Monday, January 19, 2009

A Family Affair at Kroger

As previously mentioned here, one of the most notable grocery industry trends of the 1960’s was the emergence of the supermarket/discount store combination. Usually the supermarket and discount store were separated by a wall and had their own checkstands, adjoining each other only via a common lobby area at the front. In some cases, the layout was open and both grocery and non-foods shared a common checkout area, much the way Wal-Mart Supercenters (on a comparatively gigantic scale) are configured today.

Many of the major chains (with the exception of A&P, a resolute holdout) tried their hand at this – Grand Union (the pioneer – they doubled the size of their Keansburg, NJ supermarket in 1956 to add a non-foods department and soon named the concept Grand-Way), Jewel (with their 1961 acquisition of Boston-based Turn-Style), Food Fair (they bought out J.M Fields in 1961), Stop and Shop (acquired Bradlees in 1961),Safeway (launched Super-S in 1962), Fazio’s (opened their first combination store in Akron in 1967) Red Owl (a Minnesota-based chain who opened their first combo in 1965), Lucky Stores (opened their first “Lucky Discount Center” way back in 1959) and others I’ve undoubtedly missed. Jewel/Turn-Style and Fazio’s were among those who decided to dub their combination units “Family Centers”.

In 1965, Kroger decided to try the idea as well, and the first Kroger Family Centers were opened in 1966. By the end of the following year, the company had seven Family Centers, located in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Kansas. The company also opened a few Thriftown stores, a general merchandise-only concept (with footprints a bit larger than the Family Centers) that to my knowledge never grew past five stores.

In addition to food, the Family Centers carried the normal discount store mix. There was clothing, jewelry, housewares, sporting goods, auto accessories, toys, and that welcome oasis in the bargain-hunting Sahara, a snack bar.

The stores featured common checkout areas and ranged in size from 50,000 to 70,000 square feet, much larger than the standard Kroger footprint of the time. In fact, in the early and mid-60’s Kroger tended to adopt a contrarian attitude regarding store size, actually shrinking their standard supermarket footprints for a time in the interest of efficiency. Over time, competition and the sheer increase in the number of new grocery products available forced them to upsize the stores. Of course, Kroger would later jump in with both feet with the much larger Superstores of the early seventies.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Family Centers, to me, was their construction. The typical Kroger supermarkets of the era were standard brick and glass affairs, often distinguished by an interestingly shaped pylon. The Family Centers were of concrete-wall construction, with aggregate facing on the concrete panels, a long concrete canopy over the entrances, supported by tapered columns, and far less window surface than most stores of the era. The Family Centers had a sturdy, handsome appearance, short on frills.

By 1969, there were 24 Family Centers, with 18 announced for the following year and a goal of 100 units by 1975, which unfortunately was never reached. Most of these were in the Mid-South (Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana) and in Texas. Units in the Houston area went under the name of Henke’s Family Center (short for Henke and Pillot). The store openings, particularly in the 60’s, were a big production, complete with an appearance by a replica of Barney Kroger’s 1883 horse-driven delivery wagon. Since many of the Family Centers went into cities that didn’t previously have Kroger stores, they were enthusiastically received.

For their groceries, that is. By 1972 it had become obvious that carrying such a broad range of general merchandise was not Kroger’s forte, and the decision was made to close the Family Centers, writing off the operation to the tune of $5 million. The "Family Center" name was retained on some Texas and Louisiana stores, although most of their general merchandise was broomed.

Far more exciting things were now happening at Kroger – the Superstore program was underway. “The family” would have new, compelling reasons to shop there.

The exterior photo above is from 1968, the three interior views below from the following year.


  1. WOW! I never knew Kroger went into this type of store before! I am wondering why they didn't try this approach in their own "home circle". It would have went over bigger in the Ohio area I am sure where Kroger is the name in grocery shopping.

