been paid for any property in Strand at that time. The highest price paid for a property before that was when Mr Benson Bosman bought the White House Hotel for 10 000 pounds (R20 000).
I still remember so vividly when Mr Victor du Plessis, who was our father’s attorney for many many years, came into the store and said he wanted to talk to us privately. We went into the office and he said that he had been Mr Benjamin Friedman’s attorney for many, many years. He knew how hard Mr Friedman had worked for his money and he was terribly upset to see that our father had hardly passed away and we were already wasting his money and that we must please cancel the sale. We assured Oom Duppie (as we used to call him) that we appreciated his concern very much but that we were confident that our move was the correct one as the property joined ours and would be very useful if we wanted to expand one day. He was not the only one who felt we made a bad buy. Most of the property owners thought we were mad and were waiting for us to go insolvent.
In 1948, Friedman & Cohen decided to change the grocery department into a self-service supermarket which included a butchery, vegetable department, and fresh fruit department. This was a very bold step as self service supermarkets were absolutely unknown in the country, and although Stuttafords and OK Bazaar operated supermarkets successfully in the cities, the country folk were much more conservative.
As we were the very first self-service supermarket in the country, we did not know whether it would be successful. Even though we met with a lot of resistance from our customers, but overcame it by appointing two of our most friendly and capable assistants as hostesses who helped the customers to choose their requirements from the shelves.
In 1958, Friedman & Cohen realised that the store had grown too small again and decided to demolish the whole place, as well as the building bought from the Mochomovitz Bros., and build a three-storey building that included a lift, the very first lift in Strand. As a result of this, we were able to enlarge our existing departments and to start many new departments. This rebuilding program again proved to be a wise one. The customers doubled and the business really prospered.
On the morning of 25 October 1973 at 00h30, Friedman & Cohen had a disastrous fire that gutted the whole building. It is impossible to describe the trauma of seeing 70 years of sweat, hard work, planning, failures, and successes destroyed in mere hours.
This was even more devastating when learning that the fire could have been extinguished earlier had Strand had a reasonable fire brigade instead of a little Land Rover. The Somerset West Municipality and AECI very kindly agreed to assist, but by the time they arrived, it was too late.
Fortunately, the furniture department, which is a separate building, was not destroyed and, in the morning, we gathered there with all our staff. We advised our staff to go home to relax, and not to worry as their jobs were safe, and to meet again the next morning.
The next morning, it was the same procedure. And the day thereafter, on the Wednesday, Mr Sam Friedman, Mr Abe Friedman, Mr Avron Cohen, and Mr Benjamin Friedman had a meeting where Mr Sam and Mr Abe told the boys that, as they were in their sixties, they did not have the energy to restart the business and thought we should sell the site.
Mr Avron Cohen was devastated and suggested that, if Mr Sam Friedman and Mr Abe Friedman assisted financially, he and Mr Benjamin Friedman would do all the work to rebuild the store. Mr Benjamin Friedman readily agreed. He felt that he couldn’t just allow a tradition and business of 70 years to disappear.
After a long discussion, they decided to call in the shop-fitters. The staff were absolutely superb. And although we only made the decision to rebuild on a Wednesday afternoon, we were ready for trading by the following Monday morning. Our suppliers, our customers, and everybody concerned were most cooperative and helpful.
But this was when our troubles really started.
Unfortunately, we were hopelessly under-insured. Instead of insuring our property at replacement value, we only increased the insurance each year to cover the inflation rate. Additionally, the fire took place at the end of October when our stock was at its very highest as all our summer and Christmas goods had arrived. We were paid out according to what our balance sheet was in June (and the stock was at its lowest).
Although the country was booming in 1973, we suddenly fell into a recession in 1974 and money was in extremely short supply. We approached our Bank for a bond but they refused, saying that statistics have shown that only 14% of businesses destroyed by fire can successfully recover and the bank wasn’t willing to risk it.
After obtaining his BCom (C.A) from the University of Cape Town, Leon Cohen joined the business in 1976. He took charge of the administration and was responsible for the computerising the financial systems.
He left the business in 1989 to emigrate to Australia.
We then approached a new Bank who were very excited about getting our account. We needed R1 000 000 for the rebuilding of the shop for which we wanted a bond of R700 000. We needed a R350 000 overdraft to restock and R500 000 for fixtures, fitting, fridges, cash registers, office machinery, and typewriters.
We managed to get leasing for the fixtures and fittings and the Bank provided us with the bond and the overdraft facilities. However, the Bank tied up all our assets, including our private homes as collateral, with the result that, if things did not work out, we would all have gone out absolutely penniless.
There is an old Chinese adage that reads “Fate admires courage and is apt to bestow the good things on those who take the bad well”. This certainly seems to be true because, all of a sudden, everything seemed to fall into place.
Within three months, most of the customers had returned and we had more customers on our books than prior to the fire. Additionally, the government had decided to introduce TV to the country. Mr Barry Friedman joined Mr Avron Cohen on a TV course with Philips and we had an extremely successful year in our TV department. So much so, that our turnover and profits doubled and we were able to make large repayments. And with the new air-conditioned store and the excellent layout, the planning of which took many, many hours of hard work, the business just went from strength to strength and we could breathe freely once more.
The business has remained in the family for 3 generations. The ongoing success of the store is attributed to maintaining our excellent customer service and our wide variety of quality merchandise.