Sunday, May 31, 2009

Winn-Dixie - Power to the (Beef) People

A billboard flies past as cars streak down the highway at night, sometime in 1970. Instead of the exit number for the nearest Holiday Inn, or a pitch for a tourist attraction such as Weeki Wachee Springs, we see a great big steak, the stock-in-trade of Winn-Dixie and Kwik Chek supermarkets. Uncooked, no less – a practice that thankfully is rarely (no pun intended) the case in supermarket advertising today. Modern weekly grocery ads, for example, typically show attractively cooked and garnished steaks, prominently placed on the front page.

In Winn-Dixie’s case, beef wasn’t just on the front page of their ads, but on the front of their stores, in slogan form at least. “The Beef People” is a phrase that continues to be associated with Winn-Dixie, even though it long ago ceased to be company’s tagline. (I actually prefer James Lileks’ one word slogan – “Mmmmmmeat!”)

For the most part, the 1970’s saw a continuation of Winn-Dixie’s success. The company started the decade with the formation of a new division – in Atlanta (to include the North Georgia and Chattanooga areas), where Winn-Dixie had maintained a presence for just over ten years by that time. Initially, the new region was comprised of thirty-one stores peeled off from the Montgomery division and eight from the Greenville division. Although the Atlanta division would grow impressively, not quite doubling in size over the next ten years, it would remain one of the company’s smaller operations. Competition in the Atlanta area was fierce, prompting a brief return to issuing trading stamps (Top Value this time around) in 1978.

The biggest news of the era for Winn-Dixie came in 1976, when the government imposed 10-year ban on acquisitions finally came to an end. In August of that year, the company bought out Fort Worth, Texas-based Kimbell, Inc., gaining 135 stores in three states new to Winn-Dixie – Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. The stores operated under the Buddies, Foodway and Hagee names. A twenty-unit drugstore chain owned by Kimbell, called “Thrifty”, was not part of the deal. Two years later, Winn-Dixie would sell off its New Mexico stores due to problems with the local unions. The 23 Foodway stores were sold to Smith Management Co., operator of the “Smith’s Food King” supermarkets, which years later would become a division of Kroger.

Most major grocery chains were unaccustomed to the new scrutiny that came along with the “consumers’ movement” of the 1970’s. Suddenly, supermarket chain profits became the stuff of headlines, and often as not, companies were portrayed in an unflattering light. Because of Winn-Dixie’s industry leading profits, they felt more heat than most. In an October 1973 full page article, Forbes magazine came to the company’s defense: “...profits, properly speaking, are created by efficient management, not by greed; Greed has never been known to create anything. Winn-Dixie makes more money than most, yet manages to keep employees, customer and even stockholders happy. What’s so sinful about that?” In any event, through the rest of the decade Winn-Dixie managed to maintain this balance, as described by the New York Times in 1979: “Winn-Dixie, (is) the nation’s fourth largest supermarket chain (behind Safeway, Kroger and A&P) and one of its most successful, with profits above industry average”.

Not much to “beef” about there!

The vintage Winn-Dixie publicity photos seen above are as follows: (1) the above-mentioned 1970 billboard, (2) from 1975, a store that appears to be an older unit retrofitted with a mansard roof, (3) a shopping center store from 1976, (4) another from 1977 – Note the white and green Chevy Vega hatchbacks in the foreground. By the time their owners were finished shopping, the rear quarter-panels on both were rusted clean through!, (5) a very nice exterior from 1979, (6) an even nicer one from 1980, one of my nominees for all-time best exterior design, post-1970 category.

Below are six interior shots, three from 1971 with a very nice earth-toned theme, followed by three more conventional 1977 views.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Sixties Winn-Dixies

A set of views from the 1960’s, an exciting time in the history of Winn-Dixie. By the early sixties, Winn-Dixie was impressing the socks off of the financial community, and as Forbes magazine put it in 1962, was “the envy of the nation’s grocers”. In an industry that has always depended on gargantuan volume at a tiny profit percentage (typically 1 to 1.5 percent after taxes), Winn-Dixie, at upwards of 2 percent, was outpacing even the largest grocery chains. During this period, the Davis brothers, majority owners of Winn-Dixie, took the unusual step of buying advertising space in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, pitching the company’s stock to the investment elite. Given Winn-Dixie’s performance, they found many willing takers.

