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!

Friday, November 20, 2009

A&P in the Flirty Thirties

The 1930’s were the setting of a notable paradox in American life. On the one hand, there was the Great Depression, which spanned the entire decade and left a tremendous amount of hardship and suffering in its wake. In extreme cases, people were forced to stand in soup lines or sell apples on street corners, scenes that were captured in a plethora of haunting film clips. Though the majority of folks may not have been affected to this extent, it was the rare American family that didn’t have to squeeze every dime – hard – to make ends meet.

Consider this alongside the popular trend in civic and commercial architecture at the time – the art deco/streamline moderne school of design, with its clean lines, soaring, grandiose themes and top quality materials – granite and marble, bronze and gold leaf – and you have an incredible contrast. To look at these buildings today, without context or knowledge of those times, one would think that the 1930’s were the most prosperous time in human history, when in fact the opposite was true. By the time things got better for a sustained period of time, after ten long years of depression and four more of a world war, the architectural trends were reflecting a much more toned down look. Perhaps the soaring inspiration was no longer needed.

Granted, even during its peak years, this special type of architecture was generally not applied to humble, relatively small-scaled grocery stores. On occasion it was, however, and even staid, cautious A&P (known affectionately as “Grandma” by that time to some) had their share of deco delights. The first two photos above, from Chain Store Age, depict A&P stores from 1937 (Atlanta, with a neon “red circle” logo!) and 1935 (unknown) respectively, with storefronts faced with structural glass, the most popular brand of which was called Vitrolite. According to this website, Vitrolite hasn’t even been manufactured since 1947. One of the attributes of Vitrolite was the fact that it reflected a perfect mirror image, with zero distortion. Most significantly, it provided architects a means of creating extremely bold patterns and shapes in colors that didn’t fade or age. It was vulnerable to impact damage/cracking, of course. My mind’s eye tells me that the “marbled” portions were Emerald Agate in color, but certainly it could have been just about any color.

The interiors are from different stores from the same time period. The first interior (from Progressive Grocer), very appealing in my book, is a nice example of a “pre-self service” era store, with counter men at the ready. The location is unknown to me. The last photo shows a Kansas City A&P interior, with a nifty tile floor (from an Armstrong flooring ad, natch), a store that looks to be a transitional unit, between the counter service and dawning self-service eras.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Legend of the Great A&P Tea Co.

The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company is a New Jersey-based, and for the last thirty years, German-owned supermarket chain. As of today, according to their website, they operate 435 stores in six Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states (including a lone Washington, D.C. unit) under a number of different banners, including Super Fresh, Food Basics, The Food Emporium, Waldbaum’s, Pathmark and of course, A&P. The last couple of years have seen the company exit the Detroit and New Orleans markets, and after an 80-year presence there, the A&P banner is no longer to be found in Canada.

For many cities, the A&P story over the last several decades has been a sad one of retrenchment, and ultimately of disappearance. For those born in the last twenty years or so, unless they live in one of A&P’s current or recently vacated markets, chances are good they’ve only heard of A&P in passing - a brief mention in an American history class, perhaps, or a fond anecdote from an older relative.

It wasn’t always this way. As recently as the mid-1960’s, A&P was the largest retailer in America. Not just the largest supermarket chain – the largest retailer, period. Larger than Sears at the peak of its power. Larger than their nearest two competitors – Safeway and Kroger - combined. Responsible, to a great extent, for the very concept of the “chain store” itself. A part of daily life for Americans (and a fair amount of Canadians) from a multitude of communities, large and small.

The story of A&P begins in the mid-19th century, with two men, both named George, both natives of Maine, and both of whom eventually moved to New York to seek their fortunes. George Francis Gilman was born in Waterville, Maine, in 1826 to a prominent, wealthy family who owned a leather goods business. George Huntington Hartford, seven years younger than Gilman, was born in Augusta, to a farm family of far more modest means. Details on how the two men met are sketchy and somewhat contradictory in the various accounts I’ve read (not surprising given the event took place over 150 years ago, and the fact that stories like this tend to take on a mythical quality over time), but it is apparent that Hartford had worked for Gilman at a dry goods business some years prior to their arrival in New York - possibly in St. Louis. Hartford also lived and worked in Boston at one point as well.

