by Frank Dunnigan
A few months ago, while waiting for the Safeway driver to deliver my order, it dawned on me just how much grocery shopping has changed over the years.
Today, I can sit down at my computer at any hour of the day or night, and roam up and down electronic “aisles” while selecting from thousands of items in categories such as Canned Goods, Spices & Baking, Frozen Foods, Produce, Dairy, Bakery, Meat, Poultry, Seafood, Cleaning Supplies, Pharmacy, Wine & Liquor, etc. I can read nutritional information for each product, select quantities, see the latest sale items, and check the cost-per-unit from the comfort of my desk chair. A click of the mouse confirms my choices, bills the order to my credit card, and schedules free delivery within my favorite one-hour timeframe. We’ve come a long way in the last few years, but how did we get to this point?
From early times, San Francisco was a city of independent merchants—with separate businesses selling groceries, meat, produce, and bread. The Crystal Palace Market, a cavernous structure at the southeast corner of 8th and Market Streets, opened in 1923, was a veritable labyrinth of individually owned departments selling all types of food, plus other sections offering cleaning products, hardware, furniture and home accessories. With over 60,000 square feet of selling space, it was the first “super” market, twice the size of many present-day grocery establishments, and the developers had the foresight to include a parking lot at the rear, facing Mission Street, with a capacity of 1,000 cars.
Everyone in town shopped there, and the grand old place lasted until 1959 when rising real estate values (what else?) forced the store to close, so that developer Del Webb could built his modernistic Town House Motel (as fate would have it, the Town House, which later became Trinity Apartments, fell to the bulldozers 50 years later to make way for construction of a new multi-building high-rise housing complex). Another busy store, similar to the Crystal Palace though smaller, was Grant Market, on Market Street, opposite Grant Avenue, which remained until the 1970s.
One of the largest sections at the Crystal Palace was Skaggs Grocery, which later merged with the Seelig chain in Los Angeles to form Safeway Stores. By the late 1920s, Safeway had 29 locations in San Francisco, with their iconic maroon-and-black lettering on a field of yellow and the motto “Distribution Without Waste.” In addition, there were Mutual Stores with 59 locations, Public Food with nearly 70, and United Grocers. Even though these were chain stores, square footages were small—often just a few thousand square feet. They specialized in groceries, with produce and meats often sold by other retailers nearby. Merchants selected items for shoppers, and in the era before open-dating of perishables, customers were never quite sure about freshness—I can still hear my grandmother’s voice in my head whenever I’m shopping, “Take the milk from the back.” Other than the Crystal Palace, parking lots were rare, with most customers coming and going by foot or streetcar.
By the 1930s, following a takeover, Safeway was operating both Safeway and Piggly-Wiggly brands. By the mid-1930s, after a merger with Mutual Stores, Safeway controlled three names, with nearly 150 small stores scattered throughout the city. Often, these might be located nearby one another, sometimes separated by a hill, as locations were planned based on ease of pedestrian access.
Those Depression years hit businesses hard, and by the start of World War II, Safeway was down to 125 stores, including some that had been picked up along the way from other chains. Safeway’s big rival, Public Food, fared far worse, and was closed by 1940. One of the other big players, Little-Mann, eventually became Littleman Stores, with locations throughout the city, including both Geary Boulevard and Ocean Avenue.
Lucky, Cala, and QFI opened stores in San Francisco in the 1940s, though they never had as many locations as Safeway. By the end of World War II in 1945, Littleman was up to 14 stores, while the total number of Safeway stores had been cut in half to about 60—though the total square footage had risen—suggesting the trend to fewer, but larger stores in prime locations, many with parking lots, reflecting a new emphasis on the automobile.
Early in the 1950s, Safeway’s San Francisco store count was about 35. Two of the biggest locations, still in operation today, were Market and Church Streets, opened in 1954, and Marina Boulevard, opened in 1959. Both have been expanded and updated numerous times over the years. Safeway also expanded its presence in the Sunset District about that time with a large modern store at 30th Avenue and Noriega Street (replacing an older store at 19th Avenue and Noriega), which itself was replaced with an even newer, larger version in 1984-85, complete with rooftop parking.