By the fall of 1963, the company’s notoriety had spread beyond the business pages to America’s coffeetables – the September 20th issue of Time magazine featured an article entitled “Winning in Dixie”. The article hailed the company’s “unusual” management setup (Forbes had called it “informal”) and outlined their philosophy for success – fast inventory turnover, monthly (!) dividend checks to stockholders, and the three-part mantra “Stay liquid, sell for cash, and don’t buy real estate”. The article even featured a personality profile of sorts of the four Davis brothers, as expounded by J.E. Davis, the company chairman: “I’m the conservative element, the long-range planner. A.D. (W-D president) is always the aggressive expansionist. Austin (executive v.p.) specializes in the big stores, and Tine (head of the Montgomery division) is the personality boy”.

Closer to home, Winn-Dixie used a number of marketing approaches to endear itself to customers, the most famous of which at that time was the company’s annual “Dixie Products Days” promotion, held in the stores each May. The objective of “Dixie Products Days” was to spotlight locally grown and/or manufactured food products - the bounty of the “New South”, in effect. The stores took it to heart, outfitting their employees in period dress – “southern belle” bonnets for female employees and straw hats for the guys. And Winn-Dixie didn’t hesitate to enlist big names in the cause. In 1963, for example, in a wonderful confluence of government and commerce (common then and hard to imagine today), then-Florida Governor Farris Bryant issued an official proclamation for Dixie Products Days. It all made for a hit with customers in that provincial era.

You’ll note in the last photo the S&H Green Stamps signs on either side of the store name. By the mid 60’s, trading stamps had become the “equivalent of chronic lower back pain” for supermarket executives. Chains that hadn’t previously used them would adopt them in order to defend their turf. Other chains dropped them in favor of an “everyday low price” strategy, again usually as a defensive measure. A&P’s store managers finally convinced the powers in charge to allow them to issue stamps, on a division-by-division basis. Winn-Dixie’s approach was as flexible (or schizoid, depending on your point of view) as anyone’s – some stores, like the one pictured, gave out Green Stamps, others gave out (majority Kroger-owned) Top Value stamps, while still others gave out none at all. In 1967, as reported by Forbes, the company dropped stamps in 88 southeastern Florida stores in favor of an 8 to 10% price cut.

Winn-Dixie purposefully avoided the trend towards grocery/general merchandise “combination stores”, unlike many supermarket firms across the country that had doubled the size of their stores by adding clothes, linens, toys, auto supplies and all manner of other goods. As company president A.D. Davis told Forbes magazine in 1962, “When you start competing with J.C. Penney, you have a very formidable opponent on your hands”. The company went so far as to put it in slogan form in the 1970’s – “We have not tried any new businesses, but we try awfully hard at the food distribution business”.

The only real setback for Winn-Dixie during this period came in 1966, when the Federal Trade Commission forbade the company from acquiring any more U.S. grocery firms for a ten-year period. The FTC order was spurred by an anti-trust suit filed against the company in response to two major acquisitions in the Birmingham, Alabama area – the 35-store Hill Grocery Company in 1962, and nine additional stores in Birmingham purchased two years later from Colonial Stores, Inc. While the FTC’s stated opinion was that the transaction “adversely affected competition” in the Birmingham area, the case was widely seen as an attempt to stem the tide of buyouts nationwide. In retrospect, it all seems to be kind of pointless and belated, as most of Winn-Dixie’s buyout mania had taken place several years before, and the lion’s share of their new store growth was now being generated internally. The following year, another (equally pointless and belated) FTC decision would force L.A.-based Von’s Companies to spin off the Shopping Bag supermarket chain it had acquired in 1961.

Barred for a decade from further U.S. acquisitions, Winn-Dixie’s manifest destiny led it to…the Bahamas. In 1968, the company acquired a single store in Freeport, Grand Bahama Island, and within a year had 11 stores on the islands, bearing the Winn-Dixie name (but held as a separate subsidiary). And boatloads of Crackin’ Good cookies began to wend their way through the Atlantic waters…

Rumors of a “Bahamian Products Days” are unconfirmed at this time, however.

