Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Kroger of '49

Sorry for the shorter post this time around, I’m scrambling to get some work stuff done before we leave for Chicago for the Thanksgiving holiday. We’re looking forward to the trip - the forecast calls for a 10% chance of snow and a 90% chance of Portillo’s.

These photos, however, say a thousand words. They’re from 1949 and show a Kroger interior in fine form. I love the wide shot, showing the checkout ladies with their official Kroger uniforms and heavy-duty cash registers, several well (and warmly) dressed customers, the bright white walls, and of course the bold, colorful graphics of the era’s product packaging. Of course there’s a box of Tide, “the washday miracle”, that most photogenic of consumer products. In the foreground are some bottled juices, including Sunsweet Prune Juice. Whenever my grandparents from Rhode Island came to visit us, a couple of these bottles would mysteriously show up on our kitchen counter. 25 years afterward, the labels looked virtually the same as those pictured. And it didn’t taste bad, provided you drank it in (very) small quantities. Of course it had other effects as well, and as my Grandpa used to say…..wait, on second thought, I’ll spare you that.

The artist’s rendering below shows a typical Kroger exterior from the same period.

Hope you have a great Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Remembering JFK, 45 Years Later

The photograph above was taken in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, 45 years ago today. It depicts President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, along with Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie en route from Love Field Airport to the Dallas Trade Mart, where the president was scheduled to give a speech. The photo was taken at approximately 12:25 pm, as the motorcade passed in front of a new Safeway store at 3707 Lemmon Avenue. Just minutes later, the limousine would make its fateful turn into Dealey Plaza, and the course of history would be forever changed.

This photo was taken by Safeway Dallas Division employee Jack Zeller, who was assigned to follow up on the Lemmon Avenue store’s grand opening which had taken place the day before. Zeller had his camera along to take pictures of the new store for the company magazine. The president’s motorcade route and approximate timing had been published days earlier in the Dallas papers (something that would never happen today), and in a bit of serendipity, would pass right in front of the Safeway. As you can see, he managed to capture a fine picture as the Lincoln Continental passed in front of the store.

If anyone finds this combination of retail history and that tragic moment in American life to be in poor taste, please forgive me. I do think, however, that there is something moving and patriotic in the fact that one would be proud enough of the president to want to photograph him in front of their business. And it reinforces my appreciation of the risk our presidents assume in interacting with the public, even with today’s far stricter security practices.

I can remember the sense of pride I felt (and still feel, when I think about it) in grade school at having been born during the Kennedy administration. Our class was roughly split between Kennedy and Johnson era babies. More than once it came up as a topic of conversation in class, although certainly none of us had any personal memories of his presidency - just some facts, our parents’ memories, and exposure to the growing Kennedy legend. To be sure, this admiration was by no means limited to those of us born during his presidency.

Would President Kennedy be revered in the same way had he lived to finish his term, or been reelected in 1964, or if he were still alive today at age 91? I’m not sure that’s even possible. Then as now, the country faced monumental challenges, including the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the struggle for civil rights, just to begin a list. More likely, he would have ended up with the mixed legacy that most presidents seem to have. But perhaps he would be. Who’s to say?

One thing is assured - that John F. Kennedy stands as a symbol of America’s promise, forever young and vibrant, frozen in time.

Pictured below is a similar scene from a happier day. Taken on March 23, 1962, President Kennedy’s motorcade is shown passing the Berkeley, California Safeway en route to the University of California to accept an honorary degree and speak at the University’s Charter Day ceremonies at Memorial Stadium. Over 93,000 people were on hand for the speech – a record for both the University and the President.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Kroger in Cleveland, 1935

Despite a 28% drop in sales from 1929 to 1933 and a number of other challenges, Kroger withstood the onslaught of the depression better than many of its grocery chain counterparts. With nearly 5,000 stores, Kroger was in a dominant position in many of its markets.

