Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Men of Acme, 1956

Authoritative 1950's-style announcer voice: "Remember this, folks! When better markets are built, Acme Men will build them! Just look at these Acme Men...Men of foresight...Men of ingenuity...Men of zeal!"*

Zeal notwithstanding, Acme’s late 1950’s stores were fairly plain as a rule, with the only standout aspect being the “Acme Markets” logo (which by this time had evolved into a cool automobile fender-style script) above the awnings. The example shown below in a 1957 photo is typical of the period and portrays the design seen in a multitude of shopping center and free-standing Acme locations. From an architectural standpoint, much more interesting things would come from Acme in the 1960's.

Acme closed the 1950's with 870 stores, of which only 50 remained of the service type, the rest being self -service, and nearly $900 million in fiscal 1959 sales. Acme's co-founder and longtime president Samuel Robinson passed away in 1958.

*Not an actual commercial.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Acme Markets Nighthawks, Early 1950's

Nice 1954 artist's rendering of an Acme Market, neon blazing at night. Kind of reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s famous painting “Nighthawks”, isn’t it? I mean, except for the setting being a grocery store instead of a café…and the location probably a shopping center instead of a dimly lit downtown street…and a larger group depicted instead of three brooding, lonely patrons and a soda jerk…Ok, let’s forget that comparison.

The picture, based on this prototype, does show that by the early 50’s, Acme was moving into larger footprint stores and designing to blend into shopping centers.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Acme - Clean, Bright, Sparkling White

A paraphrase based on a Jewel Tea ad, but one that certainly applies here. Like its future stablemate, Acme Markets of the 40’s and early 50’s featured gleaming white porcelain facades. For the most part, the stores displayed the “Acme script” signage shown here, rendering a great iconic look that was used heavily in Acme newspaper ads. Most Acmes, like nearly all grocery stores of the era, ranged between only 5,000 and 10,000 square feet, lending to the quaint appearance. Ironically, these stores could still be spotted occasionally in urban Philadelphia and other areas as late as the early 1970’s, with some examples surviving even later than that.

Acme Markets was the trade name of American Stores Company, which had been in business for 30 years when these photos were taken. At the time, the company founder Samuel Robinson was still on their Board of Directors. In 1947, Acme had 1,921 stores, mostly in Eastern Pennsylvania and portions of the surrounding states. They battled head-to-head with “Grandma”, (the A&P, as fondly referred to by its longtime employees) and fellow Philly-based Food Fair for dominance in the ferociously competitive Philadelphia market, among others. One of the biggest challenges facing Acme (and most of the other major supermarket chains) during the era was the conversion of their stores from counter service to the self-service format. Evidently it was an arduous process, as even five years later, in 1952, only 55% of Acme’s stores were self-service units.

Here are a couple of links to some photos of similar Acme stores – a great 1966 photo featuring a 40's era Acme store at Wyoming and Rising Sun Avenue in Philadelphia, and another shot from 1991 of the Lambertville, NJ Acme in an incredibly good state of preservation. I’m curious to know if that one’s still around.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Marina Safeway at Night, 1968

A beautiful dusk view of what is undoubtedly the most famous individual grocery store location in the country, if not the world. This is, of course, the Marina Safeway – San Francisco Landmark, Meeting Place Extraordinaire (having duly earned the nickname “Dateway”), and the Proud Standard of Safeway Stores, Incorporated. This store, still going strong, is located at 15 Marina Boulevard, San Francisco and was opened in 1959. It set the style that even today is the one most closely associated with Safeway, and it had a not inconsiderable influence on the store design of other supermarket chains.

Interestingly, Safeway was forced to wage a “protracted zoning fight” in order to win approval to build this store, according to the July, 1960 issue of Chain Store Age magazine. After gaining approval, some area residents still objected, so Safeway set out to build “a showplace that would pacify its opponents and satisfy the neighborhood’s esthetic as well as practical needs”. They certainly succeeded.

The store originally opened with a different interior design scheme than the one pictured here. If you click on the photo, you can see that by this time, Safeway had replaced it with their standard 60’s look.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Safeway Sixties Style

Through the 1960’s, Safeway continued to pursue Chairman Robert Magowan’s oft-expressed objective of maintaining an aggressive store building and modernization program. During this period, usually 60 percent or more of Safeway’s stores were under ten years old - no mean achievement for a chain of that size. The comparatively tiny, white-painted Safeway stores of the 30’s and 40’s were an all-but-distant memory. A great many of the distinctive pyloned stores that had replaced them in the early and mid-50’s were themselves radically remodeled and expanded or replaced altogether by modern, much larger stores, often on the same site. Even though Safeway’s overall U.S. store count dropped by roughly 10 percent through the sixties, the chain’s overall square footage greatly increased, a trend shared with several other major supermarket chains.

