As previously mentioned here, one of the most notable grocery industry trends of the 1960’s was the emergence of the supermarket/discount store combination. Usually the supermarket and discount store were separated by a wall and had their own checkstands, adjoining each other only via a common lobby area at the front. In some cases, the layout was open and both grocery and non-foods shared a common checkout area, much the way Wal-Mart Supercenters (on a comparatively gigantic scale) are configured today.
Many of the major chains (with the exception of A&P, a resolute holdout) tried their hand at this – Grand Union (the pioneer – they doubled the size of their Keansburg, NJ supermarket in 1956 to add a non-foods department and soon named the concept Grand-Way), Jewel (with their 1961 acquisition of Boston-based Turn-Style), Food Fair (they bought out J.M Fields in 1961), Stop and Shop (acquired Bradlees in 1961),Safeway (launched Super-S in 1962), Fazio’s (opened their first combination store in Akron in 1967) Red Owl (a Minnesota-based chain who opened their first combo in 1965), Lucky Stores (opened their first “Lucky Discount Center” way back in 1959) and others I’ve undoubtedly missed. Jewel/Turn-Style and Fazio’s were among those who decided to dub their combination units “Family Centers”.
In 1965, Kroger decided to try the idea as well, and the first Kroger Family Centers were opened in 1966. By the end of the following year, the company had seven Family Centers, located in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Kansas. The company also opened a few Thriftown stores, a general merchandise-only concept (with footprints a bit larger than the Family Centers) that to my knowledge never grew past five stores.
In addition to food, the Family Centers carried the normal discount store mix. There was clothing, jewelry, housewares, sporting goods, auto accessories, toys, and that welcome oasis in the bargain-hunting Sahara, a snack bar.
The stores featured common checkout areas and ranged in size from 50,000 to 70,000 square feet, much larger than the standard Kroger footprint of the time. In fact, in the early and mid-60’s Kroger tended to adopt a contrarian attitude regarding store size, actually shrinking their standard supermarket footprints for a time in the interest of efficiency. Over time, competition and the sheer increase in the number of new grocery products available forced them to upsize the stores. Of course, Kroger would later jump in with both feet with the much larger Superstores of the early seventies.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Family Centers, to me, was their construction. The typical Kroger supermarkets of the era were standard brick and glass affairs, often distinguished by an interestingly shaped pylon. The Family Centers were of concrete-wall construction, with aggregate facing on the concrete panels, a long concrete canopy over the entrances, supported by tapered columns, and far less window surface than most stores of the era. The Family Centers had a sturdy, handsome appearance, short on frills.
By 1969, there were 24 Family Centers, with 18 announced for the following year and a goal of 100 units by 1975, which unfortunately was never reached. Most of these were in the Mid-South (Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana) and in Texas. Units in the Houston area went under the name of Henke’s Family Center (short for Henke and Pillot). The store openings, particularly in the 60’s, were a big production, complete with an appearance by a replica of Barney Kroger’s 1883 horse-driven delivery wagon. Since many of the Family Centers went into cities that didn’t previously have Kroger stores, they were enthusiastically received.
For their groceries, that is. By 1972 it had become obvious that carrying such a broad range of general merchandise was not Kroger’s forte, and the decision was made to close the Family Centers, writing off the operation to the tune of $5 million. The "Family Center" name was retained on some Texas and Louisiana stores, although most of their general merchandise was broomed.
Far more exciting things were now happening at Kroger – the Superstore program was underway. “The family” would have new, compelling reasons to shop there.
The exterior photo above is from 1968, the three interior views below from the following year.