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!