  2. Kroger, like other retailers found little success in building hypermarkets during the era. Exceptions to this would be Meijer's Thrifty Acres, Gibson's in Texas, Schwegmann's in New Orleans, Fred Meyer in the Pacific Northwest and Smitty's SuperValue in the Phoenix area. Smitty's would come under ownership of Fred Meyer in the late 90s and in 1999, Kroger acquired Fred Meyer.

    Kroger today has the MarketPlace format, basically a modern day Family Center. One difference is Kroger is opening these stores in their core markets as opposed to new markets and the format is somewhat more upscale.

    Some of these Family Centers were downsized, with the GM section closed and walled off, often receiving the superstore remodel or latter a green house remodel. The superstore would prove more succesful, as it was more suited to the times, the Family Centers may have been just a bit ahead of their time. Also, Kroger would launch its first full-fledged food&drug combination stores in mid-70s under the Kroger Sav-on banner. Kroger Sav-on would be used extensively in Toledo,an existing market, and for expansion into new markets in the Carolinas.

    Like Family Center, Kroger Sav-on retrenched, but by then the traditional Kroger had evolved into a food and drug combo. Things certainly go in cycles.

  3. Ironically, Big Bear's discount division was also known as "Hart's Family Center". It would be interesting to have seen the two family centers go up against each other. From the pictures, it appears that this concept failed because the departments did not have a lot of breadth. The selection looks skimpy, like what you'd see at a TG&Y or Kresge's.

  4. Would the Jewel Grand Bazaar concept also fit into this along with Turnstyle? Because I always thought that the Jewel Grand was teh combo while the Turnstyle was more a seperate discount format sans the groceries.

  5. Kroger already SuperX drug stores by this time. In the manner of that era, SuperX sold a wider range of merchandise than is common in today's drug stores, including housewares, small appliances, and the like. These stores were a natural extension of this. Chains with drug stores like National Tea also tried to extend the range of merchandise in some stores--National included clothing lines in some of their Kare Drug departments.

    Even now, not everyone succeeds with superstores. KMart has scaled back its operation. Target has concentrated on its more gradual expansion of grocery departments rather than large scale roll-outs of its Super Targets. Kroger has tended to be a defensive, rather than bold operator. They built these stores long after Grand Union and others had pioneered the concept and they didn't acquire merchandising skill via acquisitions as other chains did (Jewel, Stop & Shop, etc.). The concept seemed rather doomed to failure given those limitations, although it's evident that super stores drew on the family center stores' exterior design.

  6. White Front was another store that went with the hypermart concept around this time, although they were unable to pull it off either and were out of business by 1975. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the few White Fronts got turned into Valu-Marts (another similar place, although they farmed out the grocery portion of the stores) that operated until 1975 (and changed their name to Leslie's in 1974), when they were purchased by Fred Meyer. One of the Fred Meyers near here got its start as a White Front, and went through this whole process.

  7. While the interior is very typical of the late '60s, the exterior has a vaguely Superstore feel. Architecturally, the Superstore was more distinctive, but the exterior details on these Family Centers were very interesting.

  8. Dwayne - The whole thing really appeared to be a (very long)"test market" approach, as if Kroger were reluctant to launch it in their home market lest it fail. By the time it was obvious the family Centers weren't working out, all the focus had moved to the Supercenters.

    Ken - Thanks for that extended background. Modern Kroger stores (like the MarketPlace format you cite) rival the FC's in size and carry a fairly extensive line of general merchandise, but nowhere near the clothing or automotive stuff, for example. The Fred Meyer stores are much more comparable.

    Anonymous - It would have been interesting to see how they would have fared, I agree. I also agree the general merchandise areas appear to be lacking, at least as evidenced by these photos (even the photos look a bit washed out!).

    Didi - The Jewel Grand Bazaars were more or less huge grocery stores, with bulk displays (especially of generics) and more international foods. Most general merchandise was sold in the adjoining Osco and/or Turn-Style.

    Anonymous - Interesting point about the merchandise mix of SupeRx and National's Kare drugstores. I think Kroger may have fared better had they bought out an existing, experienced discount operation. It's hard to say for sure. And I agree with your characterization of Kroger as operating defensively, but it seems to have served them well.