By the 1850’s, Gilman had turned his sights from the family’s leather goods business to a new interest – the importing and brokerage of tea. Eventually, he asked Hartford to join him in the business, which consisted at first of a single delivery wagon. In 1859, their company was formally established as The Great American Tea Company. By this time, their roles were more or less set – Gilman was the financier and promoter. Hartford was the operator, though over time he would develop impressive skills as a promoter himself.

The first store was opened at 31 Vesey Street in New York City. The company’s early stores featured very ornate d├ęcor - vermilion red (sort of an orange-red) walls and gilt fixtures, oriental paintings and a plethora of ornamental gas lights. In 1869, Gilman and Hartford modified their company’s name in a tribute to the establishment of America’s first transcontinental railroad – the driving of the “golden spike” at Promontory Point, Utah, uniting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, east and west. Henceforth, the company would be known as “The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company”. The new name, of course, was also a not-so-subtle indicator of the company’s aspirations.

In its earliest days, A&P employed a very different marketing approach from “the most good food for the least money” philosophy upon which their fame and fortune would later be built. Prior to 1912, the company relied on all manner of premiums and giveaways to stimulate sales. Millions of “trade cards”, essentially postcards with Victorian scenes of angels, children, pets, flowers and other idyllic subjects on the face and A&P advertising on the reverse were given out. In those modest times, the cards did much to endear A&P to their customers. A high percentage of them were saved for decades, displayed for decorative use in homes. Even today, 100 or more years later, A&P trade cards turn up frequently in antique malls or on Ebay.

In 1878, Gilman retired to enjoy the New York social whirl, turning the operation of the business over to Hartford, while retaining his half ownership stake as a silent partner. By this time, the company was growing at a nice clip - according to the Progressive Grocer book “A&P, Past, Present and Future”, by 1876, A&P’s domain extended as far east as St. Paul and by 1881 as far south as Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia.

One development of the 1880’s that was no doubt unheralded (and probably little noticed) at the time would have a profound effect on A&P’s destiny well into the next century - the entry of two of George Hartford’s sons into the business. Only teenagers at the time, the sons – George Ludlum Hartford and John Augustine Hartford - would become two of the most influential figures of all time in the grocery business, and are still regarded as such today. For over sixty years they would helm A&P. The brothers were polar opposites by nearly every measure – George, born in 1864, was the guardian of A&P’s finances. Short and somewhat rumpled in appearance, he settled in a New Jersey suburb, where he lived conservatively, and enjoyed simple hobbies. He disliked taking vacations. John, born in 1872, headed up A&P’s operations and marketing. A true visionary, John’s initiatives were the life force behind A&P’s phenomenal growth in the first half of the 20th century. Tall, dashing and always impeccably tailored, as an adult he lived in grand style in tony Valhalla, New York, a member of the top social echelon. Despite their vast differences and frequent disagreements, the brothers had an abiding personal regard for each other and a strong respect for the different roles they fulfilled for A&P. As young men, to avoid confusion with the elder Mr. Hartford, the brothers were given the nicknames “Mr. George” and “Mr. John”. Long after their father’s passing, indeed for the rest of their own lives, they were referred to within A&P circles as such.

In 1901, A&P co-founder George F. Gilman passed away. It was a sad occurrence, to be sure, but Gilman’s death also had an exasperating side effect. It came to light soon afterward that no contracts or agreements of any kind had ever been drawn up at the time of the company’s founding 40 years earlier. As a result, George Huntington Hartford had no documentation to confirm his ownership stake in the company – and no way to defend it from claims against the estate of Gilman, who had no children. After a harrowing four-year court battle, Hartford’s rights were established, although a big chunk of Gilman’s estate (largely composed of A&P stock, of course) was awarded to his longtime female companion, according to the book "The Rise and Decline of The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company" By William I. Walsh. Hartford eventually bought her shares out, gaining complete control of A&P for his family.

