Sunday, December 7, 2008

Kroger - Flossed in the Fifties

Around 1955, Kroger kicked its expansion program into high gear, going far beyond simply replacing existing small grocery stores with larger supermarkets. For the first time in a decade, the company moved back into an acquisition mode, buying three supermarket chains in three successive months. On May 13, Kroger announced its purchase of Henke & Pillot, an 83-year old Houston based chain of 26 stores – 18 in greater Houston, three in Beaumont, and one each in Galveston, Port Arthur, Baytown, Velasco and Orange, Texas. In June, the company (who already had a sizable group of stores operating in its Madison, Wisconsin division)acquired Krambo Food Stores, Inc., an Appleton, Wisconsin based chain with seven Milwaukee stores, four in Appleton, three in Green Bay, two each in Oshkosh and Wausau, and one each in Fond-du-Lac, Merrill, Neenah, Manitowoc , Antigo and Sheboygan (yup, there ya go!). Additionally, six more Krambos were under construction at the time. And in late July, Kroger further beefed up its Texas presence (and picked up some new stores in Arkansas and Louisiana) when it bought out Childs Food Stores, Inc., of Jacksonville, Texas. The Childs stores operated under the Childs Piggly Wiggly name. The following year, Kroger added a big chain, at least in name. In January 1956, the company bought out Big Chain Stores, Inc. a chain of seven stores based in Shreveport, Louisiana, later combining it with the Childs group. All of these newly acquired stores continued to operate under their original names for a time, fitting in with Kroger chairman Joseph B. Hall’s much-touted decentralization approach. In 1957, in describing Kroger to a Business Week interviewer, he said “we are running 27 supermarket chains”.

Once again, Kroger threw in a divestiture amidst all of these acquisitions. In September 1957, Kroger sold off its Wichita, Kansas store division, then consisting of 16 stores, to J. S. Dillon and Sons Stores Company, then headed by Ray S. Dillon, son of the company founder. The former Kroger stores gave the Dillon firm a total of 51 units in 1957, located throughout central and western Kansas and in Denver, where the Dillon stores went under the name of King Soopers. As fate would have it, the Dillon family would play a key role in Kroger’s future. In 1982, Kroger would buy out the entire Dillon organization, which had of course grown impressively in the intervening years. In 2004, David Dillon, Ray S. Dillon’s grandson, was named chairman and CEO of Kroger, a position he presently holds.

Some new markets were started from scratch as well, with the introduction of Kroger’s first stores in Birmingham, Alabama. There was growth in the existing markets as well, with Chicago, for example, being the focus of a major push. In October 1956, Kroger announced a whopping 34-store expansion in the Chicago area, trumpeted by a special section in the Chicago Tribune. New Kroger stores were already open or soon would be in several of the new major new shopping centers in the area, including Old Orchard in Skokie, Hillside Shopping Center, located in west suburban Hillside off of the brand-spanking new Congress (now called Eisenhower) Expressway, and at Harlem-Irving Plaza (Harlem Avenue and Irving Park Rd, Chicago). Other stores were announced for Park Forest, Zion, and Franklin Park to name just a few locations.

This period also saw Kroger’s entry into the world of trading stamps. In nearly all cases, trading stamps were adopted as a defensive measure by chains needed to gain a competitive edge against other chains offering …well, trading stamps. Having successfully resisted the likes of Sperry and Hutchinson and others who tried to sell the idea to them over the years, Kroger decided to create their own program when it became necessary to jump in. In 1955, Kroger joined forces with a number of non-competing food chains to form Top Value Enterprises. Eventually, Kroger would buy out its partners, gaining full control of the company. Top Value redemption centers popped up all over Krogerland, oftentimes right next to the Kroger stores themselves. Several times a year, Top Value issued thick catalogs (several of which in the 60’s and 70’s featured Norman Rockwell-painted covers) offering all manner of treasures for those who weren’t offended by the taste of the multitudes of stamps it took to fill those good old “saver books”.

Shown above are three Kroger store photos from the fifties. The first store is an unknown Illinois location. The photo’s focus is a bit soft, but the great looking store can still be appreciated. I particularly like the dual appearance of the Kroger name on the front of the store, both above and on the store windows. The second photo shows the Kroger at the new Boardman Plaza, the first DeBartolo shopping center, which opened in their hometown of Boardman, Ohio (a Youngstown suburb) in 1951. This shopping center also featured an A&P and an independent called Century Foods.

