Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Suburban Shopping in the 1970's!

…and now for something completely different! Here’s an overview of the chain retail scene from a single suburban town from the year 1976 – the town in this case being Addison, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. Since the majority of the chains shown in this post are (or were) national or at least multi-regional, many of you will probably get a kick out of this. If you’re from the Chicago area, these photos should be a special treat, as nearly all the companies pictured should be familiar, and if you grew up in the Addison area, I suspect the floodgates will open.

These photos are the work of Mr. Joe Archie, longtime Addison resident. Joe and his wife, Jeanette, have put together an incredible photographic record of the area’s history through the years, along with the history of their family. Be sure to check out their wonderful Flickr page to see more of their photos, including some very nice downtown Chicago views. Joe took this set of photos in 1976 as part of a project to document their hometown during America’s Bicentennial year. My utmost gratitude goes to them for allowing us to enjoy these great photos, and for continuing to document these all-too-often overlooked aspects of American life.

Some of these chains have been covered in depth here before, and others I eventually hope to get around to, so we’ll dispense with the hardcore history this time around. Instead, I’ll just toss out a few facts and throw in some memories here and there. As always, I welcome your own memories in the comments section.

Also, we’ll make an exception to the rule here, and expand the site’s normal scope just a bit to include some of the popular chain restaurants of the day. I mean, we have to eat, don’t we?

And we’ll have the radio on as we drive – with any luck there’ll be something decent playing – maybe some Steely Dan or Queen or Boston, or even some 10cc or Wings. Of course, there’s always the likely chance that Dad will pop in his 8-track of Neil Diamond’s “Hot August Night” (1972 double-live album) for the 3,700th time. Oh come on, it’s not like you don’t sing along with every word!

First up is Zayre, a suburban Chicago fixture with 27 stores in the area by that time. The store pictured is the classic early Zayre with the massive glassed storefront and the even more massive signage. I particularly like the Auto Center close-up, with very nice glazed brick and blue flashing (just like the main store) and a simple, clean appearance. As I noted at the beginning of a series of Zayre posts done last year, my family pretty much dropped Zayre like a hot brick when Kmart came around. Seeing these photos years later, with that beautiful row of blue diamonds above the entrance doors (and it also looked great after the 1978 brown-and-orange revamp), I’m sitting here with pangs of regret. Were we too hasty?

Come back Zayre, I’ll let you be my store!!

The Mighty Jewel - then as now, Chicago’s supermarket powerhouse - looking mighty well in classic 70’s aggregate and mixed brick in this location at Addison's Green Meadows Shopping Center. The bold orange signage for this store was rendered in a font that the company had been using for over 40 years by then. The following year, it would be replaced with a new logotype that would eventually grace the Addison store when it was remodeled a few years later. Interestingly, both Jewel and their top competitor Dominick’s would switch from orange to red-orange logos in the 1980’s.

Jewel, pronounced correctly, is a one syllable word – “Jool.” It’s just another one of those fun, idiosyncratic Chicago pronunciations, like “melk” instead of “milk”. (I’m not kidding.) And as noted before, “Jewels” or “The Jewel” are perfectly acceptable forms of usage. Never “The Jewels”, though, lest one risk jumping the shark.
Donimick's Finer Foods (Pronounced Dah-min-ick’s, with heavy emphasis on the first syllable. Typical usage: “Oh, we’re out of melk? Crap, I just got back from Dominick’s!”) was a fairly small chain as recently as the late 60’s, but by 1976 was growing like wildfire, with over 60 supermarkets by then, bypassing such longtime Chicago stalwarts as A&P and (the newly departed) National Food Stores on its way to becoming number two in the market, second only to Jewel, which is still the case today. This very attractive store, located on Army Trail Road in Addison, opened in 1973, and is typical of the stores they were putting up all over Chicagoland. I drove by this store this past January, and sadly it is now closed. The two stores we shopped at were older, one at the Market Place shopping center in Des Plaines on the corner of Elmhurst and Golf Roads, and the other in Rolling Meadows on Kirchoff Road, but they had the same “letterboxed” signage. Nearly all Dominick’s stores flew the orange flags in those days, a great touch.

As said in a previous post, Dominick’s strength was their excellent selection of ethnic foods, and the chain held an Italian food fair for years that always managed to attract lots of customers and press attention. Also mentioned previously were the great Heinemann’s bakeries, with their superb Butter-Ritz cakes and homemade cookies. Ironically, the Heinemann’s line is not available today at Dominick’s, but is at Jewel. I still can’t get used to that.

Guido’s was an independent chain in the Chicago area. We shopped at the Hoffman Estates store once in a while during the year or so we lived in the area. Don’t know a lot about them, other than the fact that they had four stores in the early 70’s - this Addison location, Westchester, Berkeley (honored by Progressive Grocer magazine in the mid-60’s as a “Store of the Month”) and the above-mentioned Hoffman location which was closed due to poor profitability in 1973. I’m assuming that the rest of the chain ceased operation sometime not too long after that.

It’s interesting to note that Guido’s also had the Heinemann’s bakery franchise. The once-mighty (and by 1976, gone) National Food Stores had it as well, but certainly it was associated closest with Dominick’s.