The first photo, a 1961 artist’s rendering, features typical units for Winn-Dixie’s two main banners. The smaller footprint (average 12,000 square feet) that Winn-Dixie favored in those days is evident. The bluish-green fa├žade background was the standard for Kwik Chek. The second, from 1964, shows a lady carefully contemplating her purchases. A box of Crackin’ Good vanilla wafers is visible, as is a new product – Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, in its very first package design. (They come in gallon buckets now, right?) Third, from 1967, is a new fruit and produce department sporting the company’s 1960’s tagline on the wall. The all-important Coke machine occupies a place of honor. (Since one of Coca-Cola’s main flavor ingredients is lime juice, I find this both plausible and appropriate. Don’t you?) Fourth is a great 1967 checkout scene, where a can of Astor coffee, another marquee W-D product, can be clearly seen, and a can of Chek cola less clearly seen. I love this photo, as the lady buying the groceries has a hair and clothing style extremely similar to what my grandmother (the one from Georgia, coincidentally) wore at the time. My only living grandparent at age 89, she is in good health and has kept her appearance up with the times. (She would find this photo hilarious, although many of her surviving peer group still wear the lacquered-up hairstyle.) Last, from the same year, is an exterior view, with the letterboxed sign elegantly balanced at the edge of the roof. No, they don’t do this anymore.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Boomin' Winn-Dixie

“Not much time for banjo strummin’
For the mills are busy hummin’
Pine tree crops – citrus, cattle –
And chemicals, too,
Cover Dixie like the dew!
Our food business, too, is zoomin’
‘Cause this NEW Southland’s
really boomin’!”

- advertising verse from 1955

Up until the mid-20th century, it would be accurate to say that the industrial production of the Southern states lagged behind other parts of the country. This was the era before the “rust belt” became rusty, and a majority of manufactured goods still came from above the Mason-Dixon Line. Take a look at most any mass produced item from that time, and if it lists a city of origin, it’s likely as not to read “Chicago”, “Rochester, N.Y.”, “Cinti, O. (Cincinnati)” or some other northern or upper Midwest location. Although many companies had established west coast branch factories to save on freight costs, the output of the South remained mostly agricultural in nature, with relatively few exceptions.

Around the mid-1940’s, this began to change rapidly. The lower operating costs of the largely non-union South formed a powerful enticement for companies to expand or relocate there. Civic leaders of towns large and small bent over backwards to offer low tax rates and cheap, plentiful, rail-accessible land on which sprawling single–story manufacturing plants (with acres of parking space) could be built. As a result, many major companies forsook their old, inefficient, multi-story urban factories in cold climes and built gleaming new facilities among the green-meadowed landscapes of places where winter coats wore out far less frequently.

Of course, all of this new development required a workforce, which came from a number of sources. First, many local area workers left the family farm to work in the new factories. Secondly, a large number of northern workers, of both blue and white collar persuasions, relocated to the South, where opportunity beckoned. By the mid-50’s, hundreds of companies had planted their flags there. The textile industry (clothing, carpet, towels, linens, etc.), which already had a significant presence there, moved south in near entirety during those years. Chemicals, aerospace and other forms of high technology would be welcomed into the mix as well. By the mid-50’s, the phrase “New South” had come into widespread use (which continued well into the 1970’s) to describe the new boomland.

Winn-Dixie, an enthusiastic corporate cheerleader for the New South, was eager to capitalize on this growth, continuing to expand aggressively both through acquisition and new store construction through the rest of the 1950’s. In June 1956, the company purchased Ketner-Milner Stores, a 24-unit chain of supermarkets in the Salisbury and Raleigh, North Carolina areas. Ketner-Milner had only been formed the previous year, with the merger of the 10-store Ketner’s Supermarkets and Milner’s Piggly Wiggly.

Interestingly, the Ketner-Milner transaction became the impetus behind what would eventually emerge as a formidable competitor to Winn-Dixie. While Glenn Ketner accepted a vice presidency at Winn-Dixie, his brother Ralph soon resigned, eager to control his own destiny in the food business. In 1957, Ralph Ketner, along with another brother, Brown, and Wilson Smith opened the first Food Town supermarket in Salisbury. Growing slowly at first, Food Town (later renamed Food Lion) would become a dominant player over time.