By the dawn of the 20th century the younger Hartfords, George and John, were firmly in charge of the “Tea Company”, as insiders tended to call it, an empire that consisted of nearly 450 stores by 1912. Certainly A&P was prosperous, but John Hartford saw ominous warning signs for the future. The company’s growth had plateaued, despite the fact that A&P had begun to evolve into a true “grocery store” through the addition of hundreds of food items alongside their tea and coffee offerings. Prices and profit margins were high and the gaudy premiums were taking up half the shelf space in some locations, presumably leading Hartford to grow concerned that A&P was slowly becoming a pricey “boutique” operation, damaging its appeal to the average customer on a modest budget.

What John Hartford conceived as a solution to this dilemma – the “Economy Store”, as it was called, would not only launch A&P into the stratosphere and ultimately into legend, but also formed the basis of modern mass retailing – the “everyday low price” concept. Under Hartford’s new concept, the giveaways and premiums would become history. Profit margins would be cut to half the previous level. The fancy decor would be scrapped. The “vermilion red” walls would become simply red. (The color, not the band.)

Despite the initial objections of his brother and father, Hartford pressed on, wisely placating them by agreeing to move forward on a “test” basis, first with a single store in Jersey City, N.J., then on a larger basis with a few stores in one of the company’s New York City districts. The customer response was overwhelming, and within a couple of years, the Economy Store program was running full tilt. The traditional A&P stores began to close as the new Economy Stores opened. The Progressive Grocer book cites some impressive statistics – In 1915, 95 stores were opened in the Boston area alone. By February of that year, A&P had more than doubled in size to 938 stores, hitting the 2,000 store mark following year and 3,000 stores the year after that, 1917. Ten years later, in 1927, A&P could boast an astonishing 15,000 stores, all sporting A&P’s new slogan, “Where Economy Rules”, in a bar beneath the famous A&P “red circle” logo.

One particular group was less than thrilled with A&P’s new pricing policy. Some of A&P’s brand name suppliers, under pressure from other chains and thousands of independent grocers, were furious that the A&P Economy Stores were undercutting their suggested retail prices. Out of this morass came a famous lawsuit, filed by The Cream of Wheat Company, whose namesake product was heavily advertised nationally and was enormously popular in those days. Cream of Wheat had set a price of 14 cents per box at that time, which virtually all retailers, except A&P, honored. A&P cheerfully sold it for 12 cents a box, moving huge quantities. In 1915, Cream of Wheat filed suit against A&P to force them to stop the practice. A vigorous defense notwithstanding, A&P lost the case. The experience did much to convince A&P to invest heavily into manufacturing their own private label goods. By the end of the 1920’s, A&P was as formidable in food manufacturing as it was in retail, with factories strewn throughout the country, processing every type of food imaginable – even to the extent of operating their own fisheries and packing plants in Alaska.

In 1917, A&P’s other co-founder, George Huntington Hartford, passed away. Two years earlier, he had formed a trust that equally divided A&P ownership among his five children, but specifically placed all decision making authority with George and John.

Closing in on 14,000 stores in 1925, the task of running all aspects of the company from A&P’s headquarters was becoming unwieldy, to say the least. That year, the company shifted to a decentralized management structure which split their operating area into six regions, each with its own administrative offices and distribution centers.

When the depression hit in October 1929, A&P was in a far stronger position than most retailers. The “Economy Store” concept was a perfect fit for the times. Just two years previously, John Hartford had laid down the law to A&P’s command corps when he noticed that profit margins were starting to creep up again, past a level he considered acceptable. “The most good food for the least money” was the slogan, and would be the non-negotiable rule. Challenges would follow in the 1930’s, both from competition and from government, but for now A&P was standing strong.

The two photographs above, depicting a circa-1931 A&P store, are Property of the Holyoke Public Library History Room and Archive, and appear here by their kind courtesy. The Library’s collection, along that of several other Central and Western Massachusetts institutions can be viewed on the wonderful Digital Treasures website. Below is another A&P “Economy” storefront, from roughly the same time period, from a 1970 Progressive Grocer article. Last is a photo of a much earlier A&P store, typical of the ornate treatment (check out the sign lettering and the trellis work in the window) these stores received. Picture it in vermilion and gold. Thanks to Cynthia Closkey for the use of this great early photo. Her great-grandfather and his siblings, who operated the store, are featured in the photo.