Goldblatt Bros. was a classic, full-line department store with deep Chicago roots. This store, located in the Green Meadows Shopping Center in Addison, opened in the spring of 1962. Like a couple of other Chicago department store institutions, Marshall Field & Company and Wieboldt Stores, Inc., they chose green as their corporate color. Of more substance, perhaps, is the fact that like those other two companies, Goldblatts was early to establish suburban branches, as exemplified by this store and several others, including the one we shopped at in Mt. Prospect Plaza, and other locations such as the Scottsdale Shopping Center near Burbank, Illinois and at Elmwood Plaza in Racine, Wisconsin. In the early 60’s there were 31 Goldblatt’s stores in total.

Since Randhurst Center, with its triple-threat of Wards, Carsons and Wieboldt’s was just down the street from our local Mt. Prospect Goldblatts, our family usually gave them the short shrift, I’m sorry to say. Goldblatt’s seemed to target a slightly lower income demographic than the chains I’ve just named, and for a time the strategy worked very well. In time, it was competition from the discount chains rather than other department stores that caused them the most problems. Pulling out of a bankruptcy in the mid-1980’s, Goldblatts hung on for a long time but never really hit its stride again, finally closing up for good in 2003.

Sporting a nice example of one of my all-time favorite retail logos, the Addison JCPenney Catalog Outlet already had a vintage look by 1976. Unlike Sears and Wards, whose catalogs dated back to days of old, for Penney’s it was a relatively recent venture – a business they entered through acquisition, when they bought out Milwaukee-based General Merchandise Company in 1964. That company’s catalog essentially became the “Penney’s catalog”. Several of these catalog outlet stores were actually attached to the company’s distribution centers. Later on, this store was replaced by a new store at nearby North Park Mall, which itself is now closed.

We’ll talk about Portillo’s, the restaurant to the left of the photo, (Dig that “hot dog” sign! It’s long gone but lives on on all Portillo’s packaging.) in a bit, but for the moment I wanted to focus on the Ace Hardware store. Before the days of the all-inclusive “home center” – currently active firms like Lowe’s, Home Depot and Menards (primarily Midwestern locations) and now-defunct companies such as Grossman’s, Courtesy, Home Quarters, Hechinger’s, Handy Dan, etc., one pretty much bought lumber at a lumber yard and hardware at a hardware store. For us, that hardware store was the Ace Hardware in the Rolling Meadows Shopping Center. My Dad was (and is) the consummate handyman, so it was the rare Saturday morning that we didn’t stop in at Ace at least briefly. The Addison Ace looks to be of 1950’s or very early 60’s vintage.

Anyone who watched much TV in the 1970’s would have to remember the commercials with sultry-voiced actress Connie Stevens singing “Ace is the place with the helpful hardware man”, after which she would put her arm around some guy in a red Ace vest who was trying his best not to smile too broadly. In the early 80’s, Connie was replaced by NFL coaching/broadcasting legend John Madden with a modified slogan suited to fit his regular guy persona – “I gotta tell ya, Ace is the place for me.”

“The old 5 and 10’s” were definitely a dying breed by the mid-70’s, though most of the venerable old names, including the once-great Ben Franklin, were still hanging on by a thread at the time. My own family had long since passed them by in favor of Kmart, The Treasury, Venture and the other much larger discount stores.

It’s interesting to see how the Addison Ben Franklin was by then trying to position itself as a “hobby and craft” niche supplier. In light of the competition, it was probably a wise move. (Notice one of the signs mentions macramé. I remember my family selling a huge macramé wall hanging at a garage sale in the early 80’s, and a lady came up asking “How much for the ‘ma-crayme’?” I thought we were gonna die!)

In truth, I know next to nothing about the Big “R”, but it sure has that wild, kooky discount store look, and probably was a fun place to shop. Close to Addison, this store was actually located in nearby Villa Park, on North Avenue near Addison Road. The earliest newspaper ad I’ve located for the Big “R” dates back to 1962, but the store might well be older than that. Notice the colonial flags (with the famous “Don’t Tread On Me” flag to the far left) – a nice touch for the Bicentennial year. Sadly, the store appears to have been in the proverbial “throes” based on the liquidation signs in the windows. If anyone can fill us in on the Big “R” experience, I’d be glad to update this section. Thanks.
Update 10/6/09 - Several people have written to inform us that the Big "R" property was the birthplace of an important piece of Chicago-area pop culture - Dick Portillo's first hot dog stand, "The Dog House", forerunner to the wildly popular Portillo's chain, was located at the edge of the store's parking lot! Opened in 1963, the hot dog stand, which as mentioned was actually a trailer, didn't even have running water, and actually used a 250' long water hose hooked up to an adjacent building. "The Dog House" is a revered part of the company's heritage, and I believe every modern Portillo's has a picture of it somewhere on their walls. The Big "R"'s place in history is secure, and I, for one, am very relieved!