One of the “other challenges” came in April 1930, when Kroger chairman William H. Albers resigned to start his own supermarket chain. The Albers Super Markets would become a good-sized player in the Cincinnati and northern Kentucky areas, strongly pushing national brands in their advertising against Kroger’s hot-selling, well regarded private label brands. In 1955, Albers sold out to Atlanta-based Colonial Stores. Beginning in the thirties, Kroger also took on a leadership role in fighting the anti-chain store movement, whose primary target was The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P), but which constituted a threat to the entire chain store industry. The battle, which played out over nearly two decades, was costly in terms of legal expenses, but also in the form of price reductions necessary to sway public sentiment over to the chains’ side of the argument.

An exciting development for Kroger was the opening of its first departmentalized “superstores” (not to be confused with the much better known Kroger Superstores of the 1970’s). The first of these early superstores opened in 1930 on Government Square in Cincinnati, and similar stores would soon open in Kroger’s other major territories, including Cleveland, Columbus, Louisville, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Madison, Wisconsin. Thirty-four of these deluxe units would be open by 1935.

There were major acquisitions for Kroger from 1928 through 1940, including 85 Cox Grocery stores in the Little Rock area, 58 Oakley Economy Stores in eastern Illinois and western Indiana, and 15 stores purchased from the Model Grocery and Baking Co. of Springfield, Missouri, among others. There was also a divestiture – in late 1934, Kroger sold 53 of its 56 Oklahoma stores to Safeway Stores, Incorporated, citing the difficulty in managing the stores from distant Cincinnati.

Also, a famous Kroger product was born during this period. In 1939, Kroger introduced its special patented process for meat tenderization under the trade name “Tenderay”. Kroger would market their Tenderay beef exclusively until 1942, when it opened the process up to be licensed to other firms. Tenderay, along with older Kroger tradenames Country Club and Big K (which, unlike Tenderay, are still in use) would become a fixture in heartland kitchens for decades.

The photos above are circa 1935 and depict the Kroger store at 2227 Noble Road in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and appear courtesy of the Cleveland State University Library. Note in the second photo the competing Fisher Foods store right next door. The signage is typical for Kroger in the 30’s. Interestingly, their sign colors during that era were often green, black and white, rather than more familiar Kroger Blue (and “Coral Red”) which came later. Here is a link to a neat film clip from 1947, showing a Kroger store that was probably around ten years old at the time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Barney Kroger - The Cincinnati Kid

The history of Kroger, like that of so many companies born in the same era, is a great American story. The roots of today’s Kroger Company reach back to 1876, when 16-year old Bernard Henry Kroger took a job selling coffee and tea door-to-door for The Great Northern and Pacific Tea Company in his hometown of Cincinnati. Kroger, one of ten children born to German immigrants, worked hard to help support his family, who lived in a flat above a dry goods store the family owned. After two years, Kroger left Great Northern to join the William White Company, another coffee and tea firm, leaving that firm shortly thereafter for the Imperial Tea Company.

When Imperial began to run into trouble, the owners asked young Kroger (who had been working a wagon route up to that point) to manage the company’s store for a 10% cut of the profits, which at the time were virtually nonexistent. Convinced he could turn things around, he took up the challenge. A stickler for quality with more than a bit of starch in his personality, Kroger built a following for the store. Interestingly, as Progressive Grocer noted, “It wasn’t a wealthy clientele. They were wage-earners’ wives who came back to shop, and told their friends…” Having saved up $372 from a year of toil, a considerable sum in 1883, Kroger approached the Imperial Tea owners with an offer to buy a one-third interest in the company. They refused, offering an increased share of the profits instead. Adamant about owning a stake in the game, Barney decided to strike out on his own.

With an additional $350 borrowed from a friend, Kroger opened “The Great Western Tea Company”, a tiny store on Cincinnati’s Pearl Street, replete with fire-engine red paint and gilt lettering, with a horse-drawn wagon sporting the same colors. Through some initial setbacks, including the loss of the horse and wagon in an unfortunate train crossing accident, a flood which destroyed the store’s initial stock, and an attempt by his landlord to increase his store’s rent (forcing Kroger to move to a less attractive location on a side street), Kroger persevered.