Safeway utilized a number of architectural styles throughout the sixties, the first versions of many of them having “premiered” in 1959 or so. The most notable of these styles can conveniently be called the “Marina Family” of designs, after the company’s signature “Marina Safeway”, which opened in San Francisco in 1959. Although most (but certainly not all) subsequent marina-type stores were less elaborate than this first store, with its mosaics and four-foot wide louvered sunshades, the influence is obvious. The marina style generally consisted of a curved roofline and glass across most of the storefront except for a small section on the sides, which were usually finished in stone, wood or mosaic tile and most often sported the red and white round “S” Safeway logo. There were several basic variations of the marina theme (hence the “family” designation), which are most easily distinguished by the curvature of the roofline.

Many Safeway stores featured a low-slung peaked roof that Progressive Grocer magazine generically termed a “ranch-type design”.

The company also designed a wide variety of stores to meet local architectural standards, and this practice yielded many interesting designs – “Colonial Williamsburg” style buildings, rustic western-style exteriors, stores sporting historical murals of local significance (this category also included some of the marina-style buildings) and other one-of-a-kind designs intended to blend in with adjacent shopping centers. To be sure, however, many shopping centers of the era were content to present a “mix-n-match” appearance.

Then, there were stores that by Safeway standards were of very conventional design, with flat roofs and a minimum of architectural frills. Even these stores, in my opinion, had a classy, understated look that clearly identified them with Safeway.

As far as their overall business was concerned, the 1960’s saw a continuation of Safeway’s remarkable growth, the entrance into some new markets and exit from others. In 1960, Safeway opened its first store in Alaska, and in 1963, they reentered Hawaii after a 29-year absence with a new store in Honolulu. In 1961, the company ended its 20-year long presence in the underperforming New York-New Jersey market with the sale of around 160 area supermarkets to First National Stores. Magowan stated that the company’s intention was to use the funds from the First National transaction to build additional stores in the West, “where growth is assured”, as he was quoted in Time Magazine. The early sixties also saw Safeway’s entry into the UK, West Germany and Australia, all initially by acquisition of existing local chains. Many of these early European and Australian Safeways are very charming in that they were converted from existing, sometimes very old stores in picturesque old-world street settings. The stores that Safeway would build in those areas in the coming years often closely resembled their American and Canadian counterparts which were, of course, also charming.

The following stores are pictured, top to bottom: A 1963 Marina-style store with historical murals in Ashland, Oregon honoring a famous local Shakespearean theatre, another Marina-style from Honolulu, also from 1963 (the first Hawaiian Safeway in nearly three decades) , a "ranch-style" store in Alamo, CA from 1968, a Colonial-style from Richmond, VA in 1959, a unique design featuring historical murals in Santa Barbara from '59 as well (now a Vons and still looking good at 34 W. Victoria St in SB, thanks for the tip, Ed!), another '59 shot, this one a shopping center special in Independence, Missouri, an unusual design from in a 1965 Oakland location (which was actually a newly renovated 1950's era store) and a conventional flat-roofed store in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada from 1968.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Checkout Time

In this idyllic circa 1968 scene, a family is ready to head for home with a fine haul of Safeway-branded merchandise. The young lad seems to be playing a little tug of war with the cashier, who doesn't appear to be amused...or maybe she was about to break out in a big smile. The store decor is late 60's state-of-the-art for Safeway.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Safeway's Windmill?

This photo (from 1963, location unknown) is intriguing to me for a couple of reasons – first, because it shows the “March of Progress” – a classic 50’s Safeway about to realize its destiny as a parking lot for the brand-new, gleaming Safeway/Super S store seen under construction in the background. On the new store, the plastic insert for the round, red “S” logo isn’t even installed yet!

Secondly, because of the famous Van de Kamp’s windmill sign on the pylon of the older store. Out of the many vintage Safeway photos I’ve seen, this is a first. As anyone who grew up in pre-1970 Southern California knows, the windmill signs were a fixture (literally) of grocery store facades all over the region. Vons, Thriftimart, Market Basket, A & P (before they cleared out of L.A. in the early 60’s), Food Giant and many others all featured Van de Kamp’s bakery departments and thus sported the familiar sign. In the couple of vintage film clips I’ve seen of them, the windmill blades really did turn, though I’m not sure if it was purely from the wind or with the assistance of a small electric motor.