A sad sight indeed is this vacant, boarded up Topps Department Store on North Avenue in Addison. The original Topps at this location opened (to great fanfare, as was their style) in 1962, but was completely destroyed by fire four years later. The replacement store was built in the updated Topps image. This store closed in 1974 along with the rest of the chain, and so had already sat empty for some time when this photo was taken. Later on, the store became a Syms clothing outlet, which it remains to this day. I shopped there a few times, and remember their commercials featuring company founder Sy Syms with the well-known tagline – “An educated consumer is our best customer”.

Almost forgot this one, because these stores weren’t around long. Robert Hall Village was intended to be a successor to the well-known Robert Hall clothing stores, the retail face of a garment manufacturer called United Merchants and Manufacturers, Inc. Mr. Archie, in his original photo caption sums it up: “Robert Hall was a city chain whose slogans alluded to "Plain pipe racks" and "Low rent". They didn't do so well in the suburbs.” My Dad shared that view (that they carried “low end” clothes), and because of that didn’t shop there much. I personally made one significant purchase at Robert Hall, though - when I was seven years old, I bought Dad an electric yellow pair of golf socks for his birthday. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t wear them all the time!

Robert Hall Village was UM&M’s attempt to broaden the appeal of Robert Hall by expanding it into a “total discount store” concept – clothes, sporting goods, automotive, electronics and even groceries. The Chicago Tribune’s George Lazarus explained the rationale: “If Robert Hall can attract milady with an apparel special, the firm stands a good chance of selling her some groceries while she is in the Village.” Several Robert Hall Villages were opened across the country, including five in 1973 in the Chicago area – Downers Grove, Homewood, Crystal Lake, Hoffman Estates and the pictured North Park Mall unit in Villa Park. If they were trying to emulate a Turn-Style, Topps or Korvettes, they did a pretty good job, unfortunately, since those chains were in awful shape by the mid-70’s, and were “tubesville” before decade’s end. “Milady” wasn’t impressed. Upon the chain’s closure in 1977, two of the units, Downers Grove and Villa Park, became Kmarts.

For me, one memory of Robert Hall Village stands out. We visited the Hoffman Estates store during its grand opening (1973), and it’s the first time I remember seeing an electronic digital calculator. These were beautiful desk models, manufactured by the Japanese firm Miida (My-eeda), and were priced heftily at around $200 up to $350 or so. Of course, you can now get the same functionality at Dollar Tree for…well, a dollar!

You’d think that my main interest in this photo would be the great-looking, antebellum style “Type-C” Sears store, with the classic 60’s serif version of the logo. As nice as that is, having grown up in the Chicago area, the “Playback” store to the right (unfortunately much of the sign isn’t visible) is a rare, wonderful sight. For anyone who came of age there in the 70’s and 80’s, Playback, a now defunct stereo/electronics chain, was legendary. Oh, the hours spent there, drooling over $500 Pioneer car stereos and $1200 Blaupunkts, when the car I was driving at the time was worth somewhere between the two! Playback also had one of the most memorable commercial jingles of the day – I wish I could find a copy of it to link to. It was simply the company name and tagline - “Playback – the electronic playground!” sung in a cool layered-harmony, a cappella, stretched out style, sort of like the opening verse of the Kansas song “Carry On, Wayward Son”.

Fayva was a deep-discount shoe store chain, very similar in concept to Payless. As far as I know, my family may have shopped there once or twice, but I only vaguely remember it. Fayva was division of Massachusetts-based Morse Shoe, Inc., which also operated shoe departments in a number of discount chains. (As a kid, I did visit the bizarrely fascinating, long-since closed museum founded by Ira Morse in Warren, New Hampshire. The guy loved to hunt, let’s just say.) Fayva was a major TV advertiser in Chicago, and I assume elsewhere as well.

Next door is a Rexall drug store, sporting a very nice sign with the brand-new ‘70’s Rexall logo. A national institution for decades, Rexall ‘s glory days were by then largely past, and their parent company, Dart and Kraft, was royally ticking off loyal Rexall franchisees around this time by opening up the product line to other chains. Not long afterward, the franchisees were dropped altogether, their contracts cancelled. Ironically, Dart and Kraft “invited” them to continue to keep their Rexall signage installed as a means of promoting Rexall products. Most declined, understandably, although a few drugstores still fly the orange and blue to this day.

Kinney was easily the best known “family shoe store” of the 60’s and 70’s. We shopped there a bit, but most of our shoe bucks went elsewhere, mostly to local family owned shoe stores. They were another mega-TV advertiser.

From 1962 on a division of the F.W. Woolworth Company, Kinney had over 600 stores at its peak, the majority of which were the “roadside” style buildings that looked exactly like the one pictured - an extremely familiar sight for millions of Americans. Family shoe stores, like family restaurants, are largely a thing of the past, and it seems (in all but the luxury shoe market, at least) that the key to success for a shoe store chain is to follow either the sports or discount model. Woolworth themselves realized this some time ago, so by the end of the nineties the Kinney stores were history. From that point all resources were poured into Foot Locker.

You’ve heard of Walgreens, right? Pretty hard to miss ‘em, seeing as they’re popping up on prime street corners everywhere in what has to be the most aggressive real estate strategy in all of retail - one that has all the appearances of a 50-to-100 year plan. It’s interesting to watch as they battle it out with CVS in the drugstore version of “last man standing”, but if the old adage “location, location, location” holds true, it’s hard to see how they can lose.

