Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Tale of Kroger, Old and New

The photographs above depict the Kroger store at the Southland Shopping Center, located on the corner of Westnedge and Milham Avenues in Portage, Michigan. Portage is just south of Kalamazoo, and about 150 miles from Chicago. They were taken by the late John Todd, a Kalamazoo-based commercial photographer who extensively documented the area’s growth over a four decade career.

They date from July 1960, and show the store’s grand opening festivities. As mentioned numerous times on this site, “grand” openings at the time were exactly that. They were true community events, featuring all manner of hullaballoo – dance contests, pony rides, drawings, and of course, giveaways. In this case, as the photos show, the giveaways included dolls for the little girls and an unspecified “Free Baked Good!” for the adults.

The Kroger store appears typical of the era, probably 12,000 – 16,000 square feet in size, with the oft-seen white internally lit letters against a light blue corrugated metal background. The interior shots show the produce area and the prepared foods counter, where one of the chefs (the guy in the party hat) was obviously in the spirit of things.

The Southland Shopping Center featured two Kroger-owned entities, the supermarket and a Top Value Stamps redemption center, located on either side of a Federal Department Store. The Federal stores, 58 of which were in operation in 1961, were owned by Detroit-based Davidson Brothers, Incorporated. They were closed in the 1970’s.

For the next 12 years, this store was Kroger’s standard-bearer in the Portage area. Around 1965 Meijer, a local favorite, opened a “Village Market” store down the street, and would expand it over the years. A modern-day Meijer sits on the same site. In 1972, Jewel-Osco opened a large store in the area (again locating on Westnedge, on what could have easily have been termed “Supermarket Row”), one of a number of stores in Western Michigan cities, which included Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, which that chain would operate.

In February 1973, Kroger rose to the occasion with the opening of a brand-new Superstore (shown in the photos below, which were also taken by Mr. Todd) to replace its original Southland Shopping Center unit. In many cases, Kroger would knock out a wall of an existing store in order to expand the shell for a new superstore. Since the company’s minimum acceptable standard for the superstores was 25,000 square feet (with a maximum size of 42,000 square feet), it was necessary to build a new unit on the end of the shopping center, in this case right next to Kroger’s Top Value redemption center. That year (1973), Kroger created 68 superstores through renovation/expansion of existing stores, while opening 80 new ones. I’m not altogether sure which category this one fits in!

From Kroger’s standpoint, the superstores were revolutionary, facilitating tremendous growth and expansion for Kroger in the newer, rapidly growing Southern markets while shoring up their position in their traditional heartland areas such as Portage.

The 1973 photos appear to be pre-opening shots. Of note are the “Xtra Low Discount Prices” ceiling hangers that can be seen in a couple of them. These were part of a Kroger marketing strategy that appears to have been selectively employed at the time, based on local market conditions. A&P, who also had a store in Portage, was in the midst of its “WEO” campaign, which effectively drained the profits from much of the supermarket industry (and ultimately did very little to help A&P). Also, by this time, grand openings were usually (but thankfully not always) more subdued affairs, heavily focused on price specials and not much else. Nothing against discounts, but I personally still like the idea of a “Free Baked Good!”

The 1960 Kroger location now houses a Barnes and Noble, the 1973 location a Petco and M.C. Sporting Goods. The Federal Department Store is now a JCPenney Home Store.

My sincere thanks to the Portage District Library, and to their resident local historian Steve Rossio, for the use of these photos (and for the accompanying historical background notes) from their John Todd collection.


  1. Nothing against discounts, but I personally still like the idea of a “Free Baked Good!”

    I agree wholeheartedly. Grand openings are no where near what they used to be. Safeway just remodeled the five year old Dominick's by my parents house and a few months back they did a Grand Re-opening. All they had were some lousy balloons, free samples and some sale items. No clowns, singers or extravagant dancers. Kind of boring.

    The Kroger in the second set of photos is one great little modern gem!