And Winn-Dixie was expanding in the other direction as well – just after the Ketner-Milner buyout, the company acquired H.G. Hill Stores, a 42-store chain that brought the company into New Orleans, Baton Rouge and other key Louisiana markets, as well as Hattiesburg, Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi.

All the while, the company continued to build new stores, averaging some 60 a year by the end of the decade. A 1959 Consumers Research magazine article featured a humorous quote from Winn-Dixie president A.D. Davis on the company’s “scientific” approach to determining ideal new store locations: “We have a radar detector device that picks up diapers on the line in the back yard, and when a great amount of diapers appear on the radar screen as we are driving through a certain area, we know this is the place where we ought to have a store”.

Obviously, whatever they were doing was paying off. In mid-1960, Winn-Dixie had over 500 stores, organized into the following divisions – Montgomery, Alabama – 55 stores, New Orleans – 43 stores, Greenville, S.C. – 110 stores, Raleigh, N.C. – 54 stores and Louisville – 33 stores. Then of course were the Florida divisions: Jacksonville – 83 stores, Miami – 76 stores and Tampa – 60 stores. If the benefits of the “New South” industrial boom may have been felt to a lesser extent in Florida, they were more than offset by the burgeoning tourist economy. In this regard, the best was yet to come.

In many areas, it must have seemed that new Winn-Dixies (and Kwik Cheks) were popping up all over. Those diapers flapping in the breeze were a sure sign one was on the way.

The photos above, from the Florida Photographic Collection, show an interesting variety of Winn-Dixie stores from the late 1950’s. The locations are as follows: (1) a brand new Tallahassee store, 1959, (2) Cedar Hills Shopping Center store, Jacksonville, also 1959, (3) Lakewood Shopping Center, pictured here previously, Jacksonville, 1959 again, (4) a downtown location in Deland, FL, 1956, and lastly, (5) from 1959, a close up of an older Tallahassee location, quaint with its oil-stained curbside parking spaces, “guess your weight” machine and wooden doorframes. The names of two well-known Winn-Dixie brands, Dixie Darling and Astor, are painted on the transom glass. More indicators (as if more are needed) that this scene is from a long-gone era can be found in the price of the Dixie Darling bread – the "...and a half-cent" price, along with the very fact that any price would be painted on glass. Definitely from a pre-inflationary era.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Winn-Dixie's Family Tree

The roots of Winn-Dixie’s “family tree” can be traced back to two small grocery stores in 1920’s Florida. The first of these was a wholesale grocery unit in northeast Florida, purchased by E.L. Winn and W.R. Lovett in 1920. From that humble start, Winn and Lovett built a chain of “small neighborhood-type” stores, reaching a total of 65 units by the end of 1928. On Christmas Eve of that year, the company was officially incorporated as Winn & Lovett Grocery Company. The company prospered through the depression that followed, and in the early 30’s embarked on a program to consolidate its small stores into fewer but larger units that would feature self-service, an emerging trend in the grocery industry. By the end of 1934, there were 55 stores located in central and northeast Florida and in south Georgia, under the Lovett’s and Piggly Wiggly names. By this time, W.R. Lovett had bought out Mr. Winn’s interest in the company.

The second of these two “founding stores” was opened in 1925 in Lemon City, a suburb of Miami by William M. Davis. Davis had operated a general store in Idaho in the years prior to World War I, and had recently relocated his family to Florida. Known initially as “Rockmoor Grocery, Inc.”, the company that eventually resulted was called Economy Wholesale Grocery Company. From 1927 on, the stores themselves went by the name of Table Supply. By 1934, there were 34 Table Supply stores in south and central Florida. The company had moved into the Tampa area three years prior with its purchase of the Lively Stores chain. That same year, the elder Davis passed away, and control of the company passed to his four sons – Artemus Darius (A.D.), James Elsworth (J.E.), M. Austin and Tine W. - “The Davis Brothers” would become a fairly well-known group in Wall Street circles in decades to come.