Even thirty-some years ago Walgreens was a big player, especially in their home market of Chicago. But as you can see they weren’t nearly as picky about locations, even to the point of taking over an existing store in a shopping center that would easily been 10 to 15 years old at the time, as this photo of the “new” store in the Green Meadow Shopping Center in Addison shows. Perhaps they took over one of their old “Walgreen Agency” franchised stores, a category that was being phased out at the time.

“When you run out, run out to White Hen!”, the classic commercial went. White Hen Pantry, the franchised convenience store division of Jewel, had been around 10 years by this time, and had multitudes of locations in Chicagoland, especially in the Northwest and West Suburbs. Home of a basic selection of groceries, newspapers and magazines, a great deli and brownies extraordinaire, these were always a great place to stop.

Looking at the photo, the “Open 6 to 11” sign jumps out at me. Gosh, I wonder whose competitive nose they were trying to tweak? Unfortunately, the competitor eventually won out, and this store, like most all other White Hens in Chicago, is now a 7-Eleven. Somehow “When you run out, run out to the Sev!” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Many of the New England area White Hens, the chain’s other major market, are still going strong.

Wow, looking at the picture of this Denny’s restaurant, the design is even nicer than I remembered! A worthy successor to the famous first-generation “Googie” Denny’s stores, this is seventies design at its finest. Inside it was all orange and brown, red and purple. The Rolling Meadows, Illinois Denny’s, where we usually went, looked just like this Addison unit.

We ate there a lot in those days, my dad, brother and I, usually for breakfast on Saturdays. Of course, later on in college and my early twenties, I learned just how late (or early) “Always Open” really meant! “Last stop of the night”, so to speak, after a concert or other late night activity. These days, with kids of my own, Denny’s is pretty much back on breakfast duty, at least every now and then. Sure wish our local one looked like this!

Three mainstays of the 1976 fast food scene against a backdrop of cloudy skies. Dunkin’ Donuts (“World’s Finest Coffee- Donuts made fresh every 4 hours” – Awesome!) we’ll talk about them in just a sec. The Burger King, sporting the 70’s sign in the parking lot and the 60’s lettering on the building, needs a bit of shingle work. All that’s visible of the McDonald’s here is the famous “Golden Arches” sign. “10 Billion Served, it reads. Nowadays there are 10 Billion McDonald’s restaurants, aren’t there?

In this day and age, I think it would be really cool if McDonald’s switched to a satellite-fed digital readout for the “Billions Served” portion of the sign. Many of these haven’t been updated in years, or feature the “Billions and Billions Served” copout. The technology isn’t that expensive anymore, and it wouldn’t even have to be updated in real time - weekly or even monthly would suffice. I think it would be a fun gimmick, and the numbers would no doubt be impressive as heck.

(Special note to McDonald’s executives: Information on where to send royalty checks for the aforementioned idea can be obtained by contacting “Dave” at the email address in the Profile section of this website. Thank you.)

Long before America ran on Dunkin’, we still liked it a whole lot. Dunkin’ Donuts is a much revered institution in the Chicago area, possibly just slightly less so than in their native New England, where they’re as common as fire hydrants. This particular prototype brings back such wonderful memories for me. The ones we frequented the most – Des Plaines on Elmhurst Road and Rolling Meadows on Kirchoff – looked just like it. This was another proverbial “Saturday stop”, oftentimes between Ace Hardware and Dominick’s. (The thing I’m really digging about these photos and writing this post is reliving the old routines, and the way they’re coming back to me in such detail, which hopefully I’m not boring you with. Wow, has time flown!) When we were very young, my brother and I would peer through the window where we could watch them make the donuts and occasionally the cook, who didn’t look at all like that little guy on TV, would give us free ones hot off the press (and those suckers were hot, trust me), the chocolate honey-dipped type. Those must’ve been fast sellers, because that’s the only kind we ever saw them make!

In recent years Dunkin’ Donuts has received a good bit of acclaim for their coffee. Long overdue and well-deserved, in my opinion, but of course I’m partial to the stuff. The lack of a mermaid on the coffee cups doesn’t bother me in the least.

Never convenient were these, but we did hit the Jack in the Box once in a while, and the food was decent. They did have a lot of appeal for kids, with cool giveaways and a “kid meal” that predated McDonald’s Happy Meals, if I remember right. And they made Rodney Allen Rippy a star, for a while at least. My apologies to those who can’t get the Jack in the Box jingle out of their heads as a result of reading this.

And the store is very sharp looking, no question about it. The Grand Prix in the foreground reminds me of my second car, a ‘76 GP bought in 1983. With my Pioneer stereo, Audiovox equalizer and Jensen Triax speakers, I could deafen whole blocks. Didn’t even need the Blaupunkt! Today I pretty much just run with whatever factory stereo comes with the cars, though.

