Saturday, June 21, 2008

White Hen Pantry, 1967

Mention 7-Eleven, and probably the first thing that comes to most people’s minds are the Slurpees that many of us guzzled as kids. Mention White Hen Pantry, a well-remembered Chicago and Boston-area convenience store chain, and the first things that come to my mind are the incredible iced brownies they used to sell. Over three-by-three inches square and darn near an inch tall, those Burny Bros. babies provided a guaranteed day long chocolate and sugar rush. And it’s a good thing we didn’t know about trans fats in those days.

The 1960’s were the breakout years for the convenience store industry. The first convenience stores – small roadside stores that specialized in sales of ice, milk , bread and few other staple items began to appear in the late 1920’s and early 30’s. Over time, these stores evolved into “small grocery stores”, adding a broader line of foods and various sundries to the mix. Ultimately, many convenience stores would add gasoline sales, either in partnership with a major oil company brand or through “private label” gas purchased through oil jobbers. By the late fifties and early sixties, convenience stores were fairly widespread nationally. The industry at the time was made up of a number of small regional convenience chains and one major player, the Dallas-based Southland Corporation, better known by the name of their stores - 7-Eleven. Ubiquitous in many Texas and Florida markets, The 60’s would see 7-Eleven become a national brand with Southland’s aggressive expansion into the Northeast, Midwest, Rocky Mountain and Southern California markets. In January 1966, Southland announced plans to open its first stores in the Chicago area, with 25 stores scheduled to open within the year, nearly all (initially) in the Northwest suburbs. These stores would report to Southland’s new district headquarters in Rolling Meadows.

Jewel Tea Company, owner of Chicago’s market leading Jewel Food Stores and the recently acquired Star Markets, a popular Boston-area chain, was already well underway with its own convenience store concept at the time. Jewel’s first convenience stores were slated to open in the Chicago area in 1965 under the less-than memorable name of “Kwik Shoppe”.

Around that same time, Jewel made an investment with an Illinois agricultural firm, the White Hen Egg Farm, in order to ensure a steady supply of high-quality eggs to their retail stores. Wisely, they ditched the Kwik Shoppe name (not to be confused with Kwik-E-Mart, heh heh) and adopted the name “White Hen Pantry” for the new stores. Tapping into nostalgia for simpler times with a milk-glass hen dish as their trademark, the first three White Hen Pantries were opened as planned in 1965.

White Hen Pantry was unique within the Jewel organization in that it was a franchised operation, with each store independently owned and operated. For a franchise fee of $15,000 ($12,000 of which went for inventory), Jewel would set a new White Hen owner/operator up with a complete business – store, inventory, training, accounting and distribution services, a fairly sweet deal even for those pre-inflationary times. The new owner/operators were often fairly young (30-ish) married couples, who would run the stores as a true family business. A number of the early White Hen franchisees were previously Jewel Food Store managers who had proven their mettle with the company and were given priority when new White Hen stores were planned. Jewel took no percentage until a given store was profitable, and after that they received a 12% cut of store profits.

A couple of things made White Hen unique within the convenience store industry as well. First, they did not sell gasoline, preferring suburban strip centers for many of their earlier locations, later expanding into urban locations. Secondly, each store had an extensive delicatessen and bakery counter, a particular point of pride and a rarity in those days long before Subway popped up in seemingly every gas station/convenience store on earth.

The White Hen Pantries complemented Jewel’s full-line supermarkets nicely, offering customers extended shopping hours in an era when Jewel and Jewel-Osco stores closed at 9pm in most cases and the great majority of them were closed altogether on Sundays. By 1969, 44 White Hens were in operation in the Chicago area and the first Boston area stores were opened to leverage the Star Market territory there. Eventually, a number of White Hens would be opened in Jewel’s downstate Eisner area as well.

The following 15 years would see steady growth with no major changes to the White Hen operation until 1984, when Jewel was taken over by Salt Lake City-based American Stores Company. American’s chairman Sam Skaggs signaled his intentions to build a food and drug titan, and made it known that convenience stores didn’t fit into his plans. White Hen, with some 240 Chicago locations and 50 Boston locations at the time, would be put up for sale. The White Hen management team, some of whom had been there from the beginning in 1965, expressed their desire to put together an offer to buy the company. Skaggs opted instead to place White Hen on the open market, ripe for the taking to the highest bidder. And the bidders came – Southland/7-Eleven, Convenient Food Mart (a local competitor based in Rosemont, Illinois), Los Angeles-based Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), who operated a number of their “Am/Pm Mini-Markets” in the greater Chicago area, and the White Hen management group, who had secured enough funding to be competitive. Happily, the White Hen team won out, and the company “fell into loving hands”, as the Chicago Tribune put it at the time.

