Family-Owned… Famous for Deals

by Heather Swick

Whether you're looking to buy groceries, new flooring or a self-propelled golf cart, this one-stop-shop has it all.

Founded by the Cohen family in 1945, UFS Downtown Outlet Center has carried on successfully through some of the region’s toughest times, from strikes at Caterpillar to severe economic downturns. And while chain stores have come and gone over the past seven decades, UFS remains a Peoria fixture, family-owned and operated. Owner Pierre Serafin credits their longtime success to solid employees and good, old-fashioned hard work.

"I put long hours in and answer the bell in the morning," he says. "My dad always said, 'Take care of the business, and the business will take care of you.'"

Unclaimed Freight and Beyond
Prior to moving to Peoria in the 1960s, Mitchell C. Serafin, Pierre’s father, ran a chain of 20 stores in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. Looking to open a permanent retail location in Peoria, UFS owners Eve and MP Cohen brought him in for his retail expertise. At that time, the business carried predominantly salvage products, which provided the “UFS” name: Unclaimed Freight Store.

Upon his hiring in 1967, Mitchell Serafin helped open UFS’ current location on Adams Street, which he managed until 1976, when he took a financial stake in the business. After buying out the last remaining partner in 1985, the Serafin family expanded the UFS product line to their own field of expertise—the close-out business—finding deals from major manufacturers and chain retailers, and eventually adding regular lines like carpeting, furniture, appliances, fine wine and spirits.

Since the Serafins took over, the store has remained in the family. Pierre Serafin’s partner, Tom Wiegand—also his brother-in-law—came on board in 1977, and over the past decade, his sister, Claire, and nephew, Gerard, have also joined the business. "There are dynamics to deal with in a family," Serafin says. "We sometimes disagree, and that's a good thing. You have to compromise and put egos aside. We have 80 employees who depend on us to make the right decisions, so we always refer to what's best for the company."

A Place to Explore
Serafin also attributes UFS’ staying power to its continual evolution and recognition of the needs of its customers. "We saw there was a void in the community for groceries, so we tripled our groc
ery section," he notes, citing one example. "People are able to get the basics here, and they're not going to be overcharged."

The grocery section was added fairly recently—a way to help fill the “food desert” left in south Peoria by the January 2014 closing of the ALDI store on Western Avenue. Simply by carrying groceries, Serafin says, they have seen an uptick in business. But as its regular customers know, UFS is not just a grocery store.

"We have many stores within one store," he explains. "We have a flooring area because we install flooring and carpeting. We have a complete furniture store selling mattresses, furniture and flooring from Shaw and Mohawk. And we have a full beverage store carrying thousands of wines and craft selections."

The unique assortment of products, which stems primarily from liquidated and overstock items from major retailers, means one never knows exactly what you might find. "As Tom likes to say, 'we're more than a store—we're a place to explore,'" Serafin says.

Ties to the Community
Throughout the summer, UFS hosts special tasting events, offering up samples of wine, beer and spirits. Its largest such event, Brewapalooza, showcases food, live music and more than 80 craft beers every May. This year, it introduced the George Jacob Gut Buster, a 5K run to raise funds for Neighborhood House, a nonprofit that works to meet the needs of Peoria’s South Side residents. More than 350 people turned out for the run, which featured beer and food challenges at "pit stops" throughout the course and honored former Peoria City Councilman George Jacob. "We named the Gut Buster for George because he was instrumental in helping Neighborhood House," Serafin says. "We thought we would honor him by using his name."

Keeping strong ties close to home, UFS has supported Neighborhood House for decades. "We're invested in Neighborhood House and the South Side, and the community responds to that," he explains. "You have to put money back into the community."

Serafin believes the old perception of this neighborhood is outdated. "'South Side' is a misnomer," he says. "There are a lot of good people in this area and good things happening. There are a lot of positives in this community."

A Family Legacy
When he joined the family business in the 1970s, Pierre Serafin was an engineering major at Bradley University. "I could have done a lot of things, but I wouldn't trade it," he says. "I haven't lost the passion for retail yet."

But when he, his father and Wiegand took it over, UFS was in trouble—about eight months from closing. They did whatever they could to turn the business around, paying special attention to customer service. "You can have all the money in the world, but your reputation is everything," Serafin says. "If you come in and want a carpet, I'm going to find out what your needs are. I like to think I'm building a relationship with someone. A sale's not a sale until the customer is satisfied."

To run a business that stands the test of time, Serafin adds, one must embrace change. "Retail is never the same. There are seasonal changes and employee changes," he notes. "We've changed the store cosmetically at least 10 times since Tom and I have been here. I believe change is constantly good—that you have to evolve."

During his time on Adams Street, Serafin has seen tough times come and go; competitors come to town, then leave; and the community grow and change. He says he’s learned that the key ingredient to success—in business and in the community—is family. "It's the most important part of a community," he says. "Look at the negatives in a community. When you prioritize family and get families involved together, those problems seem to lessen."

As for business, family means a built-in support system for the successes, as well as the trying times. “The union of family in business means putting aside egos and working together. The dynamics are interesting. It helps support you," he explains. "Succession is important, and that's what we're looking at now for the future of the business."

But Serafin says he has many years left to dedicate to the store. "My dad worked here until he was 75. He would just come in and work until noon. My plan is to do something similar. We still have that passion for it." iBi

UFS is located at 1800 SW Adams in Peoria. For more information, call (309) 673-4503 or visit ufsdeal.com.

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