Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Every Pound Custom Ground at A&P

Quick, name for me the one private label brand that through history has been most closely associated with A&P. Ah, “Ann Page Pickled Pigs Feet”, you say? Sorry, I’m afraid that’s not it. (Great guess, though!)

Even though the company started out as solely a merchant of tea, and 150 years after its founding still features the word “tea” in its name, the answer, of course, is coffee - “Eight O’Clock Coffee”, to be specific - a long-standing member of the pantheon of America’s legendary brands. For many people, the smell of fresh ground coffee and the sight of the huge in-store electric coffee grinders and the red and gold bags with the distinctive lettering constitute their fondest memories of A&P - long after they’ve moved away from an A&P, or A&P moved away from them.

Within a few short years after its 1859 founding, the company first introduced coffee. Eventually A&P’s house blend would come to be known as “Eight O’ Clock Breakfast Coffee”. The earliest use of this name that I’ve been able to find is in a small A&P ad that appeared in the May 27, 1888 edition of the Washington Post – “We recommend to all lovers of a cup of good coffee that they use our granulated Eight O’ Clock Breakfast Coffee which we sell at the low price of 25 cents per pound. Don’t fail to try it. For sale at all our stores.” Another line in the ad jumped out at me when I read it – “Coffee ground fresh with the aid of an electric engine.” Even today, the image of a manual hand-cranked coffee grinder is used in Eight O’Clock Coffee advertising, so it’s interesting to note that electric-motor driven grinders were indeed used in those long ago times.

Later on, the word “breakfast”, with its obvious limitations, was dropped from the brand name. In time, a legend formed around the creation of the name - that it was based on the times of day that people (in that era, at least) were most likely to drink coffee – 8 am and 8 pm.

Success was not long in coming, and soon several of A&P’s “tea company” competitors added coffee to their offerings. The book “That Wonderful A&P”, by Edwin Hoyt, cites the example of the Grand Union Tea Company, then known as Jones Brothers Tea Co., who introduced a line of “polished coffee”, in which their coffee beans were literally polished “to a shiny appearance”. Although this improved the taste not a bit, it made for an interesting, if bizarre, advertising angle. Hoyt quotes George Huntington Hartford’s advertising rebuttal on A&P’s behalf: “Positively no polishing matter is used in roasting our coffees. Our coffees are roasted and sold in their natural state, no ingredients whatever being used to make them glossy. BEWARE OF GLOSSY COFFEES!” Tell ‘em, George!

As coffee overtook tea as America’s most popular beverage in the early part of the 20th century, A&P, whose store count exploded in the ‘teens, found itself in a wonderful position to take advantage of the drink’s ever-growing popularity. For decades, Eight O’Clock Coffee would be the country’s largest selling coffee brand.

Having added a number of other coffee blends alongside their flagship Eight O’Clock brand through the years, A&P would eventually narrow their coffee lineup down to three main blends – “Eight O’Clock”, of course, the “mild and mellow” blend, “Red Circle”, the “rich and full-bodied” blend, and “Bokar”, the “vigorous and winey” blend (i.e.: the strong stuff.) In the early decades of the 20th century, each of the three brands had unique packaging.

In 1933, A&P introduced new, coordinated packaging for its three coffee brands. With bold colors – red for Eight O’Clock, yellow for Red Circle and black for Bokar - adorned with a gold band and a strikingly unique font, an American advertising icon was born. I’ve been unable to locate information on the designer A&P used, but would easily put it league with the best work of Raymond Loewy, designer extraordinaire, and the other great packaging designers of that golden era.

In the late 1930’s, Eight O’Clock coffee was hailed as the world’s top selling brand, and domestically, according to a 1935 Los Angeles Times article, A&P had three of the six bestselling brands – Eight O’Clock at number one, of course, with Red Circle ranked fourth and Bokar, sixth. Into the 1950’s, A&P’s share of the market remained strong, described variously as “one out of every six” or “one out of every four” cups of coffee served in the United States. (Today, one out of every six cups is consumed by me, when writing these posts.)

And so it continued for years, until A&P’s slow decline and exit from many of their major U.S. markets. Eight O’Clock’s fortunes were tied to A&P’s, of course, and as A&P began to contract its store footprint, the “number one” coffee crown would eventually pass to General Foods’ Maxwell House brand. (Currently, the largest individual selling coffee brand is Folger’s Classic Roast, with Maxwell House Original at number two, Starbucks at number three and Eight O’Clock Original at number nine, according to a recent CNBC survey. As far as overall sales go, Eight O'Clock is the largest selling bean coffee and the third largest overall brand in sales, according to their website.)