  2. That makes me curious: if the minimum acceptable size for a superstore was 25,000 Sq. Ft. then how did the Packard St. superstore (opened 3-1-73) come in at 18,170 Sq. Ft.? That is truly interesting, good report david. What is really interesting is that the Packard St. store is still open and many of the 25,000+ Sq. Ft. superstores are gone. The store has come into disrepair and the landlord faces foreclosure on it now but when it opened it was the most upscale Kroger in town, my how time changes things. When it rained we had to run around with buckets to catch the leaks from the basically rotten roof. I actually have a pair of photos of it from 1974 and 1977 respectively, if you would be interested.
    Perhaps this store was planned in 1970 or 1971 and was changed to a be a superstore at the last minute, It's still probably the smallest superstore that the chain built.
    For some perspective the plan now is to tear down the rather small mall it's in along with the superstore and build a 45,000 Sq. Ft. Kroger with apartments up top! So the Kroger will still be undersized when compared to other new Krogers.
    I actually worked at this store from 2006 to 2008 and again over the Christmas Holiday because I enjoyed it so much. Hopefully they don't close it anytime soon.

    Thanks David for sharing the story of the superstores.

  3. The white lettering with blue piping seemed to come with the 1960s, and replaced the red or blue signs that had neon. Most likely the store was about 15K sf. National Tea also had a presence in Kalamazoo at that time. They had a distribution center in Grand Rapids. After that was closed, the stores were supplied from Chicago, along with places like Benton Harbor & South Bend.

  4. I forgot to mention that Meijer's is actually a 190 store (Approx.) chain which actually runs nothing but hypermarkets. Half the store is groceries in a complete format selling everything you could ever want. And the other half is clothing, pets, hardware, appliances and electronics as well as a complete garden floral area and pharmacy. If I remember correctly this is one of the few chains to have ever made this concept work. They might be an interesting chain to do an article or two on at some point. It was 1962 when they started their hypermarket's (thrifty acres they called them) and
    were mostly converted by the mid-1970's. Most of those stores including the store my mother still works in to this day have survived from this period (her store having opened in 1969 or 70). Meijer has a tendency to own the real estate their stores are on and so they keep them up very well and remodel them every 5 to 10 years. They are based in Grand Rapids, Michigan and have stores in Michigan (obviously), Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky.

    I hope you might consider them for a future subject, as they have an interesting history.

  5. I shudder to think of what they regarded as 'Barbecue'.

  6. Christopher Duva said: That makes me curious: if the minimum acceptable size for a superstore was 25,000 Sq. Ft. then how did the Packard St. superstore (opened 3-1-73) come in at 18,170 Sq. Ft.?

    I think the answer is this. A lot of the early superstores were rehabs of existing Kroger stores and they were constrained by space. Columbus' Great Southern and Central Point stores were in-line shopping center stores carved out of existing space. Town & Country had the "Superstore look" but no in-store bakery and deli. I would guess this store was about 18,000 square feet since the store dated back to the early 1950's. (Was in it only once -- it had a plaster ceiling.) James and Livingston still had the "look" of the 1965 Kroger of the last article, but was painted in a Superstore color scheme and used some Superstore aisle signage and departmental signage.


  7. Dan- That would be logical but the space where the kroger is was a corn field until 1972.... So it was built from scratch as a Superstore at 18,170 Sq. Feet they closed a 1960 store that was 14,000 square feet and moved two blocks up the street to this store. Maybe it's an oddball but it never made sense to me to move up the street if the square footage you gain isn't that much.

  8. Christopher--Kroger did this all the time. They replaced a great many early post-WWII stores with ones that were only slightly bigger a short distance away. The 15K sf Kroger in my time was relocated to a 19K location a mile away (later upgraded to a 30K superstore). A 15K store a couple towns over was built in the late 50s to replace a somewhat smaller 1940s store that was a couple miles away. They did the same thing with a store in South Euclid, Ohio which relocated about a mile away and that store lasted only about 6 or 7 years before it was replaced with another store at Richmond Mall, which at least was larger.

    Kroger tended to close and relocate stores rather than remodel them until the 1990s--the stores probably had gotten to large to relocate and the company had become laden with debt.

  9. That would be logical but the space where the kroger is was a corn field until 1972....

    Chris, I hear what you're saying. All I can do is judge by what we had around here back in those days. If you go back to the 1970's in places like London, Kenton, New Lexington or Circleville, Ohio (small county seats surrounding Columbus) they had small footprint superstores. Kroger still runs tiny stores in the towns of Wellston, Nelsonville and McConnelsville. Here's one:


  10. Too bad recognizable Kroger superstores are a dying breed. Most still standing have been renovated beyond recognition with the exception of a small number still in operation as Kroger and the ones that became Big Lots, the perferred location of choice for BL in the Midwest and South.