One of the coolest aspects of this Pizza Hut for me personally is that the fact it dates from around the first time I ever ate at one. Almost exactly year after this photo was taken, our family - grandparents and aunt and uncle in tow, stopped for dinner at the Mt. Prospect Pizza Hut on Algonquin Road (like this one, long gone) after my eighth grade graduation ceremony in 1977. I don’t remember ever setting foot in one prior to that. I believe that restaurant had the newer logo (as on the folding sign to the lower right). Still like ‘em, although I’ll take a good old Italian mom-and-pop made pizza over any chain’s product every time.

The big news now is that Pizza Hut is floating the idea of simply calling their restaurants “The Hut”, just like Radio Shack is testing out “The Shack” as a new banner for their stores. (Don’t worry, I’ve resisted any temptation to start calling this site “The Blog”. But you’d know what I’m talking about if I did, right?......……………..Hello?)

My prediction, if Pizza Hut’s name change is successful, is that ten years from now we’ll just see the familiar red roof with the word “The” on it.

Another one I don’t have a great deal of personal experience with, but I do remember their TV commercials. Arthur Treacher’s was a division of National Fast Foods, who licensed the famous fish and chips recipe from the British family who created it in the 1860’s, the Malins-of-Bow. They chose distinguished British actor Arthur Treacher as their corporate pitchman (and as he got older, strictly their symbol – he passed away in 1975). Treacher was a distinguished character actor who was very active in the 30’s and 40’s, often playing a sage-like, quip-ready butler. One of his last roles was as the Constable in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins.

In the late 1960’s, Fisher Foods, parent of Fazio’s supermarkets in Ohio and Dominick’s Finer Foods in Chicago, bought a major interest in National Fast Food, gaining as part of the deal the franchising rights for Arthur Treacher’s in the Cleveland and Chicago markets.

Ah, the Ponderosa – my family ate Sunday dinner after church here for years on end. The Ponderosa chain was originally started as a knock-off of Bonanza, another steakhouse chain in which one of the original investors was a star of the famous Bonanza TV show - Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright. For many years now, both chains have been owned by the same company.

The one we went to was in Arlington Heights off of Golf Road (near Kmart), and looked very much like the Addison unit pictured here. You stood in a cafeteria- style line, got your tray with a little plastic number, picked out your side dishes and then ambled over to your seat (with a woodburned “P” on the seatback!), waiting for your steak to arrive on a black plastic and stainless steel plate. (Charles Hathaway, “Romleys” on Flickr, recounts a similar recent experience at a Bonanza restaurant, so obviously the drill hasn’t changed much. I probably haven’t eaten there since the mid-90’s.) Ribeye was my standing order, and was usually good, or at least not beyond “A.1. redemption”, an extreme but sometimes necessary measure. The one thing about Ponderosa that sticks out in my mind above all else is the fact that they charged for extra butter pats! I believe it was either six or twelve cents each, don’t really remember. The strange flipside of this was that Ponderosa was the very first restaurant that I ever remember giving free soft drink refills. Of course it’s now a constitutional right, but up until the early 1980’s (in my frame of reference at least –the Chicago area and the New England states), if you wanted another Coke at a restaurant you had to order a second one. At other restaurants, if the folks were in a good mood and my brother and I hadn’t committed any major infractions, e.g.: blowing straw wrappers in the waitress’s face, etc. (These were less enlightened times, friends.), they would spring for the second Coke. Then there were those rare-as-hen’s-teeth occasions where they would buy us a third one. Of course, my brother and I were thrilled, but all the while would give each other nervous “Have they gone nuts?” looks.

At any rate, that was the great “Ponderosa Paradox”, if you will – you got your fill of drinks, but if you needed any more butter pats, you’d best pony up, Pardner! As Hoss Cartwright would say, “There’s a mess of irony out there, Pa!”

Ok folks, this is it! This is the one. Woo-hoo! At this point (as you may have figured out), my objectivity goes straight out the window. Portillo’s is a Chicago-based chain of restaurants whose main specialties are incredible Vienna Beef hotdogs and classic style Italian Beef sandwiches, and I simply love the place.

From a single hot dog stand (it was actually a trailer) called “The Dog House” which opened in Villa Park in 1963, Dick Portillo’s restaurants had matured to sit-down units like the one pictured by the mid-70’s. Today, with 32 restaurants in the greater Chicago area, plus one in Buena Park and one in Moreno Valley, California, the Portillo’s units are a feast for the eyes as well – they tend to follow one of several themes - a 1920’s “boardwalk” theme , 1930’s gangster theme, 50’s, 60’s,etc.. Of course, many restaurant chains today are into retro artifact decor, with “leaf blowers glued to the wall” (as so aptly put on Dumpy Strip Malls, one of my new favorite sites) and the like, but Portillo’s artifacts are rarer, often larger, more plentiful and more interesting than I’ve seen anywhere else. (And the Niles Portillo’s, with the ‘30’s Prohibition theme, has two killer porcelain A&P signs hanging up – a must see.)

Another great thing about Portillo’s is that it alone provides a great reason to travel to Chicago. Seriously, if a local asks “What brings you here”, all you have to say is “Portillo’s”, and you don’t have to bother with any further explanations, such as: “Oh, I’m here for a conference”, “to visit family”, “to go to a Cubs game”, “to see the museums”, yeah yeah, whatever. Gotta plan my next trip!

