Sunday, May 31, 2009

Winn-Dixie - Power to the (Beef) People

A billboard flies past as cars streak down the highway at night, sometime in 1970. Instead of the exit number for the nearest Holiday Inn, or a pitch for a tourist attraction such as Weeki Wachee Springs, we see a great big steak, the stock-in-trade of Winn-Dixie and Kwik Chek supermarkets. Uncooked, no less – a practice that thankfully is rarely (no pun intended) the case in supermarket advertising today. Modern weekly grocery ads, for example, typically show attractively cooked and garnished steaks, prominently placed on the front page.

In Winn-Dixie’s case, beef wasn’t just on the front page of their ads, but on the front of their stores, in slogan form at least. “The Beef People” is a phrase that continues to be associated with Winn-Dixie, even though it long ago ceased to be company’s tagline. (I actually prefer James Lileks’ one word slogan – “Mmmmmmeat!”)

For the most part, the 1970’s saw a continuation of Winn-Dixie’s success. The company started the decade with the formation of a new division – in Atlanta (to include the North Georgia and Chattanooga areas), where Winn-Dixie had maintained a presence for just over ten years by that time. Initially, the new region was comprised of thirty-one stores peeled off from the Montgomery division and eight from the Greenville division. Although the Atlanta division would grow impressively, not quite doubling in size over the next ten years, it would remain one of the company’s smaller operations. Competition in the Atlanta area was fierce, prompting a brief return to issuing trading stamps (Top Value this time around) in 1978.

The biggest news of the era for Winn-Dixie came in 1976, when the government imposed 10-year ban on acquisitions finally came to an end. In August of that year, the company bought out Fort Worth, Texas-based Kimbell, Inc., gaining 135 stores in three states new to Winn-Dixie – Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. The stores operated under the Buddies, Foodway and Hagee names. A twenty-unit drugstore chain owned by Kimbell, called “Thrifty”, was not part of the deal. Two years later, Winn-Dixie would sell off its New Mexico stores due to problems with the local unions. The 23 Foodway stores were sold to Smith Management Co., operator of the “Smith’s Food King” supermarkets, which years later would become a division of Kroger.

Most major grocery chains were unaccustomed to the new scrutiny that came along with the “consumers’ movement” of the 1970’s. Suddenly, supermarket chain profits became the stuff of headlines, and often as not, companies were portrayed in an unflattering light. Because of Winn-Dixie’s industry leading profits, they felt more heat than most. In an October 1973 full page article, Forbes magazine came to the company’s defense: “...profits, properly speaking, are created by efficient management, not by greed; Greed has never been known to create anything. Winn-Dixie makes more money than most, yet manages to keep employees, customer and even stockholders happy. What’s so sinful about that?” In any event, through the rest of the decade Winn-Dixie managed to maintain this balance, as described by the New York Times in 1979: “Winn-Dixie, (is) the nation’s fourth largest supermarket chain (behind Safeway, Kroger and A&P) and one of its most successful, with profits above industry average”.

Not much to “beef” about there!

The vintage Winn-Dixie publicity photos seen above are as follows: (1) the above-mentioned 1970 billboard, (2) from 1975, a store that appears to be an older unit retrofitted with a mansard roof, (3) a shopping center store from 1976, (4) another from 1977 – Note the white and green Chevy Vega hatchbacks in the foreground. By the time their owners were finished shopping, the rear quarter-panels on both were rusted clean through!, (5) a very nice exterior from 1979, (6) an even nicer one from 1980, one of my nominees for all-time best exterior design, post-1970 category.

Below are six interior shots, three from 1971 with a very nice earth-toned theme, followed by three more conventional 1977 views.


  1. Love the beef puns, Dave! Strangely pictures of raw steaks make me more hungrier than pictures of cooked steaks.

    These are the best designed batch of WinnDixie stores you posted yet. I like the mandard roofed one and the last photo as you wisely pointed out is a great post 1980 design.

  2. Winn-Dixie's red and white fronts were used extensively in both new and remodeled stores. The store in my town had a simple storefront that matched the rest of the shopping center at first, but after it expanded in the mid-'70s, it gained a pre-fab red and white facade.