    Sledgehammer - White Front had supermarkets (usually leased out to other operators) as far back as the early sixties. Thanks for the info on the fate of the Pacific Northwest White Front stores.

    Steven - It really does seem to have influenced the Superstore design. I like them both!

  9. I should actually clarify a couple of things on my previous post:

    -The change from White Front to Valu-Mart happened sometime in either 1971 or 1972. I haven't determined exactly when yet (but I am trying to find this info.) The White Front stores in California were the ones that lasted until 1975.

    -There was one notable exception to the White Front stores becoming Fred Meyers, which was the former Everett store. This one apparently sat vacant for a number of years, then oddly enough got turned into a Bon Marche store (now Macy's) and had a new mall built around it! This happened sometime around 1977-1978 or so, but I haven't sorted out all the details on this one either.

  10. Yep, we had similar stores in Canada. Some examples:

    1960- Mon-Mart:2 stores in Montreal suburbs: LaSalle and Laval. Combined food store/departement stores. Closed for unknown reasons, but suspect that 2 close-by Steinberg's/Miracle Mart complexes was one of the reasons...

    1974- Hypermarché- Oshawa Group wanted to create a Towers/Food City combined store in Laval. For about 3 years, this store did offer all. However, both sections were separated, and as Hypermarché did keep the name for the food section, the department store section was named Bonimart (however, after many changes later, the store is just now rubble...)

    1974- Just close by this "Hypermarché", Steinberg's (yep !) wanted to do the same thing at the Carrefour Laval Mall and combine with Miracle Mart to create "Beaucoup". Several stores of this concept were built in Quebec and Ontario (Jonquière and Hamilton mostly). In the 80s, the Beaucoup name was dropped for the distinct brands, but some stores did not wall the distinct food store and department store sections.

    These days, Alberta and Ontario have Wal-Mart Supercenters. I did visit one of them... in Puerto Vaillarta, Mexico. The concept was the same as Steinberg's Beaucoup...

    Keep the good work !

    Ghost of Steinberg's

  11. Kroger's defensive posture has had mixed results. They failed to compete in many of their more Northern markets--Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis. In these markets, their competition tended to consist of aggressive, often innovative operators which emphasized large stores, perishables, and service departments (Jewel, Fazio, Giant Eagle, the Stop-n-Shop co-op in Cleveland, among others). Except for Jewel, these were hometiown operators. In Chicago and St Louis they also lagged behind National Tea, a penny-wise, pound foolish operator that often fell behind other chains. During the 60s, Kroger's sales and income advanced very slowly.

    Kroger did well against relatively conservative operators like Toledo's old Foodtown chain and much of their competition in the Southeast like Winn-Dixie and Colonial. Their superstores were too little too late in many northern markets but put them ahead of the curve in the South.

  12. There was another hypermarket chain, Consolidated Sales Corporation (CSC). They built a few of those in Louisville, KY in the late 1960s. As I recall, after some time they sold the grocery division but they continued to share a common entrance.

  13. There was another hypermarket chain, Consolidated Sales Corporation (CSC). They built a few of those in Louisville, KY in the late 1960s. As I recall, after some time they sold the grocery division but they continued to share a common entrance.

    Actually, this was another "Cook United" brand (Cooks, Clarks, Uncle Bill's, Ontario, CSC, Rink's). Cook United, based in Cleveland, had it's core markets in Ohio and surrounding states, but at one time had a store footprint as far as Kansas City, New York, Baltimore, and Georgia.

    CSC Logo:

  14. Speaking of which, I was looking for something else in newspaper archives and there was an ad for retail managers at a Cook United company store but it didn't say which store and I was never aware that there was a Cook United operation in Illinois or specfically the Chicago-land area. Anyone know what banner Cook United had in Illinois?

