Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ralphs Granada Hills Reloaded, 1965

I think most people would agree that where movies are concerned, sequels are rarely better than the original. Oftentimes they aren’t nearly as good. They tend to do well at the box office, however, because they usually feature well-loved characters and/or tried-and-true themes. Once in a while, though, a sequel will rise above the norm by adding a new, exciting dimension to the familiar.

Perhaps this analogy can be applied to supermarkets. (Read this site enough, you'd think any analogy would, right?) The “original” in this case was a unit of the Ralphs Grocery Company, a major Southern California supermarket chain with 47 stores at the time, that opened in 1959 in Granada Hills, California. The “sequel” was a very significant remodeling of the store six years later. The store was featured on this post a year and a half back, and for our own “sequel” here, we’ve switched to color! (When all else fails.) These photos were taken circa June 1965 for a Progressive Grocer magazine article that appeared the following year.

From a retail history standpoint, it’s hard to envision a more exciting, dynamic time and place than Southern California in the 1960’s. This was the era of the California Dream, as extolled in the movies and pop music of the day, and people responded by moving there in droves, or so it seemed at least. To accommodate the transplanted throngs (to say nothing of the area’s impressive homegrown baby-boom output), new malls and shopping centers were opening at a rapid rate – well outpacing every other major market in the country. Among the hottest of SoCal retail hotspots was the San Fernando Valley, home in 1965 to a brand-spanking new mall, Topanga Plaza, and to the still shiny-and-new Fallbrook Center, along with a host of smaller strip shopping centers.

Continuing to do its part was the Ralphs supermarket in the Valley’s Granada Hills, its funky 60–foot tall sign standing proudly at the corner of Chatsworth and Balboa since the store’s 1959 opening. The sign and the building’s red and white diamond-patterned Arizona rock roof had stood the test of time – a bulwark for those (like the fine readers of this site) who valued good taste. The apple-hued interior, however, was definitely showing its age by this time. A major revamp was in order.

Ralphs’ management realized that a run-of-the-mill redo wouldn’t cut it, as noted in the Progressive Grocer article - “...we were faced with a fiendishly competitive situation (in Granada Hills). On three sides of our unit there, and within a two-block area, are big shopping centers, each with a super market exerting the fullest pressure on the trading area.” It was determined that this particular remodeling would have to be something special. On top of that, Ralphs would use the Granada Hills makeover as an opportunity to address a longstanding problem.

“Surveys show that the woman shopping in the super market is often a woman totally confused”, said Ralphs’ general manager. (Lots of responses to that comment are reeling through my head at this point. I think that’s where they’ll stay.) “Yet the same woman who retraces her steps back and forth across our stores seeking out merchandising owes her confusion not to a lack of wit on her part…” (Uh-oh.) “…but to a lack of logic on ours.” (Whew! Glad you put that in context there, my friend.) “She may feel that vanilla extract might surely be located by going to the flour gondola – how is she to know that it is with spices strung out over one of the freezers – or in a separate spice cabinet of its own on the end of table 14? She has little logic to guide her, only memory, and all stores lay out their dry groceries according to their own ideas – and those ideas are constantly changing.” (Let’s try to stay away from the thin ice there, guy. Ok?)

And so was born the “shop-at-a-glance” concept. In essence, the standard supermarket layout was scrapped in favor of “family groupings” – or “centers”, to use Ralphs’ terminology. The “Breakfast Center”, for example, featured cereals, juices and coffee, three categories of product that are normally found in very different locations. “Like shopping in your own kitchen!”, Ralphs’ ads proclaimed. (Provided one kept the cereals, juices and coffee in the same location.) The traditional perimeter departments – meats, dairy and produce – remained in those locations. The “centers” were identified by large, colorful three or four-sided signs hung above their respective areas. To give customers a clear line of sight around the store, the shelving units, known as “gondolas” in the business, were cut down to a maximum height of 5 feet, which also had the curious effect of reducing inventory capacity by as much as 25% in some departments - not a minor issue.

The store’s “grand reopening” took place over three days in early June 1965, with ads proclaiming the specially-crafted promotional tagline: “America’s First Completely Departmentalized Supermarket!” That claim is debatable, of course – Grand Union, for example, had been experimenting with departmentalized merchandising formulas for a good ten years by then, most notably in their East Paterson, New Jersey flagship store. Perhaps it was the first of its kind on the West Coast, however.