    The interiors from 1971 looked like something off "The Price is Right," a bit more sophisticated than the late '70s stores.

  3. They started featuring "The Beef People" just as beef consumption began to decline--probably a sign that they were beginning to lose touch. Their net profits also began to decline around the same time.

  4. "The Beef People" logo dates to at least the early 1970's, I still recall the advertisements featuring cowboys branding cattle and touting WD brand beef at dry aged. I believe raw meat disappeared from supermarket ads by the mid-80's.

    Winn-Dixie became as large as the number 2 grocer in the Atlanta region by 1982, a rank it would hold until around 1996. Most middle and north Georgia locations were part of the division as well as north Alabama as far flung as Florence, Decatur and Huntsville, while locations such as Columbus, GA were part of the Montgomery division.

    While some have pointed out that Winn-Dixie lagged behind competitors such as Kroger, Publix, Bruno's, Albertson's,and Harris-Teeter in its operating areas, WD's real failing was to no move quickly to fill the voids and capture customers from Food Fair/Pantry Pride, Colonial/Big Star and A&P as they shuttered stores in WD's backyard. Even startups by ex-WD acquisitions, BiLo and Food Lion moved quickly to capture business from the failing competitors. The Davis family was unwilling to go deeply into debt to finance new stores and expansions from 1976 onward, which enabled the chain to maintain its enviable 2% profit margins but resulted in the chain ceasing to be nimble to react to changing market conditions. Had most of the markets served not had been benefiting from the population growth of the "Sunbelt", the margins would have dipped sooner.

  5. They probably became #2 in ATL by default with the decline of Colonial/Big Star and A&P, as well as the dissolution of Food Giant and its successors. They really had second rate locations at least by the 90s.

    A missed opportunity for them was Nashville. They pulled out just before I moved there in the late 80s. They'd been there for 15 or so years--a period of rapid growth, but never really built a store base. They could have had a decent niche--Kroger operated very lackluster stores and HG Hill quit building new stores by about 1980 and had failed to build really large stores. HG Hill had more of an edge with fresh foods and a committed local base, but they didn't seem to do much with it--perhaps a case of extreme fiscal conservativism. They had sold many of their other stores in other areas in previous years. That W-D failed in Nashville was probably another sign of weakness.

    I'm still amazed they survived as long as they did given the poor condition of the stores and especially the perishables. A&P has ran uneven stores in their periods of decline, but could still operate much better stores than the average W-D. There must have been strong loyalty in some part of their base, as well as a cost structure that enabled them to make money on low volume stores.

  6. I had no idea anyone else loved vintage grocery stores stuff.. :) Thank you for the great blog.

  7. I suspect Winn-Dixie's loyalty was in large part built in the small markets where they had the most modern supermarket in town along with retaining the goodwill of some of the acquired chains-Hills, Dixie-Home, Margaret Ann, and King's among others.

    By the late 70's Winn-Dixie seemed to be resting on its laurels, and the existing stores would be left untouched for the most part, only new constructs seeming remotely modern by the late 80's. I recall Cedartown and Douglasville stores still operating in their original form by then, with tiles worn down to the concrete flooring beneath them, turquoise dairy coolers that were as loud as a tractor-trailer and checkstands with belts so badly frayed that customers chose to hand the items to the cashier rather than place them on the belts. None of the A&P's or Big Stars of equal or older age seemed to be in such poor repair. That the bulk of the stores in the Atlanta region were built in the 70s and 80s may have allowed Winn-Dixie to survive as long as it did in Atlanta.

  8. Didi - Well, I tried. Not a lot to work with there! And the last store is a real standout, showing a bit of unexpected elegance when compared with other stores of the period.

    Steven - Kind of reminds me of what McDonald's did a few years back, painting many of their 70's dark brown brick stores a bright red and white. And now that you mention it, I agree with the "Price Is Right" comment, the design elements are kind of reminiscent of the show set, even down to the orange and red colors in the deli photo. Reminds me of summer mornings in the 70's when I should have been out getting fresh air!

    Anonymous - Interesting. WD wasn't alone in heavily promoting beef at that time, though.