In the late 1970’s, A&P made an effort to shore up sagging profits through better use of its sprawling manufacturing operations. Through its subsidiary Compass Foods, A&P began to market its coffee brands to other chains, particularly in markets where they no longer had stores. In Chicago, for example, from which A&P pulled out in 1982, a cheery Chicago Tribune article proclaimed “Eight O’Clock coffee will stay in Chicago”, and would now be available at Jewel Food Stores.

The most important house brand manufactured by A&P would also be the last one they would hang onto. In 2003, A&P sold the Eight O’Clock brand to Gryphon, a San Francisco-based group of investors. In 2006, Gryphon sold the company to Tata, an Indian company that specializes in tea and coffee and owns the popular Tetley brand. Organized as “The Eight O’Clock Coffee Company” division, they have been very aggressive in marketing the famous old brand, adding several varieties and promoting it in new arenas – gas station convenience stores, for instance.
So, Eight O’Clock coffee might be as close as your nearest gas station! May have to drive a bit farther for those Jane Parker donuts, though…

The non-polished, yet glossy photos above depict various A&P coffee departments from the 1940’s and early 50’s. First is a 85th anniversary window display from Portland, Maine, followed by an iced coffee window display from Albany, New York. Next are two coffee department shots from Poughkeepsie, New York. The last shot is a bit more recent, from an unknown location, showing a common practice at the time - the placement of related magazine ads near the food displays. These local store publicity shots are part of a collection I bought a while back (Featuring, strangely enough, mostly A&P coffee displays. Not that I mind that!). Below are a group of wonderfully colorful A&P coffee ads from the 1930’s and 40’s, most of which are from Woman’s Day magazine, which was founded by A&P in 1942. These ads are from the Gallery of Graphic Design, a magnificent online collection of magazine advertising that is an absolute must-see. In that pre-television era, magazine ads were arguably the most important single vehicle for advertising to the mass market. The standard of artistry in these ads is high, to put it mildly.
Appropriately enough, the last ad, from 1938, has a Thanksgiving theme. An interesting year this has been, 2009. Great in some ways, difficult in others. I’m thankful for many things, though, and high on the list are those of you who read, enjoy and comment on this site. I hope yours is a wonderful one!


  1. Being able to buy Eight O'Clock Coffee in my local supermarket is a delightful link to days past when A&P ruled supreme. Thanks for sharing these great photos and ads!

  2. A&P was selling 8 o' Clock Coffee at Winn-Dixie's that did not compete with A&P's throughout the southeast region, meaning the local(Northwest GA) W-D's carried 8 o' Clock Coffee in the Atlanta division prior to A&P shutting down its Atlanta division in 1999, while the metro Atlanta stores didn't pick up the brand until 1999, along with all the other competition gaining Eight o'Clock Coffee, Kroger and Publix, etc.

    Also, the roasting plant rosted coffee for 7-11 and Dunkin' Donuts, a major selling point when A&P put Eight o'Clock Coffee up for sale.

    One thing interesting the picture of the A&P Coffee Service department was cigarettes being in the department. I had never seen that arrangement as the coffee grinders were always at the checkout in A&P, and not at the Coffee department and cigarettes were relegated to the front of the store as well. But it evokes the images of old Hollywood movies in which the actors smoked, heavily at that, and drank coffee in most every seen depicting casual conversation.

  3. Coffee, big cup and hello! Happy Thanksgiving, Dave!

    I love coffee. Coffee is my life. I can't get enough of coffee. I drink at least 3-6 cups of coffee a day. I'm 10% water and 90% coffee. Coffee, coffee, coffee. And, no, I am not exaggerating.

    I have actually had Eight O'Clock Coffee once or twice. It's pretty good but I mostly buy the Latin coffee brands like Bustello, Rico Rico and Goya, so I have never actually bought it or made it myself. I detest the Maxwell/Foldgers/Starbucks variety so one of these days I have to take a look at the former A&P brand. I have seen all the awesome and colorful ads in old Life Magazine issues so I am no stranger to those.