Beyond the new layout itself, a big part of the remodeled Granada Hills store’s appeal was its striking new decor. The colorful, classy new look was the work of Brand-Worth and Associates, a Los Angeles-based firm that specialized in retail interior design. The new and remodeled Ralphs supermarkets of the 1960’s were among the most elegant of the era (Or any previous era, in my opinion. Or any subsequent one.), largely owing to Brand-Worth’s stunning designs and meticulous attention to detail.

For the departmental signs, they developed a set of cartoon drawings to be used as identifiers “without a line of copy, not a word”–the frozen foods section, for example, featured an Eskimo. Interestingly, the colors Brand-Worth used for these signs actually corresponded to the “color wheel” – in sequence! (I love 50’s and 60’s advertising psychology!)The meat, dairy and liquor departments featured colorful, wonderfully stylized cutout signs, again with unmistakable symbols in lieu of text. In this respect, Ralphs was definitely ahead of its time. There was one exception to this – the store directory sign above the checkout area, but even this featured the added twist of color coding.

As appropriate as their company moniker sounded, “Brand-Worth” was actually a conjunction of its owners’ last names, Bill Brand and Freddie Worth, who founded the firm in 1954. Among their clients were The May Co. (the gourmet food sections of May’s Southern California department stores were a precursor to Brand-Worth’s work for Ralphs), and regional department store chains such as Phoenix-based Goldwater’s and Omaha’s Brandeis.

Undoubtedly the new decor was a hit, but history is silent (i.e.: I couldn’t find any more articles) as to whether or not the Granada Hills store’s new departmentalized layout was a success. I’d have to think that in the grand scheme of things, it probably wasn’t. One thing is evident – it didn’t end up starting a trend. The average supermarket of today is laid out pretty much like those of fifty years ago – standard end-of-aisle signs, and nothing but lighting overhead.

Which is to say “totally confusing”, I guess!

The photos are pretty much self-explanatory (just follow the symbols on the overhead signs!), but a couple of things are worth pointing out – in the produce department, note the sombrero-ed Fred Flintstone, star of TV’s first prime-time animated cartoon show, standing guard over the cantaloupes. One would have to have been there in the early and mid-1960’s to appreciate the huge cultural phenomenon the Flintstones were at the time, a fact that has been largely forgotten. In those years they were everywhere, and not only on “kids stuff” - lunch boxes, clothes, a syndicated comic strip and all manner of toys and games – but in commercials (Welch’s Grape Juice, Alka-Seltzer and *gulp* Winston Cigarettes), unusual store appearances (a woman costumed as Wilma Flintstone, handing out promotional brochures at the downtown Chicago Wieboldt’s department store), and occasional references on other popular TV shows of the day. A few months after this photo was taken, “The Flintstones” would begin its sixth and final prime-time season on ABC, later showing up on local TV stations, then cable, and finally on DVD.

Lastly, notice the cartons of cigarettes in the liquor department and near the checkstands. It’s a sharp contrast to today, when cigarettes are almost handled like a controlled substance. At that time they were more or less treated like any other product, except for the age restriction, of course. Well into the 1980’s, individual cigarette packs were routinely displayed at each checkout lane, within easy reach, right next to the Rolaids and Dentyne. In the 60’s and early 70’s, things were even more lax, to the point that in some instances parents, if so inclined, could send their grade-school aged children to the store to buy cigarettes with a note: “Dear (insert name of complicit supermarket) Checkout Lady: Please sell Rocco two packs of Marlboros. Thank you. Signed, Rocco’s Dad”

Thankfully that doesn’t happen anymore. But then, neither does sending one’s kids alone to the supermarket.


  1. That was a very nice graphics package. Beautiful store.

  2. I've never seen a Alka-Seltzer spot featuring the Flintsones, but I have seen them sell One-A-Day vitamins (by the same company, Miles Laboratories--which would later give us Flintstones Children's Vitamins),

    The Winston sponsorship was specifically to show people that this wasn't simply a kiddie show. By the time they moved on and Welch's came aboard, Skippy peanut butter was another main sponsor...and during those seasons, the modern stone-age family enjoyed a lot of grape juice and peanut butter sandwiches.
    (I read that Motorola electronics also picked up sponsorship time)

  3. My husband was one of those kids in the late 60's and 70's that his mom sent him to the corner store with a note that allowed him to buy cigarettes for her .Unheard of now, but as you stated not uncommon for the time.Love all the colors and mod signs in the store.