  15. To didi, I worked for Cook United from 1970-1987. We had stores in 15 states. Not sure about IL. I'm researching the locations with the bankruptcy CT in OH as I type. If anyone knows of other store locations, please list them. Thanks! I will update to you if I find out there was a store in IL! :)

  16. Up until around 1997, a 1970s built Kroger in town had a "Family Video Center", suspiciously in the same red font of the "Family Center". The Kroger was of the "greenhouse" variety, and the way to get into the Family Video Center from Kroger was a small sunken area with a small ramp/staircase leading up to the store (slightly different elevation). Curiously, I don't think we ever did video shopping and grocery shopping at the same time there. Regardless, once it closed, Kroger quickly renovated the area to avoid the appearance of any opening at all, and the next tenant to occupy the Video Center, Half Price Books, backfilled and carpeted the area.

  17. I know this is an old post, but I was able to find many places where these stores existed, and in some cases, still operate as Kroger:

    * - Still operating as Kroger
    # - Still a grocery store but not Kroger
    ! - Demolished

    *Longview - W. Marshall
    *Marshall - East End Blvd.
    *Baytown - Ward St.
    *Orange - N. 16th St.
    Austin - Burnet Rd.
    *Paris - Clarksville St.
    *Nacogdoches - North St.
    Harlingen, TX - N. Sunshine Strip
    Victoria, TX - N. Navarro St.

    !Lafayette - E. Cypress St.
    #New Iberia - E. Main
    Morgan City - Brashear Ave.
    *Lake Charles - Sallier St.

    Mattoon - E. IL 16
    !Sterling - E. 4th St.

    Cape Girardeau - Independence St.

    *Greenville - US 82E
    Hattiesburg - Broadway at Timothy

    Albany - N. Slappey Blvd.

    1. This is great, Scott - thanks so much! I passed by the Marshall, Texas location last december on a business trip. Even the original tower sign (minus the "Family Center" boards, of course) still exists!

    2. Until its Signature remodel, Marshall had a relatively intact floorplan. But Kroger took away the FC look in 1983 or so, and made this store a greenhouse remodel. I spent more time in this store and Longview (my mother loved Kroger for a long time).

  18. I found another one today. Evidently, Austin, TX had two of these. There is one at W. Ben White at S. 1st. This one is a little funny, because Ben White comes within 20 feet of the front. I had to go to to shed a little light on this. As Ben White was widened over the years, the parking lot was where Ben White is now. Big store, almost no parking = no tenants. Except a Chuck-E-Cheese in what appears to be the grocery side (because of the vent holes and compressor exhaust).

  19. And now I've found two more:

    Bryan, TX - S. Texas Ave; now 99 Cents Only and a few other stores
    Defiance, OH. 1836 E. 2nd St.
    This one is interesting. On the opposite end of the shopping center is a Greenhouse store. But the Family Center building is still there. Looks like it's been divided into other uses.

    1. OBJECTION! The Bryan, Texas one was only a regular greenhouse store opened in 1977.

    2. It may have been built in 1977, but it was not a greenhouse. This store was built as a family center. See this:,5251829

      Column 3, store 3. Family Center. Was a very late one.

  20. What is a Kroger "Greenhouse" store? I am surprised so many older Krogers still exist. Around the Cincinnati area (including our neighbor just to the north - Dayton, Ohio), we have 100+ Kroger stores including about 15 Marketplace locations, and I can only think of a few that were opened before the 90's. I guess I just assumed that Kroger replaced older stores regularly in all markets.

    1. Greenhouse Krogers are those stores with a large, expansive glass facade that allows a full visual into the full height of the store. Kroger built these from roughly 1979-1990, and there are many variations on the design.

  21. Take a look at this listing from Victoria, TX in late 1979:,5251829

    That means that Kroger operated Family Centers at least until the Bauhaus era of Kroger stores. And all of these were in the Houston division, including several I didn't name above. This lists 24 stores, and three in the area I named before aren't on the list; Austin's two stores and Lafayette, LA. That means there may have eventually been 50 of these.