Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Kroger Blue

Well, I’ve been Krogering for nearly half my life now. They were still around in the Chicago area when I was very young, though I don’t recall our family ever shopping there in those years. By 1971 they had pulled out of the market completely, selling most area stores and their distribution center to Dominick’s. Moving to the south in 1987, the first Kroger stores I remember sported the “greenhouse’’ type architecture, and most have since been significantly remodeled or replaced. Kroger is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, a remarkable milestone in era when retailers are all too disposable. It’s high time some attention was paid to them on this site, don’t you think? They’ve never been bought out, bailed out, and despite the best efforts of some infamous 1980’s corporate raiders, never taken private. They’ve operated out of the same high-rise headquarters, a Cincinnati landmark, for nearly fifty years. Shoot, they’ve even had the same logo since 1961! And of course, their name is not just a noun but a verb as well.

This highly airbrushed, super-saturated 1954 photo shows the standard Kroger prototype of the era. Thanks to the forced perspective of the photo, the (already fairly tall) pylon appears utterly gigantic, dwarfing Ma and Pa as they exit the store.


  1. I Moved to Florida 12 yrs ago & I still miss Kroger. Theres just something unique about them. I would love to see some more posts about them.

  2. Although I'm not a huge fan of Kroger, I've come to rely on them for consistency and comfort as we've moved from city to city. Like you, Dave, we rarely shopped at Kroger while I was growing up in Chicago, and I don't think we missed them when they left. As I moved around as an adult we shopped at them while living in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Memhpis and Atlanta. Now that we live in Akron, I'd give almost ANYTHING to have them come back to this market and give Giant Eagle and Acme some real competition. After two years, I still have not become endeared to either of those stores, though more so Giant Eagle with their Fuel Perks promotion (and free tanks of gas). Looking forward to seeing more classic Kroger photos!

  3. What an amazing piece of beauty! I never knew grocery stores could be so gorgeous. Oh, wait, yes I did.

    For some reason I actually thought Kroger pulled of Chicago during the late 70s.

  4. Kroger's history is pretty remarkable given their weak performance thru the 60s and the debt they piled up fighting off buyers in the 80s. They also are the only large chain with significant manufacturing capacity. Vertical integration was one reason Winn-Dixie was slow to close stores, as it needed to place product from manufacturing facilities in an environment where food processing facilities didn't fetch decent prices. A&P still has a plant in upsate New York that's been moth balled for a couple decades.

    Kroger left Chicago and, later, most of its Northern markets because it failed to adapt to the world of larger stores and fresh food departments. Even laggard chains like National often operated more up to date stores, while chains like Jewel, Fazio, Giant Eagle, Farmer Jack, etc. ran far larger, more innovative stores. Kroger was able to save itself with superstores, which were an innovation in most of the South, but often too little too late in the more northern markets.

    They've managed well as a defense player under the Dillons. They haven't launched price wars since the 70s, the perishables are never very good but usually not the worst, and the store brand items are usually a decent choice. It's turned into a winning enough combo so that they've survived competition from Wal-Mart, in part because it's the low price chains that have taken it on the chin, along with Winn-Dixie.

  5. One thing I find odd is the lack of any examples of this prototype in the Atlanta area. I don't know if this is due to the region's development mindset of down with the old and up with the new or that this prototype was rare in Atlanta or all surviving examples have been heavily altered. Kroger didn't complete the conversion from the Piggly Wiggly name in Atlanta until the early or mid 50s, so its possible that the prototype was rare. The mid 50s Emory University Kroger that closed back in 98 and is now a CVS looked more typical of their 1960s stores but smaller. The 1960s build Kroger stores tended to be rather generic and uninspiring while being modern. This 1950s prototype would have given the chain a distinctive format prior to the adoption of the superstore design in 1972. The 1960s were not a good decade for Kroger in Atlanta and the late 60s and early 70s saw many Kroger closings in Georgia and Alabama. This is a far contrast from the Atlanta operation today which is one of the largest(after Ralphs) and most profitible divisions-generally the most profitible Kroger division from the early 80 until the Fred Meyer merger.

  6. Kroger returned to the Chicago area recently under the name "Food4Less" around 2005.

  7. Kroger recently replaced its Bourbonnais, IL location. The Kankakee suburb/Chicago exurb is probably the closest Kroger bannered Kroger to Chicago, excluding the Food 4 Less locations. Also, Michigan City, IN and Ottaw, IL are relatively close to the metro. And Hilander of Rockford has been part of Kroger since around 2000. Kroger passed on buying Dominick's from Safeway a few years back, but it appears the chain is keeping its eye on Chicago.