Well, I guess that wraps it up, and there are still four songs to go on the Neil Diamond tape. Guess we’ll have to save “Cracklin’ Rosie” for another day (although that one’s almost worth sitting in the car another four minutes for, ice cream notwithstanding). Hope you’ve enjoyed this as much as I have!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Expanding the Publix Domain

Our final look at Publix, for now. In the nearly 30 years since Publix celebrated its golden anniversary in 1980, it has not only continued to be one of the most respected companies in the supermarket business, but also has become one of the largest. Much of this can be credited to the carefully cultivated reputation for service the company has successfully maintained through the years. Another reason would be the innovations Publix has embraced in the last three decades, especially in the area of technology – they were one of the strongest proponents for scanning technology at their checkout counters, well ahead of some much larger supermarket firms, and Publix was also an early adopter of in-store ATM’s. Still another factor was the reversal of two long-standing company policies during this period.

From the company’s founding, Publix stores were closed on Sundays. As mentioned, the company made good use of this fact in their advertising, citing the need for a regular day off for employees. According to the “Fifty Years of Pleasure” book, this wasn’t merely an advertising ploy but rather a firmly held belief. It was also a point of pride for George Jenkins, that “a Publix manager could do as good a job in six days as any of his competitors could in seven”. By 1982, however, with the influx of newer competition such as Albertsons and a more aggressive posture by a Winn-Dixie eager to stem the loss of ground to Publix, it became clear that the competitive landscape had changed. That year, the long-held policy was dropped – Publix would now operate on Sundays as well. For a while, even the famous slogan was appended – “Publix - Where Shopping is a Pleasure 7 Days a Week”.

More significant was Publix’s momentous decision to open stores outside of Florida for the very first time. For decades, Publix resisted outside overtures or internal pressure to push outside the Sunshine State’s borders, a fact that was still very much the case in 1980, as recorded in the “Fifty Years” book – “So great is Florida’s projected population growth that it is expected to support continued expansion of the chain. This would rule out what south Georgians who travel down to Tallahassee for the pleasure of shopping in Publix stores would like to see. There is no thought, (Publix real estate VP and future chairman) Charles Jenkins, Jr. and others said, of territorial expansion outside of Florida or even into the panhandle part of the state…George Jenkins gave (another) reason for staying close to home: The people of Publix thoroughly understand their Florida customers. They might not ones in other climes”.

Just over ten years down the road, with 435 stores in Florida, Publix was now willing to give those “other climes” a shot. In 1991, the company opened their first store in Savannah, Georgia. Four years later, by late 1995, there were 46 Publix stores in the state of Georgia, 28 of those in the greater Atlanta area, pulling a 17% share of the market in that remarkably short time. Their enviable reputation preceding them, the company had no trouble drumming up interest on the part of developers, as one attested in a 1995 Restaurant News article - "Publix attracts a lot of attention…They're great for us developers and for the retail business in general. They're upscale, well-run, and about 25,000-35,000 people pass through each week." The article goes on to say that “although the company always seeks equally successful vendors to include in its shopping centers, Publix is generally ‘the bell cow that draws the customers in’”. In 1996, Publix entered Alabama and soon after that, South Carolina as well. In 2002, Publix got a jumpstart in another new market - Nashville, Tennessee, when Albertsons sold off their seven stores in the area. Most of the Albertsons units had originally opened in the 1990’s as Foodmax stores, a division of Birmingham-based Bruno’s. Soon Publix would begin building new stores from scratch in the area. (We were living in Nashville at the time, and of course we moved away a year and half after Publix moved in. I miss them. They had the best stores! And they had the best help…wait, I’ve gone into all of that before, haven’t I?)

In early 1990, ill health forced Publix founder George Jenkins to step down as head of the company, turning over the reins to his son Howard, a company veteran himself. On April 8, 1996, at the age of 89, George Jenkins passed away, leaving a legacy that is still widely remembered and respected today. In 2000, Howard Jenkins resigned as CEO, staying on as board chairman, and his cousin Charles Jenkins, Jr. (son of Charles Jenkins Sr., longtime Publix chairman, who passed away in 2005) took over. In March 2008, Ed Crenshaw assumed the CEO position upon Charles Jenkins, Jr.’s retirement. Crenshaw is George Jenkins’ grandson by his adopted daughter. In these respects Publix has proven somewhat unique, not only because the second generation of leadership has demonstrated the ability to drive the company to exciting new heights, but also as an example of an uncommonly harmonious series of leadership transfers between branches of the family. These things are far from a given in most high-profile businesses.