Within months, Kroger opened a second store, and by mid-1885 had added two more for a total of four units. By 1893, after ten years on his own, Kroger had 17 stores and was considered one of the most successful businessmen in Cincinnati. In 1902, The Great Western Tea Co. was reincorporated as The Kroger Grocery and Baking Company, which would remain the company’s legal name for the next 40 years. The word “baking” in the company’s name reflected an important aspect of Kroger’s business. At the turn of the century, Kroger made a splash by announcing his plans to set up the company’s own bakery, selling loaves to Kroger customers at half the average going price, then 5 cents each. Not only would this help build business for his stores, but it also would enable Kroger to capture a bigger chunk of his customers’ bread budget, beyond just bulk flour, butter and egg sales. As he acknowledged to a New York Times interviewer in 1901 - “In Cincinnati, with its large percentage of thrifty Germans, bread is usually baked in the home”. At two for a nickel, Kroger projected sales of 25,000 loaves per day to those thrifty folks.

Another innovative step Kroger took was born out of the company’s 1904 acquisition of the Nagel butcher shop chain in Cincinnati. After initially operating the meat markets separately, Kroger made a decision to integrate them into his grocery stores. Over the initial objections of his butchers, who resented the loss of their independence and the new bookkeeping requirements Kroger imposed, these early forerunners of the “complete food market” proved to be a huge success and had a great influence on the chain food store business as a whole.

With a solid base in Cincinnati, Kroger began to expand to other areas, first to nearby Hamilton, Ohio, then to Dayton and Columbus, where the company had 15 and 8 stores respectively by 1910. These initial forays were followed by an expansion drive (which reached a fever pitch by the late 1920’s) to other cities and the smaller towns in between- Detroit, St. Louis, Peoria, Indianapolis, Toledo, Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Youngstown and Charleston (WV), to name some examples. Much of this growth was accomplished through acquisition – 109 Piggly Wiggly and 43 Kohn Stores in the St. Louis and Central Illinois areas, 108 Piggly Wiggly stores in Louisville, 114 Bowers grocery stores in Memphis and the surrounding area, (along with yet more Piggly Wigglys) and Universal Stores of Madison, Wisconsin. In the coming decades, acquisitions would continue to provide a major vehicle for Kroger’s growth.

In late 1926, rumors began to fly that Kroger would merge with Philadelphia-based American Stores Company, possibly in combination with First National Stores or the H.C. Bohack chain. While some talks were held, these plans never came to fruition, and in my opinion would likely have not gone over well in light of the beginnings of a movement against chain store “monopolists” (or more accurately, oligarchs) that would gain sentiment as the 30’s rolled on.

In December 1927, B.H. Kroger sold his stock in the company, staying on as chairman but stepping down as president, turning that responsibility over to William H. Albers. Later on, he would repurchase a huge block of Kroger stock to help bolster confidence in the company through the depression years that followed. In November 1931, with nearly 4,900 stores in operation, he retired altogether. Barney Kroger passed away in July 1938, leaving behind a company that 70 years later is the largest company in America whose mainline business is supermarkets – an admirable legacy.

These photos are undated – the top photo showing a “B.H. Kroger” store circa the dawn of the 20th century. Below is a typical Kroger from the early 30’s, near the end of Mr. Kroger’s tenure with the company.

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.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Nifty Fifties Thriftimart

Here’s another wonderful Southern California gem, shown through the courtesy of the Orange County Archives. This Thriftimart supermarket opened in mid-1955 in Garden Grove, California on the northwest corner of Chapman Avenue and Brookhurst Street, in what was originally slated to be known as the Melody Park Shopping Center, a nod to the adjacent Melody Park and Melody Estates subdivisions. A year later, plans were announced to significantly expand the shopping center, by now known as Orange County Plaza, adding J.C. Penney, W.T. Grant , and J.J. Newberry stores, plus Thrifty Drug and Safeway, although these didn’t materialize for nearly three years. Chris Jepsen’s O.C. History Roundup site has a great photo of the shopping center’s Googie sign.

Note the Van de Kamp’s windmill, a great regional icon, just below the “liquor” blade sign on the (very wide) pylon. Tailfins, palm trees and pylons, it’s my kind of scene!