The third photo features a very proud Kroger president Joseph B. Hall in front of the chain’s brand new flagship, a 44,000 square foot (gigantic for the time – most of Kroger’s new supermarkets were less than half that size) store that opened in May, 1957 at Swayne Field Shopping Center, Kroger’s first foray into shopping center development, in Toledo, Ohio. The huge store, Kroger’s “flossy new supermarket”, was featured in a profile piece (the Hall picture is from the cover of that issue) on Hall and Kroger in an August 1957 Business Week article. An earlier New York Times article listed the Toledo store’s attributes – “Gourmet and delicatessen departments stocked with such items as pickled rooster combs and chocolate covered ants - A barbecue corner that will custom-cook ribs, chickens, hams and other meats - a smokers’ center, staffed by a tobacconist, with lighters and pipes on sale - A lunch counter for quick snacks (Which, as the BW article helpfully noted, “keeps the men out of the way while the housewives do their shopping”), and the chain’s largest frozen food department”.

Flossy. Real flossy.

The artists’ renderings below show Kroger’s three acquisition prizes from 1955.


  1. Sure would love to know where that Illinos location was.

  2. So would I, Mike, but unfortunately a lot of these old magazine/journal or newspaper articles or even company literature where most likely these photos come from were not usually adament about labeling exact locations of stores.

    Dave, I don't know if you have seen it but there is a great photo of a Dillon's that used to be a 50's Kroger on the Groceteria site virtually unchanged on teh outside.

    I love the Krambo store. Almost looks futuristic.

  3. Dave, I am simply amazed at these wonderful posts! The store in the 2nd picture almost looks like it could be current instead of 50 years ago! Keep up the great posts! I enjoy your blogs so much.

  4. The Illinois store looks like an acquisition or an experiment. I don't recall seeing "marina" style Kroger's from the 50s/60sand this is a less dramatic rendering of a barrell roof than Kohl's used; Kohl's had supers in the Chicago area for a while.

    Century Foods (mentioned re: Boardman Plaza) was bought by Loblaw later in the 50s.

  5. Swain Field was the site of a former minor league baseball stadium of the same name. The store was remodeled as a superstore in the 70s, but closed by '81. It was an odd location esp. for an upscale store. It was near the historic Old West End, but also close to the Dorr Street ghetto (where Kroger had a 1950s store that lasted into the 70s) and The Colony, a sort of proto-shopping center/shopping district where Kroger took over a Big Bear near the end of the 50s. The area around the Colony has been changing but once was very upscale and included a small branch of the local upscale department store, Lamson's. Overall, Swain Field would not have been an appealing location, even in the 50s--the Colony and areas West of it would have made more sense. Indeed, Kroger opened a store at Westgate--a couple miles west in 1957.

  6. Mike - So would I!

    Didi - That Dillons is a great looking store, so well preserved! There have been a number of stores that have ended back up in the Kroger family years after being sold off.

    Dwayne - Thanks very much, I appreciate it! And I agree on the second photo although that store would definitely be on the small side today.

    Anonymous - I'm pretty sure Kroger built the store. I've seen a photo of a very similar Wisconsin store from around the same time. It's more of a peaked roof than a barrel-marina type. The Kohl's stores you mentioned were much more of a true marina design. And thanks for the info on Century Foods.

    Anonymous 2 - Thanks for that great detail on the location. given the demographic trends you cited, it is surprising they built a major flagship store there. I should have mentioned the ballpark, home of the famous "Mud Hens"!

  7. The mystery Illinois Kroger location was the Park Forest,Illinois store. It was located at the northwest corner of S.Western Ave.& 26th. Street. Our family shopped there while it was a Kroger and after it closed and became an ALDI store. The shopping centers name was Norwood Plaza. All was torn down in the mid 1980's and became a bigger strip shopping center Named Norwood Square. It too has been raised recently. The area became a crime haven. No new tenants were willing to locate there.

  8. Overall, Swain Field would not have been an appealing location, even in the 50s--the Colony and areas West of it would have made more sense. Indeed, Kroger opened a store at Westgate--a couple miles west in 1957.

    Don't remember a Kroger's there, but perhaps that is the present-day site of what was once a Farmer Jack and a Food Town. The Kroger's I know and miss a lot was the one at Miracle Mile Shopping Center on Lasky and Jackman. Today they pretty much turned it into a hypermarket type function, and perhaps the only Kroger's in the area to serve ethanol in it's gas station.

    My mom told me there was once a Kroger's on Alexis and Tremainsvile at the site of what is now Shea's Furniture. If only I could go back!

  9. Chris – Thanks for that info on Kroger in the Toledo area. There are quite a few places I’d love to go back to, as well!

  10. I know how you feel.

    It just doesn't feel the same to go to one of these places and expect more than groceries since they end up selling anything they want (like furniture). I feel I get lost in them, not lost in a physical way, but mental. I think I concentrate more in smaller stores.

  11. Love the picture of the old Krambo store. That was my grandfathers store and we have sent some of the pictures to him to see. He is 99yrs old now and loves to see the pictures. He says it brings back so many memories.