I’ve always assumed that Safeway did their own baking for their stores. If someone knows the backstory on this, please let us know!
(Thanks to the sharp-eyed PFS reader who identified this store's location - at the corner of 3rd and Vermont in L.A. - now a Vons.)

Safeway's Super S Story

In the early 1960’s, several leading supermarket chains began a concerted effort to augment their traditionally razor-thin grocery margins by greatly increasing their offering of non-food items. Typically, this category included outdoor accessories, sporting goods, cameras, small appliances, basic clothing and a host of other items, which were usually marked-up at more than twice the rate of food products.

This trend was accelerated with the introduction of the “food/drug combination store” – essentially two adjoining stores - by such chains as Albertsons of Boise, Idaho and Jewel Food Stores of Chicago in the opening years of the decade. Safeway, far larger than either of these two companies, jumped into the fray in October 1962 with the establishment of their “Super S” division. The Super S stores would be newly constructed units, built in conjunction with an adjoining new Safeway. The two stores would share an entrance portal between them, but would be operated as separate businesses with their own checkstands. Super S would sell the products mentioned above, in addition to health and beauty products, and each unit would feature a full-service pharmacy. The stated goal was to have the first combination Safeway/Super S store open during the following March in Anchorage, Alaska (hey, why not?) with a total of five stores to be opened in 1963. Six stores were actually opened that year, with 22 more following in 1964.

Surprisingly, especially given Safeway’s outstanding overall performance throughout the period, the Super S stores were not a successful venture. In 1965, twenty-three new Safeway/Super S stores were opened. That same year, however, 22 of the existing (and still very new) Super S units were sold off to Salt Lake City-based Skaggs Drug Centers, Inc., in a transaction that included all Super S’s east of the state of California except for two Washington, D.C. stores. The adjoining Safeways continued to operate. By 1969, the Super S store count was stagnant at 30 stores, and in 1971 the balance of the Super S stores were disposed of.

I surmise that one factor involved in the failure of the Super S concept was the fact that they were separated by a full-length wall from the Safeway, save for the relatively small entrance portal between them. To me, this arrangement could only serve to discourage customers from wandering the second store after they had completed their purchases from the first. In Chicago, for example, the Jewel/Osco combination stores (which have been successful for 45 years now) had no such wall (*see comments), and any item from either store can be purchased at the Osco counter or any of the Jewel checkstands. Most Jewel/Osco stores opened in recent decades in fact share checkstands.

Sadly, the ultimate advantage to this divided arrangement, then, was to facilitate the conversion of the Super S operations to a Skaggs or other successor brand.
As the years have rolled on, of course, Safeway’s store footprints and product offerings have grown tremendously, and undoubtedly most products once sold at the Super S stores can today be found under the roof of a regular Safeway. All’s well that ends well.

The top photo, from 1964, features a Safeway/Super S from San Jose. The other three photos are Super S interiors from a slightly older store in Carmichael, California.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Safeway Fifties Style

The three photos above are of new Safeway stores opened in 1955, a very significant year in Safeway's 40-year long (at that point) history. In October 1955, longtime Safeway President Lingan A. Warren stepped down. Warren, as a Time magazine article put it, “built Safeway from nothing” during his 21 years at the chain’s helm. By the mid-50’s, however, despite store growth that would be impressive by any standard, profits were low as a result of Warren's pricing policies, and Safeway stockholders were restless. Enter Robert Magowan, a onetime Warren assistant and more recently a top manager at brokerage firm Merrill Lynch. Magowan, a dynamic, hard charging, customer-oriented executive also happened to have an important personal connection. He was the son-in-law of Charles Merrill, founder of Merrill Lynch, who personally controlled a huge block of Safeway stock.

Magowan began by, among other things, reversing two key Warren policies – a “to the death” resistance to trading stamps and a reluctance to move Safeway into shopping centers. Both moves, particularly the embrace of the booming shopping center movement, helped to catapult Safeway to new heights. By 1958, only three years into Magowan’s reign, Safeway’s profits were at the top of the heap in the supermarket industry.

These three stalwart examples of classic Safeway 50’s architecture are (top to bottom) from Walnut Creek, California, Phoenix, and Mill Valley, California. Mount Tamalpais looms in the background in the third photo.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Safeway's Wonderful World of Color

“Color does brighten things up, doesn’t it?” Walt Disney asked the television audience in the opening minutes of his first Color TV broadcast in 1961. Well, it was true for Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color”, and it was also true for Safeway and many other leading supermarket chains throughout the 1950’s and into the early 60’s. Pastel colors were used to great effect in this 1953 Portland, Oregon Safeway, which also features signage the company would use as a standard in its stores for more than a decade. The different colors allowed easy identification of departments and created an illusion of space in an era when most supermarkets still averaged 15,000 square feet or less.