    Ken - I lived in the Atlanta area in 1987-88 and remember that Big Star made another run at glory around that time, opening a huge new store in Conyers, although I guess they began to fade shortly thereafter. It definitely seemed that Kroger was the big dog. It is too bad that WD didn't take advantage of faltering competitors in their many markets, especially considering their aggressiveness in earlier decades.

    Anonymous 2 - I moved from Atlanta to Nashville in 1988, and WD was still there but not for long. The one I remember was on Donelson Pike next to Kmart. Looking back, I agree they could have been a strong niche player. Malone and Hyde tried with Megamarket, Cub Foods (who later sold out to Megamarket)came in, and Bruno's tried there with a couple of Foodmax stores all around the same time, 1988-91 or so. The Foodmax stores later became Albertsons, and after that(in some cases at least) Publix. Seems like these opportunities would have been ripe for WD's picking.

    I shopped at H.G. Hill a lot when I first moved to Nashville, for the novelty of it more than anything. Talk about a throwback, it was like shopping in 1958 instead of 1988, which I loved! No liquor and no Sunday openings at the time, either. They were fairly expensive, which eventually drove me elsewhere.

    Ken - I think you're right about loyalty to WD's loyalty based on that to the predessor chains in the early days. Sounds like the older WD's were "old" in every sense of the word. They must have have decided to put all of their emphasis (and money) on the new Marketplace units.

  9. Amy L - You're welcome, and thank you for the kind words! l

  10. My only comment is: Remember the Kroger slogan? Kroger Means Better Meat! Meat was a big deal back in those days!


  11. Meat consumption began to drop in the 70s--partially because of hyperinflation, but also because "health food", vegetarianism, and avoidance of red meat began to crossover from cult to mainstream. Stores also began to downgrade the beef they sold (in response to inflation) and so references to "USDA Choice" disappeared and ground beef with extender appeared as alternative. This is what made "The Beef People" anachronistic when W-D embraced it.

    Up until the 70s, one pricing format was to emphasize lower prices on meat (as opposed to "low prices" in general) to drive traffic, but once inflation began to develop, this emphasis disappeared and stores instead promoted everyday low prices on dry groceries and "special deals" with manufacturers (the same deals they'd always had).

  12. Dan - I remember that slogan very well. Wonder whatever happened to "Alex" the butcher?

    Anonymous - I wonder if this trend had much to do with the heavily run "Beef - it's what's for dinner" promotions that were big in the 80's and 90's, featuring the Robert Mitchum voiceovers. Looks like the cattle industry was concerned about falling demand.

  13. While riding on I-10, I spotted a vintage Winn-Dixie with "The Beef People" on the sign!

    It's in Rayne, LA.

    Right now I'm on my 'Pod, so no Street View.

  14. Jonah - Wow, looks like you found an oldie. Not a lot of 'em left!

  15. To echo many other posters, I love your site! I have taken alot of time from my studies to browse this site.
    I know I am coming a bit late to the discussion, but your photo arrays of Winn Dixie are so nostalgic for me.I grew up in rural North Texas, north of Fort Worth, and most of our stores were the red and white variety, like your photo #2. We had some of the mansard roof ones, but those were mainly converted Buddie's. (a TX chain). One of the nicest Winn-Dixie stores I remember growing up, that my Mother would shop at quite often, was a Winn-Dixie Marketplace store. (Winn-Dixie's upscale version.) The one near us in Watuaga, TX, looked just like the storefront in picture #5 in your array. I remember they had one of those very non-PC lobster tanks, and as a child,I would always feel so bad for those poor lobsters.

  16. Giselle – Thanks so very much – hope it doesn’t take too much time away from studies! :)

    I think those red-and-white Winn-Dixies were sharp looking ! It was definitely an iconic look for them. I wish I’d had the chance to shop in a Winn-Dixie Marketplace, they really looked like beautiful stores.

    “Non-PC” would be a good way to describe those lobster tanks. In the stores we shopped at when I was a kid (Chicago area), at least they had some room to move around in those tanks. I’ve seen instances in which the poor things were literally stacked on each other, though – ugh!

    At any rate, thanks again!

  17. Hey I just found this site I love it I am a former winn-dixie employee and these pictures bring back great memories i miss that place so much .