    The book “That Wonderful A&P”, by Edwin Hoyt, cites the example of the Grand Union Tea Company, then known as Jones Brothers Tea Co., who introduced a line of “polished coffee”, in which their coffee beans were literally polished “to a shiny appearance”. Although this improved the taste not a bit, it made for an interesting, if bizarre, advertising angle. Hoyt quotes George Huntington Hartford’s advertising rebuttal on A&P’s behalf: “Positively no polishing matter is used in roasting our coffees. Our coffees are roasted and sold in their natural state, no ingredients whatever being used to make them glossy. BEWARE OF GLOSSY COFFEES!” Tell ‘em, George!

    That paragraph literally made me laugh out loud and I am thankful for that.

  4. The coffee service departments seem to have disappeared by the centennial era, with A&P coffee incorporated with other brands in a normal aisle. Not all stores had the grinder at the cash register. By the time stores had more than a few check-outs, this [probably didn't make much sense and the grinder was in the aisle with coffee, like other stores. Kroger never promoted their coffee as much ("Spotlight" was the brand), but did give it significant marketing. Other grocers stocked beans and had grinders, sometimes with their own name. I think the grinders disappeared somewhere in the 70s, though.

    The first time I noticed "Eight O'Clock" outside of an A&P was during the mid-80s, when it was sold at Jewel, shortly after A&P had exited the Chicago market. I would guess that was the beginning of the national, non-competitive marketing of the brand.It had not been carried in the A&P-less locale where I had lived before.

  5. Jim - You're welcome, and I completely agree - it's nice that these little links to history are as close as the local...Kroger, in my case. I've bought Eight O'Clock coffee twice in the last year, the first time out of curiosity, and the second last week to provide some inspiration (and caffeine) for working on this post. It's pretty good stuff!

    Ken - Thanks for that great info. I didn't know they were producing for 7-11 and Dunkin' as well. Cool!

    It's interesting to note that A&P devoted an entire "service department" to coffee, but not at all surprising considering the huge contribution to profits it made. And the tobacco (and candy), as you note, are all in the same area as well. Might as well keep all the stimulants in one place!

    Didi - I've never tried the brands you mention, but I've heard of Goya before. Now, none of them are "glossy", right? :)

    Hope your Thanksgiving was great, also!

    Anonymous - At the A&P's I've seen, the coffee grinders were in the coffee aisle. One store I've been to, the Dulaney Valley Baltimore unit (a 60's-era Centennial store, now a Super Fresh)has an impressive lineup of grinders near the cash registers that I assume have been there since the store opened.

    "Spotlight" coffee is still sold in bean form at Kroger! Gotta try it one of these days.

    I would assume that in the 70's and 80's Eight O'Clock sold much better in former A&P areas, the name association still being strong. The current marketing of the brand never mentions A&P by name. A lot of time has gone by, so it's probably not a big issue anymore. Thanks for the comment!

  6. The Spanish coffees tend to be sold in more of the Latino supermarkets, the places that usually take over the old Jewels, Dominick's, Mationals, etc. Goya is a common brand. RicoRico is a Puerto Rican coffee so unless you go to a Puerto Rican or Mexican orietnted supermarket around here you won't find that brand. Bustelo (Spelled it wrong in the first post) is a more common brand. They sell that at places like Jewel and Dominick's but they are very expensive. I think the last time I looked at Dominicks it was almost six bucks for 10 ounces. You can catch the same pckage on sale for $1.99 at the more independent supermarkets. I just picked up some last week ironically housed in an old Jewel. I know my Spanish and non Spanish coffees well. Hee, hee.

    I am a regular customer at this diner that always makes a perfect cup of Superior coffee. It's a small place where the waitresses are mother, aunt and daughter and the owners are husband and wife, so I know them all. One day I came in, and the daughter waitress (who's close to my age) that is usually there Mondays says that they ran out of Superior and had to use a subtsitute. We both noticed that this substitute tasted like motor oil. So I asked her what brand it was and she said "Kirkland." I remarked with a certain disdain, "Isn't that the Aldi's brand?" You can't fool me!

    Hope you had a great Thanksgiving, Dave.

  7. Love, love, love the pictures and the ads. You're bringing me back. How do you do it!

  8. I grew up with Eight O'Clock coffee, even though I wasn't allowed to drink it because it would "stunt my growth." I guess my first cup of Eight O'Clock coffee [or any kind, for that matter] was when I was about fifteen...and I'm still 5'6". At any rate, I was in a gift shop recently, and remarked that I had shopped there when the building housed an A&P. The owner pulled out some pictures of the interior of the store, and remarked that "the coffee grinder was right where we are standing." The employees ground the coffee for you even up until the seventies, and from the looks of that coffee grinder, a regular customer wouldn't have a clue how to use it.