In today’s daunting retail world, where Wal-Mart has become the nation’s dominant grocer and most traditional supermarket chains are beside themselves trying to compete (and in more than a few cases, just to stay alive), Publix’s service approach and efforts to serve important niche markets have combined to produce a rare winning formula. In the last five years, the company has opened four “Publix Sabor” stores – deluxe supermarkets specifically designed to appeal to Hispanic customers – three are located in the greater Miami area and one is in Kissimmee, Florida, near Orlando. Another initiative has been the “Publix Greenwise Markets”, specializing in organic food and appealing to environmentally-minded customers. As you might expect, these three stores are located in upscale areas- Boca Raton, Palm Beach Gardens (near West Palm Beach) and the historic Hyde Park section of Tampa. In 2002, Publix invested in Crispers, a soup and sandwich chain with locations in many Publix shopping centers. There are also some gas station/convenience stores called “Pix”, but here Publix’s approach has been fairly tentative, with only 13 units in place as of now. Also, a couple of innovations inside the stores have helped immensely – the “Apron’s” take home meal departments, and Publix’s robust private label program, a winner of many awards and subject of its own fansite (albeit apparently no longer updated), and most importantly, excellent sales and customer loyalty.

With 1,010 stores (according to their latest website statistics) and a mind-boggling 40% share of their largest market, Florida, it looks like there’s no end in sight to Publix’s brand of shopping pleasure. And “When are we getting Publix?” continues to work its way up the list of most asked questions. If anyone’s keeping a list, that is.

All but one of these photos are 1983 Publix publicity shots. The first two photos feature very sharp-looking exteriors, showing some of the fine diversity of design the company has used since the early 1980’s. It wouldn’t be surprising to see stores like this built today, although the words “Food-Pharmacy” generally appear underneath the store name. (Like most major chains today, Publix feels the need to emphasize the obvious. Maybe they just don’t want to appear presumptuous.) The third and fourth photo, when viewed together, make a very interesting contrast to the 1972 pic from the first post in this series. The terrazzo floor is the one consistent feature. The wide shot of the interior, viewed large, shows some wonderful attention to detail on the walls. The rest of the photos show various departments. Note the frozen food cases in the last department - at that time, many supermarkets were still equipped with “reach-in” open top freezers where the chilled air was held in via “air lock”. Today, nearly all major chains use glass door-enclosed cases just like those pictured here. The view of the soft drink department is a GCC Beverages photo. A division of General Cinema Corporation, they were Florida’s largest soft drink bottler at that time, and Sunkist soda was actually a GCC proprietary brand. It’s interesting to note how the brand images and packaging have changed!

The name of this post was adapted from the title of a 1998 Progressive Grocer article, “Publix Domain”.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Some 20th Century Publix Relics

No sooner had I hit the “publish” button on the last post than I received an email with these excellent Publix photos. Taken in 2002 and 2006, these photos show some of the classic 60’s and 70’s Publix style that was still kicking in the 21st century. Ironically, the storefront pictured, the Tallahassee, Florida Apalachee Parkway store, is a near match for the prototype pictured in the 1972 photo in the previous post.

These photos come to us courtesy of Rich Kummerlowe, webmaster of the superb America’s Landmark: Under the Orange Roof website, a tribute to the near-extinct Howard Johnson’s restaurants. A fondly remembered part of youth for so many of us, the classic “HoJo’s” have been an enduring interest of mine, and Rich’s site is the finest chronicle of them that one could ever want. I well remember the excitement of the “HoJo Birthday Club”, where you would get a free ice cream cone with one of their famous 28 flavors on your birthday. I applied for my club membership card in 1971 or so, and am still waiting for it to arrive. I'm thinking about writing them to see what’s up. (Maybe my dad forgot to mail the thing in!)

Rich brought up an interesting connection between Howard Johnson’s and Publix – that Publix was at one point the largest seller (outside of Howard Johnson’s themselves) of HoJo’s ice cream, and was among the last to offer HoJo frozen food items prior to their discontinuance a few years back.

The first two photos, as mentioned, are of a Tallahassee Publix that was closed in 2006 when a modern unit opened down the street. The third and fourth photos show the distinctive arrow signs for two 1960’s Publix-developed shopping centers - the Southgate Shopping Center in New Port Richey (not to be confused with the older Lakeland, Florida center of the same name), and the Punta Gorda Mall, which was actually a strip shopping center just like Southgate. Unfortunately these two great signs, photographed in 2002, are now gone as well, Rich informs us. The Southgate sign was replaced when the shopping center was completely refaced in 2005, and the Punta Gorda sign and store were destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004.

Below are two 1960’s views for comparison’s sake – the Southgate Shopping Center from the History of Pasco County, Florida website, and a postcard view of the Punta Gorda Mall.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Publix - Shopping Pleasure in the 70's

Three decades removed, opinions are divided about the styles of the 1970’s. Some call it “the decade that taste forgot”, while others appear determined, consciously or unconsciously, to duplicate the 70’s look with every single outfit they wear. One thing I’m sure of based upon my memories of that time and on seeing these pictures (and other 70’s stuff on this site and elsewhere) today - the color and pattern combinations could hardly have been wilder. Plaids, stripes, flowered patterns, you name it – it was all there and could usually be seen in the same room, or even the same outfit! Funny thing is, they almost look interchangeable today – the plaid on the lady’s suit would’ve worked as a wallpaper pattern, and the green stripes on the deli wall would have made a cool outfit for her. (Yikes!)And don’t even get me started on the men’s ties. In any event, whatever “style” was or wasn’t back then, Publix seemed to have lots of it.

