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.