    In the eighties, when A&P was still operating stores in sporadic areas of the southeast, the Red Circle brand carried the slogan "favorite of the south" across the top of the yellow bag. That didn't disappear until Red Circle disappeared, and now with the various types of Eight O'Clock coffee, it's hard to tell what the original selections were, except for the original red bag.

  9. "One thing interesting the picture of the A&P Coffee Service department was cigarettes being in the department.", cigarettes, chocolate...the necessities of life!

  10. @JimBobGA

    The centennial store in Woodbridge, VA, where my family shopped, had a grinder like the one pictured in the coffee aisle. We found it easy to use. Left hopper for regular, right hopper for decaf, spin dial to grind you want, then press and hold button until bag is full and no more coffee comes out.

  11. Didi – Those ex-Jewels, etc., that are now Hispanic grocery stores are very cool in my book! It’s neat to see the great old buildings bustling with activity, and the way these stores are operated has more in common with classic American grocery stores of the past than modern American supermarkets often do.

    Sounds like you like your coffee strong! The coffee they serve at the restaurants in Greektown is still my favorite.

    An anonymous commenter (whose comment I mistakenly deleted – sorry!!) mentioned that Kirkland is Costco’s house brand.

    Vicki – Thank you so much! Hope to do some more L.A. area stuff soon, so stay tuned!

    JimBobGA- Should have held off just a couple more years on the Eight O’Clock, I guess! :) I never drank coffee until after I graduated high school – just hadn’t developed a taste for it yet – but went right to drinking whole pots of it for late night (and last minute) studying in college.

    Regarding the gift shop you mention, it’s too bad they still didn’t have the grinder, but the photos themselves make a nice conversation piece, I guess.

    That’s interesting that A&P singled out Red Circle, their “mid-grade brand” for special promotion in the South. They still make Eight O’Clock and Bokar (now called “Eight O’Clock Coffee – Bokar Blend”) but I don’t know what the modern-day equivalent of Red Circle is, if there even is one.

    Jamcool – Keeping all the caffeine and nicotine together for a one-stop shop!

    Dcseain – Some stores still have these, so thanks for the tip!

  12. The great taste and smell of Eight O'clock bean coffees lives on.

    Great A&P family of banner supermarkets still has those coffee grinders, but they are now located in the coffee aisle, where I happily grind the mocha blend.

    I sure wish those Jane Parker cinnamon donuts would return.

  13. An update on those famous red A&P coffee grinders.

    They have returned in mint condition to 230 Great A&P family of banner stores, Waldbaums and SuperFresh in the NorthEast/Mid-Atlantic region.

    They are now located in the front of the store in front of the checkouts. Mininum allocation was two grinders per 10 checkout lanes. Larger stores received as many as four.

    the smell is still heavenly bean aroma of Eight O'clock coffees.

  14. I just want to thank you for this fantastic history for all to read. I am the great, great grandson of George Hartford, am very much involved in the Hartford Family Foundation and constantly on the hunt for vintage A&P memorabilia, primarily coffee grinders, signs etc. It is great to come across sites like this that tell the story of a true americana history. The A&P was so far ahead of its time in the creation of the now modern day supermarket. My grandfather sold the business to a german family name Haub. Unfortunately, it's been run into the ground to the point of recently filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy. It was a heartbreaking blow to our family personally to see A&P fall. but we still love it and try to keep her history alive.

    Hunter Hartford McIntosh

  15. Hunter - Thanks for your kind words. The A&P story is a very important part of our American heritage and I'm proud to play a tiny part in helping to promote its legacy.

    The past 30 years or so have been hard to watch at times, starting for me personally when A&P pulled out of the Chicago area, continuing as their footprint has continued to shrink. As a family member, I'm sure "heartbreaking" is a very accurate description. Then there's the occasional headline about a positive development here or there, and we hold out hope again, just because it's A&P.

    Whatever happens with the company, the proud history will always be there, though. Thanks again!

  16. I retired from A&P in Canada in 2005. I retired from the Port Hope Store in Port Hope Ontario Canada. I was the Meat Manager there Shortly after I retired A&P was sold to Metro foods. It was great to work for A&P until they became to big. The control from the top down took all the initiative away from the dedicated managers.I guess that was what they called progress. Mostly good memories though. Ronald K. Kirkland.