    The Atlanta area still has the Buford Highway store operating as Kroger that still has recognizable elements to the exterior with some detail changes and an interior that has seen at least 3 remodels.
    Searcy, AR still has a little changed Kroger superstore still operating sporting a couple of minor interior remodels but still recognizable layout. And the Nashville area is home to some heavily altered but recognizable superstores-McGavock Pike comes to mind as an usual remodel.

  11. Just for reference heres the store I'm talking about...
    Thanks for some of the insights I always learn on this site.
    2003: (Current state)

    1977: Same as above...

    In both photos theres only 30 more feet of store on the right and the store ends at the end of the white superstore facade on the left. It also looks a little funny for a superstore, someone once suggested that this was not originally supposed to be a superstore. But it was changed at the last minute.

  12. Didi - I find myself wishing I'd been around during the heyday of store grand openings. It was a much more innocent time!

    Chris - Thanks for all of the details and photo link on the Ann Arbor store. It's interesting to read the different theories on the store's small size. The 25,000-40,000 range was the one officially cited by Kroger throughout those years, but it seems there are always exceptions to every rule!

    I'm familiar with Meijer and definitely hope to discuss them at some point in a future post. I referred to them as a "local favorite" because of the close proximity of their home base (Grand Rapids), and the fact that they probably only had 15 stores or so at the time, tiny compared to the giant Kroger. Meijer's growth since that time has been very impressive.

    Anonymous - Thanks for those details.

    Derek - I'm with you on that!

    Dan- Thanks again, great stuff as always on the Columbus Krogers! And that photo is great - a small 50's Kroger with the huge superstore sign slapped on the front!

    Ken- I'll have to check out the Searcy store someday. The McGavock Pike store was expanded and heavily remodeled about 10 years back. We lived nearby then and I enjoyed watching the consruction progress.

  13. And that photo is great - a small 50's Kroger with the huge superstore sign slapped on the front!

    Enjoy the interior shots!


  14. Also of note that this strip mall was enclosed as a full mall around the same time that the new Kroger opened. The enclosed mall didn't last long, and was torn down sometime around 1993, back mostly to a strip.

  15. In Marion Ohio Kroger operated a store on South Main and then a second store on Marion Mt. Gilead Road in the east end of the Plaza Shopping Center. Big Bear's large store was in that same shopping center until the 1990s. In the 1980s, Kroger moved east and built its own building in the Forum Shopping Center (dark brown brick and white trim) with an attached SuperX. That building is now a BW3's and and has been further subdivided.

    Kroger later moved across the Road to occupy the structure built for Clyde Evan's Market (and later Big Bear).

  16. Christopher is mostly correct. Meijer is still at Kilgore and Westnedge and quickly approaching 200 stores. I also work at Meijer in Grand Rapids, MI. I recently found a 'Year in Review' from 1977 that was a wonderful read.

  17. We have an old Murray Jet Fire bicycle that says "Federal's" on the tank...I'm assuming this was sold at Federal department store. We live in Tulsa and are unfamiliar with this store...was it only in the Detroit area?

  18. 1/4/12 wrote:
    I lived in Michigan most of my life and can tell you a little info about the Federal Department stores that lasted from around 1940-1980. There was once a Federal's department store at the corner of Dequindre and 8-Mile Road right at the border of Detroit and Hazel Park, Michigan. Today it's been torn down completely and is now a vacant lot awaiting for construction of a new Save-A-Lot Grocery Store coming soon. The end of Federal's reputation as a leading department Store in Michigan came in 1977, when self-styled tycoon Steven West took over what was a drying-up business decision by buying out the Robert Hall Clothing Department Stores(and later closing them all), but with Federal's, he had a much more devious plan in mind; Uptight about losing sales revenues to compettetors K-Mart, Kresgee's, Woolworth's, and Meijer's, West thought up a fool-proof (and fool-hardy) plan to pay of liquidations to his insurance creditors for losing sales and revenues: he decided to burn down at least five of the exsisting Federal buildings to compensate for loss of revenues (including the one at Dequindre and 8-Mile,and a particularly torched-up job at a Roseville Federal's store in Feburary, 1978 at Eastpoint Plaza.)West then decided to get rid of the "Federal's" name and replace it with the inane "Deral's" Department Store name. The plans backfired badly, West was called out as an arsonist (even though in court, he reportedly stated he never set the fires, stating that they were all "under mysterious circumstances"), and by 1980, the complete loss of respect for Steve West and "Deral's" was underway. the last Federal's/Deral's store finally closed in January 1980, such a tragic loss for a fine department store.