  4. I cant help but notice the HUGE clock displayed on the wall. Reminds me of those era stores....try to find a clock in a store in present time!! I remember in drug and departments stores many clocks over the doorways or on the back walls.

  5. WOW! What a gorgeous store... amazing design, and interestingly contemporary for even today. I could fathom seeing a new Publix look like this.

  6. Suddenly everything old is new again. It's a contemporary look even today. As for clocks, most retailers removed because of the belief that they made the shoppers time conscious, thus spending less time shopping.

    Georgia Lottery released a "Family Guy" scratchoff ticket yesterday, sort of a modern day analogy to "The Flintstones" cigarette ads. Myself I find "The Simpsons" more analogous to "The Flintstones".

  7. I love the design. I just cannot for the life of me pinpoint what it reminds me of. Egyptian hieroglyphics, perhaps?

    Myself, I prefer Family Guy as the modern day versian of the Flintstones though it more than likely is not as family friendly as the Flintstones.

  8. I am a Ralph's shopper to this day. I remember in a high school history class we had a guest speaker, a politician of some sort. He said something to the effect that he admired Ralph's and was and will be a devoted customer for life because they helped out so many down and out people during the Great Depression. Don't know if that is true, but I never forgot his story.

    Even today, Ralph's is always "movin' around the furniture," and I mean literally even today.

    I was in for some milk and there was another store move around happening. The spaghetti sauce & candy were in different aisles. The manager said all non-food items will be on one side of the store, next to the produce. Go figure.

    I don't know about your neck of the woods, but in So Cal, markets that are currently competing with Ralph's are Sprouts and Henry's, farmers markets/natural food stores. Theor stores are clean and cheery and the prices and quality & variety are wonderful. So nice to have that variety, as opposed to being in the middle of nowhere with just a Wal Mart.

  9. Wow, a supermarket from 1965!!! Great, wonderful photos! Thanks for this post, enjoyed it immensely.

  10. Re: Mr. BlueLight: They have about four clocks spaced out at points in one of my local supermarkets. It's a really nice touch, gives the store a real retro feel.

  11. Dave, I just wanted to comment on Fred Flintstone. The Knickerbocker company at that time had aquired the rights to make Fred and Barney dolls in at least 2 sizes. The Fred shown here looks exactly like the Knickerbocker dolls except in a very large size. I wonder if there was some kind of promo going on with the toys at the time?

  12. I think you can actually see those Knickerbocker dolls in the film version of BYE BYE BIRDIE...they are in the room of the character Ann-Margaret (Margrock) plays and can be seen while she performs "How Lovely To Be A Woman"

  13. When did this store close/move?

    It appears to have passed on today...

  14. Steve – I completely agree, it’s beautiful. And there were a number of other really nice that Brand-Worth did for Ralphs, although most of the layouts were more conventional.

    Paul – The Alka-Seltzer spots were usually used as bumpers – check out the Flintstones Season 1 DVD (far and away the show’s best season) and you’ll see it. The disc also has a “combination” One-A-Day and Alka-Seltzer ad. One would think Winston was dropped in response to the 1964 Surgeon General’s report, but I have no idea if this is the actual fact here.

    Also, “Bye Bye Birdie” is required viewing for anyone interested in early 60’s retro fun. It would have been the rare guy that didn’t have a crush on Ann-Margret as she appeared in this film, or in Viva Las Vegas a year later!

    Anonymous – It’s probably amazing to those too young to remember those days, but it was very commonplace then –very few thought anything about it. It took many years for cigarette smoking to develop the stigma it now has.

    Mr. Bluelight – I miss clocks on store walls! If anything, I have to think it’s a courtesy that today’s customers would appreciate.

    Jack – It’s a winner, isn’t it? Represents the type of interior design quality that Publix was known for as well.

    Ken – Maybe some visionary chain will bring clocks back (the analog kind, not boring digital), but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    I guess both the Simpsons and the Family Guy are modern-day updates on the Flintstones theme. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? ;)

    Didi – It is a modern day form of hieroglyphics, now that you mention it. Wow, never would have thought of that!

    Vicki – Thanks for sharing that great story! That kind of thing breeds loyalty that lasts – a wonderful thing.