As the sixties wore on, Safeway changed to deeper, darker shades for their standard color scheme. Many others who had used a pastel scheme did the same, or switched to one or more of a much wider variety of wall finishes, including paneling, wallpaper, mosaics, murals – you name it.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

...And Don't Forget The Coffee!

Gotta have that flavor lift... Here's another 1945 photo, this one featuring a gentle reminder outside a San Francisco Safeway. Edwards was Safeway's longtime house brand. The billboard looks bigger than the store itself!

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Safeway Upgraded

It would be understandable to assume that civic design approval for retail stores is a fairly recent thing – a phenomenon of the past 25 to 30 years only, or perhaps dating as far back as the mid-60’s, when Lady Bird Johnson’s “Keep America Beautiful” campaign ushered in a new, austere (shudder) era of retail architecture.

The interesting fact is that there are examples of appearance zoning that go back much earlier than this, and many of these early results were pretty nice looking. Pictured above are two Safeway stores from 1945. The top photo features the ubiquitous standard Safeway design – cement outer construction, painted white, with the famous yellow and red porcelain-coated signage. Many hundreds of these stores were built throughout the 1930’s and 40’s. The second store is an attractive example of an effort on Safeway’s part to blend in with the local area. The brick and Spanish tile are striking, and the subtle signage (while maintaining Safeway’s trademark typeface) is icing on the cake. In all likelihood, these stores were alike in every other respect. The front glass and door arrangements appear to be identical, right down to the little “Safeway” decal to the left of the doors.

Just a few notes on Safeway at the time these stores were opened – the chain had 2,442 stores in 23 states, Washington D.C., and Canada and were a key factor in the Western, Southwestern, Eastern, and Plains States’ grocery markets. They were by far the dominant grocery retailing concern on their home turf of Northern California.

Monday, September 3, 2007

White Front - Under the Familiar Arch

All right folks, time to grab your BankAmericard, Master Charge or just good old fashioned cash as we take a brief trip to a great discount store of the past. Since we’ve been discussing West Coast supermarket chains lately and I had yet to cover a single actual discount chain at all (save the Lucky variants from the last post), this is a good place to start – with the long gone White Front stores.

In 1959 Interstate Department Stores, Inc., led by president Sol Cantor, purchased the two-store White Front operation in Los Angeles (the next year, Cantor would purchase the ten-store Topps "Discount City" chain in the East). White Front was founded in 1929 and was known for many years as primarily a seller of electrical appliances. Interstate moved quickly to expand White Front’s retail offering to include clothing, sporting goods, automotive items, household décor and much more. By 1963, the chain had grown to 11 stores and by 1970 there were 30 stores, concentrated around the Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle market areas. The new store footprints ballooned to 150,000 square feet, and in many cases a supermarket department was added to the mix.

By far the most distinctive White Front store design featured a massive arched entrance-way with the “White Front” lettering fanned out along the edge. They were spectacular looking stores, and Interstate went all out to make sure their Grand Opening festivities created a stir to match. A look through old newspaper articles on White Front grand openings shows that many stars were typically on hand – Jayne Mansfield, Troy Donahue, Bill Cosby (riding high on his early “I Spy” fame, but long before he became a legend) and Sebastian Cabot (of “Family Affair”) all did their part, along with a horde of lesser-knowns. Ah, the benefits of opening a store in Los Angeles.

In the early 70’s, the chain began a retrenchment to Los Angeles, and within a couple of years was gone. Interstate Stores folded and the only remaining vestige of the company would ultimately be Toys “R” Us.

The first photo is of the original White Front location at 7651 So. Central Avenue in Los Angeles. The store was opened in 1929, but this photo looks to be considerably more recent than that. This store was burned down during the 1965 Watts riots, and was replaced by a modern White Front at the same location which opened in March, 1967. The second and third photos are of an unknown location and are from 1968, showing the classic exterior and an interior view where customers are perusing the latest beautiful avocado and burnt sienna appliances. The final photos are from 1970, a new store at Normandie Avenue and Imperial Highway in Los Angeles. White Front had scrapped the arched look in favor of a more standard design, albeit with a “key-osk” (Sorry.) out front. Note the young ladies in the last photo checking out the groovy “tape decks”.