The 70’s were a period of strong growth for Publix despite the challenges affecting their industry at the time – massive fuel and other energy cost increases, food shortages, pressure from consumer advocacy groups and other factors. The company wrapped up the year 1972 with 174 stores and $678 million in sales. Ten years later, in 1982, Publix had 262 stores, racking up a very impressive $2.5 billion in sales for the year.

Part of this growth came from the addition of a large new market area for Publix. In 1971, the company reentered the Jacksonville area, some 12 years after a short lived single-store experiment there. This time they were here to stay, and within a year three stores were opened. The deepening energy crisis greatly affected the cost of shipping food from Publix’s Lakeland base to the Jacksonville stores, so it was decided to ramp up store construction there in order to gain a big enough store base to support a distribution hub, in effect making the region self-supporting. By 1974, 15 stores were in operation in the area, and that same year Publix opened its Jacksonville Distribution Center. Two years later, there were 27 stores in the division, enough to fire some loud shots across the bow of their largest competitor, Jacksonville-based Winn-Dixie Stores.

A trend that impacted all supermarket chains regardless of location or size was the rise of “consumerism”, a grass-roots movement whose goal was to draw attention to high food prices and force producers and retailers to look at ways to provide consumers some relief. In response to this, many chains dropped trading stamps and adopted an “everyday low price” (discount) format. Despite the proven, continuing strength of Publix’s S&H Green Stamps program (which with every passing year was looking like more of an isolated success), the company felt compelled to respond to this growing movement. Instead of tampering with a successful formula, Publix decided instead to introduce a second line of stores under a different banner – “Food World” would be the name, and discount pricing would rule the day. No trading stamps would be issued at Food World stores. Typically, the Food World stores were former Publix units converted to the new banner.

Discounting was a new, foreign venture for Publix, as longtime Publix manager Keith Marr mentions in his autobiography, entitled “Crossroads on Nebraska Avenue”. Marr, who under the supervision of another manager was placed in charge of the new store, a former Orlando Publix unit, recalls George Jenkins’ huge vote of confidence on the eve of the first Food World grand opening in September 1970 – “I don’t have any experience in discount merchandising, so you two are going to get it for me. I am giving you two a blank check to do whatever you feel you need to do to make this store do business. You run it the way you see fit”. The store, which in its last months as a Publix averaged $30,000 a week, sold $70,000 in its first week under the new banner and was doing nearly $100,000 a week within a year. Over the next decade, Publix would add 22 more Food World units, which by and large did very well, doubtless due in part to the wise selection of the actual stores to be converted to the new format. Interestingly, a Food World unit ended up being the site of an industry milestone – Lakeland’s Lake Miriam Square Food World, which opened in November 1977 (and was Publix’s largest store, ironically, at 57,000 square feet) was the first store in the Southeastern U.S. to feature electronic barcode scanning at its checkout counters, an area in which Publix would become known for leadership.

A completely different but no less important area of leadership was the company’s advertising, which was very distinctive by normal supermarket standards. In an arena where every square inch of newspaper ad space was crammed with text, scores of food item photos and a confusing mish-mash of incompatible typefaces and clutter, Publix ads had more in common with magazine advertising – only a few products featured per page, with lots of white space and consistent, high-quality graphics. Publix ads also tended to stress individual themes, with promotions ranging from meat specials to convenience foods, a relatively new focus meant to appeal to the fast-paced Florida leisure life. The Publix ads were masterful when it came to presenting the human side of their company, particularly as it related to their long-standing policy of closing on Sundays. “Over 24,000 Publix People don’t have to drive to work on Sunday” read one ad, which stressed the company’s concern for employees and the side benefit of emptier streets for the public. Although years later Publix would reverse this policy, the ad had a very favorable impact when it ran. Also, 1972 saw the introduction of the new Publix logo, featuring the now-famous stylized “P”, which replaced the handful of block-lettered logos the company had been using. This logo, of course, is still in use today.

Publix, led by founder and executive committee chairman George Jenkins, his brother, Publix board chairman Charles Jenkins, and president Joe Blanton, had long since attained “most admired company” status by the eve of the company’s golden anniversary in 1980. Even bigger things were to come. Thankfully, there would be less plaid.

The first seven photos, featuring the first “post-winged” prototype and several interior views, are Publix publicity photos from 1972. I’ve nicknamed the lady behind the bakery counter in the second photo “Gram”. Even though neither of my grandmothers resembled her in the slightest, she’ll always be Gram to me. The eighth photo, with the apple cider bottles visible up front, is a Sperry and Hutchinson (S&H) promo shot from around the same time, and the ninth and tenth photos showing a checker (the blue and yellow outfit was the company’s 70’s standard) and the bag boy (Son, why are you putting my groceries under the hood?) are from 1973. The last color photo, from 1976, shows the standard prototype store with the new Publix logo and typeface. Below is a photo of the first Food World store, an Orlando former Publix unit converted in 1970, as published in “The Publix Story”, a Newcomen Society booklet transcribing a 1978 speech by George Jenkins.