In November 1939, W.R. Lovett sold his interest in Winn & Lovett (a chain that had by now grown to 73 stores) to the Davis Brothers. Lovett stayed on in an advisory role as chairman, and A.D. Davis took over as president. For a five-year period, and despite the same ownership, the Winn & Lovett and Economy/Table Supply firms were run as separate companies. Davis’ three brothers, J.E, Austin and Tine continued to run the family’s original business during this time. On November 25, 1944, the two companies were combined into one entity under the Winn & Lovett corporate name. There were 118 total stores, half of which the company described as “supermarkets”. The retail stores themselves continued to operate under their existing names – Table Supply, Lovett’s and Piggly Wiggly. There were also a handful of Economy Wholesale Grocery stores.

(It’s interesting to note some of the major grocery chains that once operated Piggly Wiggly-bannered stores in addition to their traditional nameplates. Besides the Winn & Lovett-owned “Pigglys”, Kroger operated a number of them in Atlanta, and H.E. Butt (H.E.B.) had many in Texas in those years.)

Over the following decade, Winn & Lovett grew rapidly through acquisition, adding a number of new chains and territories. In July 1945, the company took a major step outside of its traditional Florida/south Georgia market area with the purchase of Louisville-based Steiden Stores, Inc., a 31-store chain. In late 1949, the Margaret Ann grocery chain, with 46 stores conveniently located within the company’s core Tampa and Miami areas, was acquired.

In 1952, Winn & Lovett achieved the special distinction of being the first Florida-based company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Of lesser note but still important was the company’s growing stable of private labels, with the purchase of the former B. Fischer manufacturing plant in New York, makers of Astor coffee, tea and spices, a longtime Winn & Lovett supplier. The company already had bread bakeries in Jacksonville and Miami and a salad dressing/mayonnaise/peanut butter plant in southern Alabama. In April 1955, Winn & Lovett purchased the Carr-Consolidated Biscuit Company, makers of Crackin’ Good cookies and crackers. Unfortunately, Carr’s Chicago plant burned down a mere four months later. A replacement Crackin’ Good plant was opened much closer to home in Valdosta, Georgia in 1958.

The company rapidly moved into adjoining markets, including Albany, Valdosta and Savannah, Georgia and Dothan, Alabama in 1953. The following year, Montgomery, Selma and Anniston, Alabama and Columbus, Georgia were added as well.

And of course there were more store chain acquisitions, including the Kwik Chek Supermarkets of the Tampa and Miami areas. I have to admit that this one puzzles me, as a number of web sources mention Kwik Chek as a company acquired sometime in the early/mid 50’s. The first mention of it in a Winn & Lovett annual report came in 1953, when the name Kwik Chek appears alongside the other familiar banners – Lovett’s, Margaret Ann, Table Supply, etc., but no merger or acquisition is mentioned in that or any subsequent editions. A search in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal historical archives, usually excellent sources for “fact-cheking” (sorry) the dates of even small corporate acquisitions, yielded nothing.

Kwik Chek is significant in that it provided the company an enduring brand icon, the famous “Chek mark”. In the late fifties, the company would phase out all but the “Winn-Dixie” and “Kwik Chek” banners, with the Chek mark prominently featured (encircled) in the center of both names. When they further narrowed it down to simply “Winn-Dixie” in the 1970’s, the Chek mark still reigned as the company’s logo, as it does to this day.

In mid-1955, Winn & Lovett bought out Columbia, South Carolina based Edens Food Stores, Inc., with 33 stores in the central and western portions of the state. The “Dixie” portion of Winn-Dixie came later that year when the company purchased Dixie-Home Stores, a 117-store chain based in Greenville, South Carolina, giving the company nearly 400 stores at the close of 1955. Still more acquisitions were just around the corner. On November 15, the company’s name was officially changed to Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc.

The next ten years would be "crackin’ good" for Winn-Dixie, by all measures.

The photos above are shown in a reverse chronology (more or less) of the store nameplates that would come to make up Winn-Dixie. The Dixie-Home photo (with its Food Fair-esque pylon) is from Chain Store Age, the Kwik Chek photos are shown courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Library System and the rest are vintage Winn & Lovett publicity photos. Below, from the Florida Photographic Collection, is an interior scene from the Davis family’s first Miami grocery store, circa 1925.