    Where I live, Kroger and Wal-Mart are the main game in town, and I think the newer Kroger stores – the “Marketplaces”, probably have a lot in common with Ralphs, a company they now actually own. I wish we had some strong independent grocers like the ones you mention.

    Nightdragon – Thanks to you as well –glad you liked it. And wow, four clocks – very cool!

    Dwayne - Knickerbocker toys –another great long-gone name! I remember commercials for their products on the Chicago kids shows. The doll may well have been made by them, albeit the size of this doll is pretty huge – a display model, maybe?

    Psuedo3D – Don’t know when this one stopped being a Ralphs. The latest information I have says that the building, which has been expanded, now houses Staples and Walgreens.

  15. Let's not forget that "The Flintstones" was just a slightly modified version of "The Honeymooners." (Just as "Top Cat," if anyone remembers that show, was "Sgt. Bilko"/"The Phil Silvers Show.")

  16. I found it very hard to look away from those in-store graphics and signage! Wow!!

  17. Wonderful, what a memory!

    I remember supermarkets looking just like that Ralph's when I was a young kid.

    You can sometimes still find this type of decor when visiting older markets that are no longer part of a chain.


  18. Reposted this to, the Granada Hills blog. Brilliant stuff. Thanks!!

  19. Dave, there is another Ralph's one block south of this one at Balboa and Devonshire.

    There is also a newer one about a mile west of this location at Chatsworth and Zelzah (and a few years ago there were actually two Ralph's supermarkets at that intersection - across the street from each other).

  20. This location closed in the late 1990s when Ralphs moved to a new building at Chatsworth/ Zelzah.

    When Ralphs bought Hughes, they also took over the Balboa/Devonshire and the Chatsworth/Zelzah location.

    As the previous poster said, there were 2 Ralphs operating on the same corner for many years.

  21. Anonymous- Great info! Top Cat was one of my favorites (albeit in reruns –it ran the year before I was born), and I’ve always thought it was a shame that show ran for just one season.

    Kendra – I completely agree!

    Walterworld – Thanks very much, glad you liked this…and you make an excellent point – these vintage interiors had a better chance of surviving if the store was spun off from a chain, and therefore less likely to get a big-budget remodeling.

    Linda – Thank you so much – looks like “Giga Granada Hills” is coming along well!

    Aaron – Thanks for that info on those Ralphs. It would have been cool to see the two Ralphs across from each other!

    Anonymous - I wonder what it looked like just prior to closing. I understand that the tower sign bit the dust many years ago. Thanks!

  22. I came across a sighting of another vintage Ralph's market while watching TV.

    I hope most everyone knows the classic film DOUBLE INDEMNITY--for those who don't, it tells the story of a famme fatale who persuades--i.e. seduces--an insurance salesman into helping her murder her husband in order to collect on his policy (in a way that looks like an accident that provides bonus money, hence the title). Directed by the legendary Billy Wilder, it was hailed as a classic from the moment it was released in 1944.

    Amazingly, they remade it for TV in 1973. I wanted to check it out to compare and contrast. One of the most memorable scenes is the couple "casually" meeting at a market in order to plan the deed. (For those who favor comedy over mystery, this is one of the film bits used in the Steve Martin movie DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID)

    For the new version, they filmed that at a Ralph's store--I could tell by the badge on the shopping carts. Interestingly, they conspired over some kind of "pick your own eggs" display, where people packed them in a carton themselves. I've never came across anything like this--was this specific to Ralph's, or California, or even the 70's?

    P.S. The script for the remake was done by someone who would become a legend in his own right--Steven Bochco (he of HILL STREET BLUES, L.A. LAW, NYPD BLUE, DOOGIE HOWSER M.D. and more).

  23. Paul - The original “Double Indemnity” was a true classic (that film and The Caine Mutiny are excellent proof that Fred MacMurray was capable of much more than affable Disney/My Three Sons-type roles), and I’m generally not fond at all of latter-day remakes, but I may have to check this one out!

    By virtue of the Ralphs scene, of course! :)

    The “pick your own eggs” setup is a new one on me. Not sure what the differentiating factor would be! (cracked or not cracked…hmm….) Maybe someone out there remembers.

  24. I just wanted to take the time to comment that when I worked for Safeway Food & Drug in Virginia, in the late `90's and at one point Safeway tried the same "categories" concept. I did not work either and Safeway eventually scrapped the idea.