On May 2, 1930, A&P opened nine stores in the greater Los Angeles area, their first units on the West Coast. Seventy years after the company’s founding, the famous name – The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company – became a statement of fact, and of the long-awaited realization of a dream.
An article in the previous day’s Los Angeles Times quoted A&P president John Hartford, who had traveled across the continent for the landmark occasion: “These nine stores represent only an opening wedge…of an expansion program which will take in the entire Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountain territory.” He mentioned that leases for thirty additional Los Angeles-area stores had already been signed. The original nine store locations were as follows: 6811 South Western Avenue, L.A., 5859 Franklin Avenue, L.A., 31 Pier Avenue, Hermosa Beach, 37 North Fair Oaks Avenue, Pasadena, 136 San Fernando Avenue, Burbank, 1515 Mission Street, South Pasadena, 211 East Main Street, Alhambra, 6265 Van Nuys Boulevard, Van Nuys (Usually pronounced as a single word – “vaneyes”. You’re welcome.), and 106 North Pacific Avenue, Redondo Beach.
A year later, the company opened its first stores in the Seattle area. They took things a bit slower here where the pace of store openings was concerned, but over time A&P would develop a respectable presence in the market. It would prove to be the company’s only other significant entry in the Western states.
The designs of the Los Angeles-area stores in particular were very appealing, with some of the finest area examples of Spanish and Art Deco retail architecture rising up under the A&P banner. Many of the early stores featured open fronts in a nod to the region’s ideal climate – no storefront windows or doors (“open front” meant exactly that), allowing plenty of room to extend display bins onto the sidewalk to attract shoppers. After hours, these stores were secured by sliding doors or folding scissor gates like the kind used by indoor mall stores today. Local competitor Vons was a major proponent of the open front design, as was Lucky Stores “up north”, to name just a couple.
Probably the most notable individual store in A&P’s western roster was the Westwood Village “super-store” opened in 1936. The store was designed by renowned California architect Allen Siple, who at that time was under contract to the Janss Investment Corporation, developers of the legendary Westwood Village commercial center that borders the UCLA campus. The exterior design is in the Janss Brothers’ mandated “Mediterranean” style, as were the other 1930’s Westwood landmarks, including the domed Bank of America building, the Fox Westwood Village theatre and the famous Sears store, among many others. Whether the style bore any resemblance to genuine Mediterranean architecture is a matter of somewhat snarky debate even all these years later, but it looked great in my opinion. The most striking feature of the A&P store, and for that matter the other Westwood buildings mentioned, was its tall, spire-like tower, where in this case the red neon-outlined “A&P” lettering was visible for a great distance at night. The store was torn down in the late 60’s to make room for another theatre.
By 1935, only five years after the first stores opened, there were over 100 A&P stores in the L.A. area. As the company gradually shifted its store mix to supermarkets in the late 1930’s, this number began to decline, leaving the company with roughly 50 area stores by 1950. This phenomenon was by no means unique to A&P - nearly all major grocery chains experienced decreased store counts in the 40’s and early 50’s as they replaced two to three small stores at a whack with one (much larger) supermarket. There was one problem in this case, though – the Los Angeles area was positively exploding in population in the postwar era. A massive population shift was underway. People were moving to Southern California in droves from the Eastern and Midwest areas, in quest of the warmer climate and boundless opportunity the area had to offer. As time passed, A&P appeared more and more to be in retrenchment, or at least at a standstill.
To be sure, the area’s supermarket scene was brutally competitive, with a number of locally-based competitors boasting loyal followings – Ralphs, Alpha Beta and Vons among the strongest of these, with Hughes, Market Basket, Boys Market, Fox, Mayfair, Stater Bros., the Fitzsimmons/Roberts/Thriftimart stores and others I’ve surely forgotten to mention commanding their pieces of the pie as well. The competition grew even more intense when two Northern California-based competitors ramped up their “Southland” operations – Safeway, always a factor, but a major push into SoCal beginning in the late 50’s would transform them into a huge player there, and Lucky Stores, Inc., who in 1963 established a large office/distribution complex in Buena Park to support what proved to be very rapid growth.
It was a battle waged on many fronts – price, advertising (especially on television – these were the wild and woolly days of live remote commercials and crazy promotions), store location, and, fortunately for us – architecture. The store designs of Southern California supermarkets – especially from the golden age (I guess I would call the 1930’s Spanish and Art Deco designs the “platinum age”) of the mid-1950’s to the mid 60’s – represent the pinnacle of the form, with a number of stores standing out as prime examples of Mid-Century Modern architecture.
In this one respect, A&P made a bold last stand. At the start of the 1960’s they opened several new stores (mostly replacement units) in major suburban L.A. markets with fresh, contemporary architecture, representing a major departure for the conservative and tradition-bound “Grandma”, as the company was fondly nicknamed. At the same time A&P was beginning to blanket the eastern half of the country with its Centennial stores, their new SoCal units sported gigantic neon signs, ranch-like stonework and bold colors, a fine fit for the area’s unique vibe. There would be no colonial-themed stuff there.
