Monday, January 27, 2014

Chicago's "Big Snow", January 1967

One of the most storied events in Chicagoland history took place 47 years ago this week. From early morning on January 26, 1967 through about 10am the following day, 23 inches of snow fell, and a city that had long prided itself on an ability to push through harsh winters was brought to a standstill. There have been other record-setting snowstorms in Chicago in the years since – in 1979, 2011, and whenever I’m trying to fly out of Midway Airport in January, but when one hears the phrase “Chicago’s Big Snow”, 1967 is what’s being referred to.

This amazing set of photos comes to us courtesy of Susanne Peters, and depicts scenes of various retail locations in the near-north suburb of Skokie, on a bright sunny day in the aftermath of the Big Snow.

First up is the Turnstyle-Jewel Family Center on Skokie Boulevard, where a dump truck is being loaded with snow. Opened in early 1963, this Turnstyle was the second location opened by Jewel Tea Company after completing its acquisition of Turnstyle (a Boston-based chain of discount stores) the previous year. Jewel had opened up a Racine, Wisconsin location in 1962, and another Turnstyle Family Center at the corner Harlem and Foster opened around the same time as the Skokie store. 

In my years of enthusiastic perusal of vintage supermarket photographs, I had yet to see one where the store’s facade was finished in bathroom tile. But here it is – The National Food Store at the corner of Niles Center Road and Skokie Boulevard. Originally opened as a Sure Save Food Mart, the store, along with 10 other units, came under National Tea Company ownership in 1961. It retained the Sure Save name for some years afterward, but by 1967 had been rebranded as a National.

This one would be of primary interest to those who grew up in the area, but it’s a nice shot. I sure would have hated to be the one to clean those store floors after all that snow and slush was tracked in!

Here’s a neat view of Dempster Street, showing among other things a combined Firestone Tire dealership/Mobil gas station. To this day, the “Complete Car Service” signage can be seen on some older Firestone stores. The Mobil portion sports their “transitional” signage – the 1966 logo (which caused quite a stir in design circles and is still used today) contained within 1950’s-style Mobil sign frames. In the distance is an Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen, one of a long-gone chain of family restaurants based on the pancake icon.  (I’ve been waiting my entire life to use the phrase “pancake icon”. A dream realized, this is.) There weren’t a lot of Aunt Jemima’s Kitchens, but they had a fairly widespread geographic distribution, as can be seen here.

Another shot of the Firestone dealer, with a “1967 License Plates Installed Free” sign in the window. Illinois issued new plates every year until 1979, the end of a tradition I’d enjoyed every year as a kid – the anticipatory “what color will the plates be this year?” game. Yes, friends, I lived an exciting life in those days. 

And what snow-trudging shopping trip would be complete without a trip to the Golden Arches? Unfazed by the snow, “Speedee”, McDonald’s early-years mascot, beckons all to partake of the chain’s legendary 15-cent hamburgers. (In your car, of course. Indoor seating was still a couple of years away.) 1967, in fact, was the last year of the 15 cent hamburger price, as after much gnashing of teeth, McDonald’s raised it to 18 cents apiece that year. Many of these signs were then modified to replace the “15c” panel with one saying “Coast to Coast”. By the early 70’s, most McDonald’s stores of this type were torn down and replaced altogether with indoor-seating restaurants and modern signs. 

A Wanzer’s truck sits in front of the McDonald’s. Wanzer (“Wanzer on milk is like sterling on silver”), a large Chicago-area dairy, was purchased two years later, in 1969, by The Southland Corporation, the Dallas-based parent of the 7-Eleven stores. Immediately it became the house milk brand for “The Sev” in the Chicago area, and my folks bought a good many gallons of milk there.

Well, once again I’d like to thank Susanne for letting me show you these great pictures. And wherever you live, I hope it’s “just a dusting” this week!   

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas at Macy's Herald Square, 1962

Hope that everyone is having a great Christmas Eve! Today was unusual (read: awesome) for me in that I didn’t have to do any last-minute Christmas shopping, save for a few items from the grocery store.

One thing’s for sure, though – if I could shop in a store like the one pictured above, I wouldn’t have minded a bit!

This, of course, is the renowned R.H. Macy & Co. flagship store in New York’s Herald Square, as it appeared during the 1962 Christmas season, depicted in a set of original 3D slides (sure wish I knew how to show you that effect on the web!) I bought a while back.