  8. What made Kroger what it is now were two big acquisitions...Dillon in the 80s, which brought in Dillon's, Fry's, and King Soopers, and Fred Meyer, which also brought in Smith's, Ralph's and the "Marketplace" concept that has spread through the rest of the Kroger empire and is their answer to Super Walmart

  9. I don't think they built many of these pylon stores. There used to be quite a few mid-50s Krogers in the Cleveland area and only one (now a Giant Eagle, I believe) was a pylon. More typical were plain red or buff-colored brick front stores, with smaller ones in nner city neighborhoods. Occasionally, Kroger converted other buildings. One Cleveland Kroger was in an old ice house.

  10. Ken said: "One thing I find odd is the lack of any examples of this prototype in the Atlanta area."

    Ken, I was thinking the very same thing. It's very odd to me that this particular prototype is non-existent in Columbus, where Kroger has been operating for 125 years. I'm not aware of any in the Cincinnati-area, either.

    This is the old prototype you see the most of in the Columbus-area, but most have been covered with new facades as the second picture shows:

  11. Dwayne – Thanks, I’m looking forward to doing more Kroger posts. I can understand why you miss them, although I assume that Publix is in your area, and they’re pretty unique as well.

    Adrienne – With such great locals as Jewel and Dominick’s, it’s understandable that our families bypassed Kroger. I really don’t even remember their stores, although their distribution center off of I-294 with the huge arch sign does stand out in my memory. “Consistency and comfort” is a perfect way to describe Kroger – nothing flashy, but reliable on selection and price, and good store brands. Sounds like you’ve lived in a wide swath of “Kroger Country”!

    We were in Akron a few years back, and I remember seeing a great sixties Acme with funky, almost wrought-iron looking lettering for the store name. The Giant Eagle stores look newer, and I understand the fuel program has been a winner for them. I recently read an interview with their director of marketing, and the word fuelperks! (complete with lower-case f and exclamation point) must have appeared 15 times. She must say it in her sleep!

    Didi – This definitely is one of the nicer ones. It was the early 70’s, but they’ve recently made a comeback, as another commenter has reminded me.

    Anonymous – Kroger definitely has been a survivor, and recent years under the Dillon leadership have been among their strongest. It does seem that they have finally come up with some effective ways to compete against Wal-Mart.

    And that’s a good point about their manufacturing capacity – they’ve held on to far more of it than most chains. They have been careful to prioritize the stores. When A&P began to lean too heavily on their manufacturing profits in the 50’s and 60’s while neglecting the stores, they ended up paying a terrible price for it. Kroger has also been able to leverage their mfg operations through contract work for other chains – Dollar General’s “Clover Valley” product line was Kroger-made when it was introduced about 10 years ago. I’m not sure if that’s still the case. I understand that Winn-Dixie is still trying to divest their mfg plants.

    Ken – I haven’t seen this particular design in the 50’s Atlanta stores either. Every one I’ve seen in photos had the much smaller “blade” sign, which although older in style remained in wide use. I do know of examples of the pylon pictured in Ohio, West Virginia, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Kentucky and North Carolina, but not in Georgia. Might have been some, though.

    Anonymous – Thanks for reminding me about Food4Less. I’ve seen them in L.A. in the past and always forget they’re in Chicago as well. I was there on business last week, and on Friday drove by the Food4Less across from Ford City on Cicero Avenue on my way back to Midway airport. I see where they are finally tearing down the long-vacant Service Merchandise store at Cermak Plaza (originally a 1956 J.C. Penney) and will be building a Food4Less as an in-line replacement.

    Ken – Kankakee is pretty close to Chicago, as is Michigan City in another direction. With Food4Less and Hilander as you mention, is does look like Kroger is trying to regain critical mass there.

    Jamcool – They all turned out to be good acquisitions, no question about it.

    Anonymous – The Lakewood store was one of those, I’m not sure if that was the one you’re referring to. The Fairborn store is the closest to Columbus that I’m aware of. I’ll bet the former ice house was an interesting one!

  12. The old ice house was on Buckeye Road near Woodland Avenue on the East Side of Cleveland.

    Another Kroger rarity is the use of corrugated metal fronts, usually a an aqua blue. This was common in the early-to-mid 60s, with white lettering that used blue piping. Colonial famously used corrugated metal fronts from the 50s onward.

  13. this picture of the
    "pylon" store looks like the Kroger that existed on Joe Orr Rd.@ Dixie Hwy. in Chicago Heights. there was an adjacent SupeRx store located immediately to the east of this store.