In 2001, White Hen Pantry agreed to be sold to Clark Retail Enterprises, who would immediately divest the Boston area stores to a new entity, called New England Pantry, Inc. Clark itself ran into trouble soon afterward, declaring bankruptcy in 2003. A group led by Brandon Barnhart, the former CEO of Clark purchased White Hen in November of that year, and the “pantry” portion of the name was dropped. The end of the White Hen era, at least in the Chicago area, was signaled in August 2006 when White Hen was bought out by arch rival 7-Eleven. The stores have undergone a slow but sure conversion to the 7-Eleven banner since that time.
Note: Larry of the great Diner Hotline, a Massachusetts resident, rightly points out that White Hen Pantries still exist in the Boston area.

The photos below are all circa 1973. The first two views are of a typical suburban store - an exterior (albeit with non-standard signage) and an interior view showing a portion of the vaunted bakery counter. The last view shows the White Hen Pantry that was located on the ground floor of McClurg Court, a high-rise apartment complex that was definitely one of the hotter Chicago addresses in the 1970’s.


  1. A suggestion: I think you should add Star Market to the tags list for this entry, since it was mentioned quite a bit in this article.

    Star Market was a pretty cool supermarket chain. Stop and Shop was always my favorite, but Star was pretty cool, too. Too bad it was bought out by Shaw's. Things were never the same after that.

  2. Panda Cookie - I meant to include a label for Star and forgot. Thanks for pointing that out. I have great memories of shopping at Star as a kid. I grew up in Chicago but spent a month in Rhode Island every summer with my grandparents and shopped at the North Smithfield RI Star. My Grandpa always got a kick out of (repeatedly) pointing out the fact that Star was owned by Jewel, where my family shopped back at home.

  3. Wow, I am not sure I have ever seen that script logo before. These photos are exactly what I imagine these White Hens must have once looked like in the middle of neat neighborhoods such as the bungalow belts.

    Just before the 7-11 buyout, I was loving White Hen for their various flavors of freshly brewed coffee. 7-11 has kept up the tradition but the flavors are no where near as varied and the coffee isn't always so fresh either.

  4. In our pantry you can always tell if something is *really* old when it still has a "Stah Mah-ket" stickah on it. I especially love the location that's over the Mass Turnpike. It's a great landmark for the traffic reports "And westbound, you're backed up past the Star Market..."

    And just remember: when you run out, run out to White Hen.

  5. Didi - The script was only around for a few years. The logo in the last photo is the much more common version. They must have introduced all of those coffee flavors after I left town, but I remember it as being pretty good.

    Anonymous - A-yuh, the Stah Mahket was the best (or as my Gram would say, shoo-a). And now I can't get that White Hen commercial jingle out of my head! Interesting to note that they used it in the Boston area as well. We heard it all the time in Chicago.

    Here's a great link to a photo of the Newtonville, Mass Star in its early days:

  6. I am guessing that the coffee was something they probably initiated in the last ten to fifteen years or so, maybe to compete with growing competition to Starbucks. I remember a homeroom teacher of mine in high back in the mid 90s raved about the coffee. But I never actually went there unfortunately until much later on.

    During the winter time they would serve a Pumpkin Spice cappuccino that was probably the best around. I have had other at Starbucks and Panera but it just does not taste the same. When my husband and I were dating he would suprise me sometimes with it while I was at work.

  7. We still have White Hen Pantrys. In fact there are 2 of them in Saugus where I live.

  8. There is still a White Hen near me in Bensenville IL, less than a block from an existing 7-11 store/gas station.

    I asked if they were going to become 7-11 and hey said they are keeping some branded WH. But in Chicago, seems like all the WH's are now 7-11 with some a block apart.

  9. Larry - Thanks, I've made a note on the post about the New England White Hens.

    Tomcat - I've noticed as well that some have remained White Hens. Might be some sort of marketing experiment at this point.

  10. Does anybody know which White Hen appears in the top photo (ca. 1967)? It looks just like the one on Ewing & Central in Evanston. However, I'm going to guess that a lot of White Hen Pantry's had the same building design.

    By the way, the McClurg Court store is still there (recently converted to a 7-11, of course).

  11. Chris - I think that it's one of the very earliest White Hen units. The first one was located in Des Plaines, and may be the one pictured, though I don't know for sure.

  12. Sadly, the New England White Hens are being phased out as well.

  13. Anonymous – Thanks for sharing that article, I wasn’t aware of the impending conversion of the remaining White Hens. Nothing against 7-Eleven, but I too find it sad – yet another retail name from my childhood on its way out. It was always to see the familiar signs, which have been gone from Chicago for a while now, on trips to New England.

  14. Does anyone have a link to the "run out" ad? I'm an ESL teacher and I always used it to teach phrasal verbs, "run out of" and "run out to".