The “World’s Largest Store”, a Big Apple fixture since 1907, remains a must-see attraction for anyone visiting New York City, and certainly there’s no better time to see it than during its “full holiday regalia” mode. Over the last year it has undergone a controversial revamping, with years of neglect now swept away by renovations that, in the opinion of some, have gone too far. At least the famous fluted columns are still in evidence, even if their golden crowns are no longer visible. As I’ve said before, I’m always grateful that pictures like these exist.

And I’m very grateful for you, Pleasant Family Shopping readers. My best to you and yours this season!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Jewel of a Thanksgiving

Picture this:  you’re seven years old, and living in an apartment complex with indoor corridors. One fine November morning as you step outside to leave for school, you notice a newspaper with your Mom’s picture on the front page, sitting on every doorstep. Well, that’s exactly what happened to me in November of 1970.

It wasn’t a newspaper in this case, of course, but rather a weekly advertising paper for Jewel Food Stores, the leading Chicago-area supermarket chain. My mother was working as a freelance advertising model at the time, and unbeknownst to me she’d just completed this shoot for “The Jewel”.

Excited about her newfound fame, I bolted back into the apartment, screaming “Mom, you’re in the paper!!” or something along that line. Mom was excited too, but in a different way. She proceeded to run down the hall in her bathrobe (letting out a small shriek, if I remember correctly) and picked up every single one of those ads from the doorsteps, lest the neighbors see them and recognize her. (My apologies to our ex-neighbors for having missed out on Jewel’s outstanding 1970 Thanksgiving deals. I hope you enjoyed the holiday nonetheless.)

Now you’re probably wondering how they prepared that beautiful, incredibly appetizing turkey Mom is holding in the picture, aren’t you?  That’s simple – they took a nice, big, raw turkey hen and varnished it.  You know, there’s nothing like a coat of Minwax to bring out a rich, festive glow in the ‘ol holiday bird. (Delicious-looking turkey simulated by professionals in a faux dining room. Please don’t try this at home.) The aroma left something to be desired, however: “I had to stand there and smile and hold that platter for an hour. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I thought I was gonna die!” she says.

She must not have let the strain show, though, because Jewel apparently liked her work enough to hire her for some ads for Turn-Style, their discount store division, a few months later. 

Another photo from this shoot appeared in a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune. Amazingly, Jewel used this photo in the Trib for three successive Thanksgiving seasons, 1970, ’71 and ’72 – the latter appearing more than a year after my mother ceased modeling work altogether. (At least one of those years, the photo was in color. Of course we wouldn’t save one of those now, would we? ) The November 20, 1972 version is pictured below, courtesy of ProQuest. I dig it, not only for Mom’s presence, obviously, but also because it’s the most complete listing of Jewel-Osco stores from that era I’ve ever seen. Those of us who are retail history fans (and isn’t everyone, at heart?), can appreciate that. 

Below, the rest of the pages from the advertising flyer.

And let me extend to you my “unvarnished” wishes for a very happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dominick's on TV in the 70's

“And if you’re looking for squid…”

I thought these would make nice companion pieces to the Dominick’s post from last week. Three early 70’s-vintage TV commercials for Dominick’s, shown here courtesy of Rick Klein’s incredible Museum of Classic Chicago Television ("Fuzzy Memories")website. Believe me, anyone who grew up in Chicago in the late 20th century could while away days there, and even if you didn’t, there's lots to enjoy.

I love these commercials for several reasons – first, obviously, because they’re from the golden era of Dominick’s - a chain my family patronized with ridiculous frequency in my childhood. Beyond that, they’re some of the most interesting and fun commercials of their kind – giving an overview of the shopping experience as opposed to “this week’s specials”.

Most importantly, though, they provide a textbook example of a true “Chicawgo” accent, courtesy of spokeswoman Elaine Mulqueen. These commercials were produced for Dominick’s by Elaine and her husband Jack. The Mulqueens had been well-known Chicago TV personalities in the 1960’s, hosting a children’s program entitled “Kiddie-a-Go-Go”, a sort of American Bandstand for the grade-school set. (A film clip of the show appears below.)