Groceteria has an astounding set of color photos of some of these stores, taken at the time of their grand openings. These photos prove that (architecturally, at least) A&P could definitely cut the mustard. Beyond the excellence of the store designs, two aspects of those photos jump out at me – first, the presence of the Van DeKamp’s windmill signs on the storefronts. Interestingly, A&P promoted the local bakery favorite over their own Jane Parker brand, a major reversal of their normal policy. Secondly, the “Blue Chip Stamps” banners, meaning that A&P opted to join the Blue Chip trading stamp consortium (an intriguing mini-soap opera in itself - hope to discuss it here someday) instead of offering Plaid stamps as they did in other regions. Both decisions appear to have been a nod to local preferences.
The 1960’s would prove to be a very difficult period for A&P – in 1964, the company lost its status as America’s largest retailer to Sears, but that was merely a hint of much deeper problems. There were many reasons behind their dilemma, which I won’t go into detail about now, but chief among them were an inexplicable slowness to open stores in the booming suburbs, and an overemphasis on their own store brands, causing them to lose out on the national brand marketing bonanza (with millions of dollars in network television advertising support that A&P appeared not to care about) of the 1960’s.
The crux of the matter, as far as the West was concerned, was that A&P never seemed to make a real commitment to the area. It was most telling that the company had never even set up a separate western division. There were seven A&P retail divisions in 1960 – New England, Eastern, Atlantic, Southern, Central, Middle Western and Central Western. The Los Angeles and Seattle markets were in the….uh, Eastern division. Along with such sunny-climed areas as the Bronx, Brooklyn, Garden City (Long Island), Newark and Paterson, New Jersey, all monster markets for A&P. Suffice it to say that two small groups of stores, 2800 miles away from home base, would have received precious little attention.
None of this was lost on the competition, and it was obvious that A&P wasn’t exactly striking fear into their hearts. As Robert Magowan, the ever-unflappable chairman of Safeway, told Time magazine in a 1965 article, unflatteringly titled “Weak Tea” - “I doubt that A&P will come West in any force until it shores up some of its weak spots. And then I still doubt it.” The (somewhat more flappable) A&P brass had acknowledged this for a while by then. As far back as 1959, A&P president Ralph Burger told an Associated Press interviewer when asked about expansion in the west – “A&P originated in the east and its development has naturally been limited principally to that section of the country…There are no plans for major expansion in the west at this time”. Six years later, the consequences of that course of action appeared to weigh on then-A&P president Byron Jay, as he told Time – “We may have made a mistake in the West.”
It came to an end for A&P in Los Angeles in December 1968 with the announcement that the company would sell its 31 area stores to the E.F. MacDonald Company. MacDonald was the owner of Plaid Stamps, A&P’s trading stamp of choice in all but the L.A. market, an irony already mentioned above. The previous year, MacDonald became a supermarket operator itself when it purchased 40 Shopping Bag stores from Vons Grocery Company, who was forced to sell them as a condition of an FTC antitrust order. The A&P stores would be rebranded as Shopping Bag stores. In the early 70’s, MacDonald sold the chain to Cleveland-based Fisher Foods, Inc., whereupon they reopened as Fazio’s units, as previously discussed here.
In 1974, A&P sold off its Seattle area stores, which Retired A&P Executive/Biographer William Walsh had termed a “more successful operation” in his fascinating book The Rise and Decline of The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Some of the stores went to Smith’s Food King, which was later acquired by Fred Meyer and then by Kroger.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the A&P story is probably well aware that the sun has set on a large part of the A&P Empire in the last few decades. 150 years after its founding, though, the proud name still exists, on more than a few stores. Not many can say that.
The first two photos below are shown here by permission of the USC Libraries Special Collections, California Historical Society Collection. The first shows a magnificent streamlined/deco A&P and Thrifty Drug combination, located at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue circa late 1930’s. Next, from around the same time, is a very different but equally nice Spanish style A&P, location unknown. Note the men in tuxedos stationed in front. Both appear to be “open front” type stores. The next five photos are from Chain Store Age, circa 1937, and show the Westwood Village store (corner of Gayley and Broxton), exterior and interior views of the A&P “Food Palace” at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Cochran Avenue, and similar views of the South Pasadena A&P store. After that is a brief hat tip to the Seattle area, with a 1959 A&P publicity photo showing the Bremerton, Washington store. The metal sign to the far left is a variety I’ve only seen on Seattle area A&P stores. Last, from the Los Angeles Public Library, is the Pasadena store, located at East Foothill and Rosemead Boulevards, as final preparations were underway for its April 1959 grand opening.
Below are two full-page ads from that grand, glorious era when new supermarkets rated an entire newspaper section (in the Los Angeles Times, no less!). The first is from the 1935 opening of the Wilshire Blvd. “Food Palace”, the second from 1950, marking new stores in Santa Monica, Escondido and Altadena. The ad provides a comprehensive listing of Southern California A&P stores as of that date.