Industry Mourns Passing of Legendary Restaurant Depot Founder Jerry Cohen

Jerry Cohen Restaurant Depot

“The man was a legend, he changed the face of the foodservice industry from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” noted long time friend and business associate Joe Lehr on the passing of the legendary Jerry Cohen. The Brooklyn, NY native Cohen created Restaurant Depot in 1990 in Elmhurst, Queens.

Metro New York City has long been known as a hub for generating some of the more incredible business success stories. In the food service industry, it would be difficult to find one more fascinating than Restaurant Depot and its founder Jerry Cohen.

As he toiled at a single unit cash and carry food outlet catering to restaurants and bodegas in Queens, the germ of a great idea was forming in Cohen’s head. He had seen the proliferation of Warehouse Store concepts in a variety of industries including home improvement and electronics. Cohen was convinced that the warehouse concept could work to provide restaurateurs and food service operators with a one-stop shop for both food and equipment/supply needs and Restaurant Depot was born.

By the summer of 1994 Restaurant Depot was a division of Jetro. The Elmhurst warehouse had done so well, with sales volume of more than $100,000 a week, that the company began to open new outlets, including one in Pompano Beach, Florida.  That success has morphed over the past three decades with the vision of a talented management team led by Jetro’s Stanley Fleischman. Working hand in hand with Jerry Cohen’s son Larry Cohen and son-in-law Clark Pager, the firm has built a national footprint that with last month’s opening in Wilkes Barre, PA and Milford, MA totals 134 stores.

Restaurant Depot offered no credit or delivery service, fielded no salespeople or displays, and did not advertise in the mass media. To become a member required a resale or business license. In addition to low prices, Restaurant Depot offered the convenience and flexibility of buying in odd lots from day to day.

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Restaurant DepotRestaurant Depot offered restaurateurs savings of up to 30 percent on more than 10,000 items, ranging from produce to paper goods and flatware. About half of these customers’ savings came from eliminating trucking and delivery overhead, and the rest derived from high volume and a no-frills location with more than 55,000 square feet of selling space. These customers included delicatessen and coffee shop owners, as well as schools and other institutions. Staffers were helpful in advising customers on the kinds of equipment and products they would need to open their own businesses. At this time Restaurant Depot was also open to the public, with Cohen describing housewives as constituting five to ten percent of the warehouse’s business. Jeff Weinstein of the Village Voice visited the store in 1992, noting its ‘elephantine’ shopping carts and bargains such as 24 eight-ounce bottles of San Pellegrino water for $12.95.

As the industry mourns the passing of Cohen, some 30 years later his vision has evolved into a nationwide success story with 100 plus stores coast to coast servicing the needs of the restaurant and food service professional. 

Glissen’s Lehr said it best: “His success in business was matched by what an incredible person he was.”