Elaine played “Pandora”, the happy harlequin in charge of the proceedings. The show was one of the very first rock-and –roll programs to originate from Chicago, and it gave key exposure to 60’s Chicago rockers such the Buckinghams and the New Colony Six, who would go on have a few national hits. The Mulqueens took no small amount of flak for the show, usually criticisms of “the effect of rock-and-roll and dancing on young minds” and that kind of thing. Mrs. Mulqueen passed away last year at age 80.   

Originally airing on the ABC affiliate, WLS Channel 7, the show later moved to WGN Channel 9, then ultimately to WCIU Channel 26. In our house, we got a good signal from Channel 26 - as long as the winds were blowing from the east, there was aluminum foil on the antennas, and you kept your left hand on top of the TV set at all times. Ah, the joys of UHF!

Back to Chicago accents, despite growing up in the Chicago area, I didn’t hear that accent around the house in my early years except on TV. My Mom is from Georgia, and any trace of a southern accent she had was lost to years of dramatic training in high school and college. My Dad is from Rhode Island, and his accent, though softened through the decades, is still recognizable as such. People who meet me generally don’t think I have a Chicago accent. (Except when dining at Portillo's.)

But when I hear Mrs. Mulqueen’s accent, it transports me back to those days of visiting friends’ houses after school. Straightforward, but calming and sincere. Interested in what was going on in my life. A few years older than my folks. Smiling, and ready with a plate of milk and cookies for us to devour. Heinemann’s cookies and Heritage House milk from Dominick’s, of course.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Dynamic Dominick's

Last Thursday, a couple of longtime PFS friends clued me in on some important breaking retail news from Chicago, before I noticed it in the business headlines myself. Dominick’s Finer Foods, the number two traditional supermarket chain in Chicago, is being put up for sale by its owner of the last fifteen years, Safeway. 

That night, I put up a few comments on Facebook about it, ending with “This will be interesting to watch.” By the next morning, however, having read some more articles about it, I realized what was really going on - and my heart sank. The “interesting to watch” comment seemed regrettable, almost flip now, as it became clear that the possibility of the Dominick’s name going away for good is very real. 

In a way, I find this almost as hard to swallow as the demise of the great Marshall Field & Company name. I’m certainly not intending to compare the stature of the two (a fairly ridiculous idea), but am strictly speaking from personal feelings. Growing up, I set foot in a Field’s store maybe two or three times a year, whereas we shopped at Dominick’s all the time. Every week. For years. 

Dominick’s, founded in 1918 by Dominick DiMatteo with a single, small market at 3832 W. Ohio Street, grew very slowly in the first 40 or so years of its existence. Things started to accelerate in 1950 with the opening of a full size (for the time, that is – 14,000 square feet) supermarket on North Avenue. By 1963, there were still less than 10 stores, but by decade’s end they were rapidly growing through acquisition, picking up three stores from E.J. Korvette in 1965 and 18 more from Kroger when they excused themselves from the Chicago area in 1970. 

One of the greatest things about Chicago is its tremendous ethnic diversity, which of course extends to food. Dominick’s stock-in-trade was its vast offering of ethnic foods – certainly Italian cuisine (owing to the founder’s Sicilian heritage) from the start, and a particular emphasis on Jewish foods, but it soon encompassed culinary offerings from all over Europe, Asia, and Latin America – a true point of differentiation, in the early years, from its competitors.

In 1968, Dominick’s became a division of Cleveland-based Fisher Foods, operators of the Fazio’s supermarkets. From that point forward, newly built Dominick’s units popped up seemingly everywhere across Chicagoland. The Fisher-Fazio “Heritage House” brand became a staple of area households, including ours. 

By the mid-1970’s, the Chicago grocery market centered around two key players - #1 Jewel and #2 Dominick’s. Once-upon-a-time market leaders National Tea Company and the fast-fading A&P were all but vanquished (both were gone from the area by 1978), and everyone else was pushed to the margins. 

In 1981, the DiMatteo family bought the company back from Fisher Foods, and would continue to operate it for the next decade and a half. The second DiMatteo era saw explosive growth for Dominick’s, gaining ground on Jewel nearly every year, ultimately surpassing them in terms of sales and profitability per store. 

