Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Alpha Beta - The Early Acme Years

In the early 1960’s, a number of interesting trends took hold in the grocery industry. First, the progression (which began in the 1940’s) towards ever larger footprints for new stores continued at an intensified pace. Most new stores built in the early sixties were at least 15,000 square feet, with many upwards of 20 or even 30,000. Secondly, supermarket chains began to diversify into new businesses – including drugstores, general merchandise discount stores, quick-service restaurants and other ventures not directly related to their original business.

A third major trend that several large supermarket chains participated in was an expansion into far-flung territory through buyouts of other chains. Some examples are the 1964 merger of Boston-based Star Market into Chicago’s Jewel Tea Company and the purchase of the Los Angeles-based Market Basket chain by Kroger the previous year. Both of these acquisitions established their parent companies in new territory, far from home. Both parent companies, in these cases, wisely chose to maintain the original name and identity of the organizations they purchased.

Philadelphia-based American Stores Company, with a history dating back to 1917, was a major player on the East Coast, with 789 Acme Markets located in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington D.C. by 1961. In January of that year, American (the company would change its name to Acme Markets, Inc. in 1962, and then revert to its original name in the mid-70’s) became a bi-coastal operation with its purchase of La Habra, California based Alpha Beta Food Markets, a 51-store grocery chain with a devoted customer base throughout Southern California. The new subsidiary was renamed Alpha Beta Acme Markets.

At the time Alpha Beta was acquired by American Stores, the company was aggressively expanding (as were most SoCal area chains) through the construction of new stores and major renovation of many existing stores, a policy that would continue under Acme. Many of the “streamline moderne” facades that were standard issue for AB through the forties and fifties were giving way to a new mid-century modern look – mosaic tile and aggregate facings with gold-anodized mesh screens hanging from the front awning. Alpha Beta’s mascot “Alphy” was given a place of honor on huge neon (or backlit, in some cases) signs that towered above the stores.

Pictured here are three stores from the early Alpha Beta Acme years – Harbor Avenue/Costa Mesa, La Mesa (San Diego) from 1964, and La Habra from the following year.


  1. Great Photos!
    I also miss the old Alpha Beta stores with a geographic identifier.
    The third one (on West La Habra Boulevard) was an independent market (Suttles) for a few years and now part of the Northgate Gonzalez chain that caters to Latino customers.
    Thanks for a great blog!

  2. As I said, I'm amazed that no other retail chain has picked up on the geographic identifier concept.

    And thanks very much for the update on the La Habra store!

    Glad you're enjoying the blog-

  3. The one in la Mesa is now a soup plantation restaurant if it is the one I think it is (on Fletcher Parkway near Dallas).

  4. I lived about 3 blocks from the Alpha Beta on Harbor in Costa Mesa. Just spending some quality time on your blog. Great Stuff, Thanks

  5. Richard - Thanks! The Alpha Betas were always great looking stores. Since this was only 3 blocks away, you must have known it inside and out. I've got some AB interiors from that era I need to post one of these days.

  6. Great photos of Alpha Beta stores. Our local one, north Pacific Beach did not fit their architectural mold, being originally opened as "Buy N Save" in the early 60's. Our local Alpha Beta, as well as others did not sell liquor, rather they had a concession within the store. Apparently, this was due to being a Utah based chain with LDS Church ownership, or so the rumor went back then. I loved that, it was easy to go to the liquor counter to get my Coke and candy without having to wait in a long checkout line.

  7. Reminds me of my childhood, before I was aware of 'tiered' stores. I don't know if AB was like a Vons or a Kroger... and I don't care. It just reminds me of childhood. Carson, CA

    1. That's exactly what came to my mind. I didn't know anything of ratings (Pavillions & Gelson's or Raph's & Stater Bros). I just know that Alpha Beta was a part of my childhood & that's where most of my food came from.

  8. Today on the TV I just saw an Alpha Beta that looks like one of those pictured--I couldn't see the location marker, though--on an episode of CANNON circa 1972. If you don't want to wait until Me TV runs it again, get the Season 2 DVD for the episode "Moving Target".