The photographs above depict the Kroger store at the Southland Shopping Center, located on the corner of Westnedge and Milham Avenues in Portage, Michigan. Portage is just south of Kalamazoo, and about 150 miles from Chicago. They were taken by the late John Todd, a Kalamazoo-based commercial photographer who extensively documented the area’s growth over a four decade career.
They date from July 1960, and show the store’s grand opening festivities. As mentioned numerous times on this site, “grand” openings at the time were exactly that. They were true community events, featuring all manner of hullaballoo – dance contests, pony rides, drawings, and of course, giveaways. In this case, as the photos show, the giveaways included dolls for the little girls and an unspecified “Free Baked Good!” for the adults.
The Kroger store appears typical of the era, probably 12,000 – 16,000 square feet in size, with the oft-seen white internally lit letters against a light blue corrugated metal background. The interior shots show the produce area and the prepared foods counter, where one of the chefs (the guy in the party hat) was obviously in the spirit of things.
The Southland Shopping Center featured two Kroger-owned entities, the supermarket and a Top Value Stamps redemption center, located on either side of a Federal Department Store. The Federal stores, 58 of which were in operation in 1961, were owned by Detroit-based Davidson Brothers, Incorporated. They were closed in the 1970’s.
For the next 12 years, this store was Kroger’s standard-bearer in the Portage area. Around 1965 Meijer, a local favorite, opened a “Village Market” store down the street, and would expand it over the years. A modern-day Meijer sits on the same site. In 1972, Jewel-Osco opened a large store in the area (again locating on Westnedge, on what could have easily have been termed “Supermarket Row”), one of a number of stores in Western Michigan cities, which included Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, which that chain would operate.
In February 1973, Kroger rose to the occasion with the opening of a brand-new Superstore (shown in the photos below, which were also taken by Mr. Todd) to replace its original Southland Shopping Center unit. In many cases, Kroger would knock out a wall of an existing store in order to expand the shell for a new superstore. Since the company’s minimum acceptable standard for the superstores was 25,000 square feet (with a maximum size of 42,000 square feet), it was necessary to build a new unit on the end of the shopping center, in this case right next to Kroger’s Top Value redemption center. That year (1973), Kroger created 68 superstores through renovation/expansion of existing stores, while opening 80 new ones. I’m not altogether sure which category this one fits in!
From Kroger’s standpoint, the superstores were revolutionary, facilitating tremendous growth and expansion for Kroger in the newer, rapidly growing Southern markets while shoring up their position in their traditional heartland areas such as Portage.
The 1973 photos appear to be pre-opening shots. Of note are the “Xtra Low Discount Prices” ceiling hangers that can be seen in a couple of them. These were part of a Kroger marketing strategy that appears to have been selectively employed at the time, based on local market conditions. A&P, who also had a store in Portage, was in the midst of its “WEO” campaign, which effectively drained the profits from much of the supermarket industry (and ultimately did very little to help A&P). Also, by this time, grand openings were usually (but thankfully not always) more subdued affairs, heavily focused on price specials and not much else. Nothing against discounts, but I personally still like the idea of a “Free Baked Good!”
The 1960 Kroger location now houses a Barnes and Noble, the 1973 location a Petco and M.C. Sporting Goods. The Federal Department Store is now a JCPenney Home Store.
My sincere thanks to the Portage District Library, and to their resident local historian Steve Rossio, for the use of these photos (and for the accompanying historical background notes) from their John Todd collection.