But in 1993, Dominick DiMatteo Jr. passed away (Dominick Sr. had died in 1981), and it soon became clear that the family had interest in selling the business. In 1995, Dominick’s was acquired by The Yucaipa Group, the Los Angeles-based investment firm headed by Ron Burkle, who singlehandedly reshaped the West Coast grocery industry in the 1990’s, buying and later reselling such venerable banners as Ralphs and Alpha Beta, among others. (Ron’s still at it in a big way - purchasing a large stake in A&P from their bankruptcy in 2012, and buying the Fresh and Easy chain from the British retail firm Tesco just recently.)

In 1998, Burkle sold Dominick’s to Safeway, the Pleasanton, California-based supermarket titan. As is often the case, the match looked great on paper – for Dominick’s it meant joining a highly respected, deep-pocketed company, ready to add rocket fuel to their already impressive growth. For Safeway, it meant an instant leadership position in one of the country’s most important markets - and a new frontier. 

Almost from the start, though, it was a calamity. The shift of decision-making power from Chicago to the parent company led to a disastrous misread of Chicagoans’ innate buying characteristics – a strong preference for local brands, and a tendency to be underwhelmed by trends emerging from either coast. There was little affection for the Safeway house brands that now filled Dominick’s shelves, despite their storied histories and acceptance in Safeway’s core West and East Coast markets. 

By the time substantial steps were taken to remedy the problems, Dominick’s was in steep decline. Now, they were a very distant #2 in the market compared to Jewel (itself no stranger to struggles in recent years). On the top of that, the door was now open for smaller locally-owned chains to grow nice footholds in the market, including Caputo’s and Tony’s, for example, who have placed a strong emphasis on local and ethnic foods, swiping pages right and left from Dominick’s discarded playbook. Added to the mix are the more recent competitive forces affecting traditional grocers in many areas – Whole Foods from the prestige end of the market, and Walmart and Aldi from the price end.

Within a few years, rumors began to fly of a possible selloff of Dominick’s (including a potential re-sale to Burkle in 2003 among them), but until now Safeway held on, the store count dwindling from a peak of 130 units to the current 72. 

Now Dominick’s truly is up for sale, and in all likelihood it will be split up among several buyers. Jewel will be taking over four locations, two in Chicago, one each in Homer Glen and Glenview. Kroger is reportedly looking at several locations for their Food4Less banner – their successful, if low-key, reentry into the market. (Dominick’s alumnus-operated) Mariano’s Fresh Markets, a division of Wisconsin-based Roundy’s, is interested in some locations, according to news reports. Other units might sit vacant when all is said and done. 

With this in view, I thought it might be a good time to look back at the glory days of Dominick’s, via a photo-tour of what was arguably their most architecturally interesting store. Opened in 1964 in near-north suburban Evanston, at 3333 W. Central Avenue, the store had many striking features. Chief among them were a 26-foot high cylindrical tower (finished in red-orange tile on the exterior and walnut strip-paneling inside, housing an exquisite Customer Service area), and a Japanese-style rock garden. There was also an unusual walkway awning, and the whimsical feature of stylized “cutout” figures mounted to the brick wall, forming a “line” of sorts leading into the store. 

Designed by the Chicago architectural firm Teutsch-Lucas Associates, the store design was conceived in part to take best advantage of the odd dimensions and slope of the corner lot it was situated on, and to present an attractive image to a high traffic, a high income area. The rest of the interior was typical of Dominick’s very high design standards. Those familiar with the Dominick’s of old will notice the lack of “Heritage House” branded goods, as these photographs were taken a couple of years before the Fisher Foods buyout. You might also notice, however, the “Country’s Delight” dairy products, a product of Certified Grocers. Certified was also the licensee for “Raggedy Ann” brand canned goods, another popular brand at Dominick’s in the pre-Fisher Foods days. 

This store was featured by Progressive Grocer twice – in the May 1965 issue and again a few years later in their book “Progressive Grocer’s Outstanding New Super Markets”, from which these pictures came. I first saw a picture of this store on the “Bright Lights, Dim Beauty of Chicago” blog from Didi, another longtime friend of PFS. On a 2009 trip to Chicago, I was able to swing by the store, which has been a CVS for years now. The interior, as you might expect, has drastically changed, but some of the charming exterior features remain.

Reflecting one more time on Dominick’s plight - I guess the best thing at this point would be for a local, family-owned concern to pick up a few of the stores and continue to operate them under the Dominick’s name. With the right combination of passion and commitment to the local customer, you never know what great things might grow from that. It could happen. It’s been done before.