Monday, November 17, 2008

Kroger in Cleveland, 1935

Despite a 28% drop in sales from 1929 to 1933 and a number of other challenges, Kroger withstood the onslaught of the depression better than many of its grocery chain counterparts. With nearly 5,000 stores, Kroger was in a dominant position in many of its markets.

One of the “other challenges” came in April 1930, when Kroger chairman William H. Albers resigned to start his own supermarket chain. The Albers Super Markets would become a good-sized player in the Cincinnati and northern Kentucky areas, strongly pushing national brands in their advertising against Kroger’s hot-selling, well regarded private label brands. In 1955, Albers sold out to Atlanta-based Colonial Stores. Beginning in the thirties, Kroger also took on a leadership role in fighting the anti-chain store movement, whose primary target was The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P), but which constituted a threat to the entire chain store industry. The battle, which played out over nearly two decades, was costly in terms of legal expenses, but also in the form of price reductions necessary to sway public sentiment over to the chains’ side of the argument.

An exciting development for Kroger was the opening of its first departmentalized “superstores” (not to be confused with the much better known Kroger Superstores of the 1970’s). The first of these early superstores opened in 1930 on Government Square in Cincinnati, and similar stores would soon open in Kroger’s other major territories, including Cleveland, Columbus, Louisville, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Madison, Wisconsin. Thirty-four of these deluxe units would be open by 1935.

There were major acquisitions for Kroger from 1928 through 1940, including 85 Cox Grocery stores in the Little Rock area, 58 Oakley Economy Stores in eastern Illinois and western Indiana, and 15 stores purchased from the Model Grocery and Baking Co. of Springfield, Missouri, among others. There was also a divestiture – in late 1934, Kroger sold 53 of its 56 Oklahoma stores to Safeway Stores, Incorporated, citing the difficulty in managing the stores from distant Cincinnati.

Also, a famous Kroger product was born during this period. In 1939, Kroger introduced its special patented process for meat tenderization under the trade name “Tenderay”. Kroger would market their Tenderay beef exclusively until 1942, when it opened the process up to be licensed to other firms. Tenderay, along with older Kroger tradenames Country Club and Big K (which, unlike Tenderay, are still in use) would become a fixture in heartland kitchens for decades.

The photos above are circa 1935 and depict the Kroger store at 2227 Noble Road in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and appear courtesy of the Cleveland State University Library. Note in the second photo the competing Fisher Foods store right next door. The signage is typical for Kroger in the 30’s. Interestingly, their sign colors during that era were often green, black and white, rather than more familiar Kroger Blue (and “Coral Red”) which came later. Here is a link to a neat film clip from 1947, showing a Kroger store that was probably around ten years old at the time.


  1. How's that for competition? The thing is, I know I have seen other photos similar to this of grocery chains right next to each. It is almost unheard of today. You won't even find two grocery stores in the same shopping plaza like you might have back in the 50/60s.

  2. Didi - You're right, it was common, not just in urban street locations like this one, but also in many early shopping centers. Sometimes you would see two or even three competing supermarkets in the same center. What a headache that must have been for the store managers! Today, most supers have exclusivity clauses in their store leases.

  3. Just from the research I have done in the past, I know that Winston Park Plaza (Which opened in Melrose Park in 1960) had a Jewel and a Kroger. Lincoln Village (near the old Shopper's World at Lincoln and Kimball) which opened in the early 50s also had a Sure Save Food Mart and a Kroger and that center is no where near as big as Winston Park Plaza.

  4. Albers was also a player in Columbus and Dayton. I uploaded pictures of former Albers buildings in the Columbus area to Remembering Retail. For most purposes, you can think of Columbus-Cincinnati-Dayton as the same market. There is media overlap between the markets historically due to their proximity and common media ownership. The stores that do well in one place tend to do well in the other.

  5. Here is the only remaining former Albers in the Columbus area which is still operating as a supermarket. The building was constructed in 1964. Ironically, it is owned by members of the Schottenstein family (Value City).

    This video might give you some idea of how interconnected the Columbus-Cincinnati-Dayton media markets were:

    Here's a "tri-cities" weathercast from 1955:

  6. I just remembered that there used to be a Jewel and a Dominick's right behind each other in I think Winnetka or maybe Kenilworth on Green Baby Road. An alley or some sort of pathway literally seperated the two. I don't know how long they lasted like that but I drove past this summer to see that the Jewel is still there while the Dominick's moved to a bigger space down the street and the former Dominick's space is now an Office Depot.

  7. Didi - Lots of suburban Chicago shopping centers had two or more gorcery stores in those days. I used to at Winston Plaza back in the early 80's. If I remember right, they had a Madigans store I used to shop once in a while. Winston Plaza still had its great 50's sign well into the 1980's. I have a picture of it that I'll have to post sometime. And Kenilworth, now that's a nice, affordable area!

    Anonymous - Thanks. It does make sense to treat them as one media market, as close together as they are!

  8. And Kenilworth, now that's a nice, affordable area

    LOL! That's sarcasm, right? We used to drive down there alot in the mid-90s to take sightseeing trips and go to the public parks by the lake. The tour was usually Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka, Kenilworth, Lake Forest, lake Bluff and occasionally Waukegan. Now I go down there to take sightseeing trips of the architecture and this summer I only got as far as Kenilworth.

  9. Kroger had a long history in Northeast Ohio. Their acquisitions in the region included Piggly Wiggly and the first iteration of Giant Eagle. Giant Eagle would be resurrected during the Depression and eventually become the dominant chain in Pittsburgh, and after 1984, with the exit of Kroger, begin its climb to dominance in Northeast Ohio.

    Along the way Kroger tried to keep its presence. Formats such as Barney's, BiLo and LoBi were launched. Akron saw the first Kroger superstore. Obviously Kroger didn't want to exit the most populous part of its home state and did not give in as easily as it seems.

  10. Didi - Yes. Affordable, but not to many! Kenilworth is at the top my list when it comes to pricey Chicago suburbs.

    Ken - Its a shame they pulled out of the Akron area, especially as it's not all that far from Cincinnati. Thanks for filling us in on the history.

  11. The divesture of the Oklahoma stores was probably more due to the decline of population and wealth in Oklahoma as a result being the state most heavily impacted by the Dust Bowl. The distance from Cincinnati was likely cited to give a more positive spin on the divesture. The fact that Kroger and Safeway were the primary benefactors of the buying up the pieces of Piggly Wiggly in their expansion and this sale to Safeway show the two chains had already developed a corporate relationship in regards to expansion and disvesture that would shape both chains up to the present day.

  12. Ken - Those are excellent insights, and I suspect you're right about their wanting to put the best face on the Oklahoma pullout. Corporate spin has been around as long as corporations themselves. It had to be one of the hardest hit states during the Deprression, when you combine the national economic calamity with the unique and tragic phenomemon that was the Dust Bowl. Those were the years when a great many Okies moved west to California's Central Valley in search of literal greener pastures. A side effect was the fact that they were moving back into Safeway territory.

    And I agree that both compnanies have definitely maintained a sort of working relationship over the years, buying and selling stores to each other to mutual benefit.