By the mid-1950s, supermarkets of 25,000+ feet had emerged, with a wide variety of food and non-food items sold under one roof, with customers able to make their own selections. Petrini Plaza opened at Fulton Street and Masonic Avenue, and was a popular location, with top quality meats and produce, though at slightly higher prices. Petrini’s also operated the meat departments at Lick Market on 7th Avenue in the Richmond District and Sunset Super on Irving Street in the Sunset, and many of these stores offered free same-day delivery a few hours after customers made their selections.
QFI—Quality Foods, Incorporated—a Stonestown anchor since 1952, pulled in many people from the western neighborhoods. Safeway continued to develop newer, larger stores, even emphasizing pre-packaged meats—something previously unheard of. At the same time, San Mateo-based Brentwood Markets operated a couple of local stores under the Super-X name, including one at 25th Avenue and Noriega Street, which eventually became the much-loved Carriage Market before morphing into yet another Walgreens drug store in 1995.
When I was growing up, Grandma lived on 21st Avenue near Rivera Street—probably the last homeowner in the Sunset to replace her ice box with a refrigerator, about 1955. From 1937 until then, shopping was a daily ritual for her, taking a short stroll along a flat half-block to the Lincoln Market at 21st Avenue and Quintara Street. The store was tiny, with a full-service butcher shop at the rear, which could be entered from the back of the store or directly from Quintara—even now, I recall a powerful smell of sawdust in both places. Payment involved a nod to the cashier to “put it on my account” with the bill paid monthly. There was not a lot of variety, but Grandma never went hungry with shopping so convenient. To her, this arrangement was vastly superior to what she went through as a young woman in pre-1906 San Francisco, having to visit many different merchants—grocer, baker, meat market, produce market, before finally getting home to help her mother prepare dinner.
My own 1950s childhood memories include walking from 18th Avenue and Vicente Street with Mom a couple of times per week, as she did our family’s grocery shopping at Rite-Spot Market on Taraval between 20th and 21st Avenues (sometimes at West Portal’s Daylite Market). Payment was in cash, which she carried in her coin purse. Trips like this usually included side visits—Mr. and Mrs. Nabbefeld’s adjacent Baronial Bakery, the old Parkside Post Office a few doors down where Dad’s friend Mr. Tobin worked, or the Overland Pharmacy at the corner of 21st Avenue. If meat was on her shopping list, we went a block farther to 22nd Avenue and Taraval Market where our neighbor Mr. D’Angelo worked as a butcher (always offering me a hot dog or a slice of bologna), before walking home with the day’s purchases. We routinely waved hello or stopped to chat with Grandma’s old friend Mrs. Wolfinger who lived in one of the first homes built on 20th Avenue near Ulloa Street. Depending on my temperament and the tiredness of Mom’s feet, we might even stop at the Larsen Park swings at 19th Avenue and Vicente Street for a few minutes.
By the late 1950s, and finally armed with a driver’s license, Mom did her weekly grocery shopping on Friday mornings at QFI in Stonestown. By then, she was shopping only once a week, and began writing checks so that she did not have to stop at the bank first. The variety of goods carried by QFI was certainly greater than at the older stores, but the process was rushed and didn’t involve much friendly interaction with merchants or neighbors.
When I had my first apartment in Parkmerced in 1976, I was one of those “after-work” shoppers who didn’t know what I was going to have for dinner until I was in the store. Later, while living on 22nd Avenue, the proximity and good selection supplied by Carriage Market at 25th Avenue and Noriega Street, kept me a “spur-of-the-moment” shopper, with a new ATM card in hand, knowing full well that Pirro’s Pizzeria on Taraval and Tien Fu on Noriega were both ready to deliver a meal if I was running late or it was raining heavily.
As newer, larger stores were built, Safeway dropped to 32 locations, and the primary competition was Littleman, and to a lesser degree, QFI, Cala, Petrini’s, and Lucky. Each time Safeway closed a small store, the building was quickly taken over, and several 7-Eleven stores operate today in former Safeway locations, including 32nd Avenue and Taraval Street. Another former Safeway store on Judah Street, near 30th Avenue, is now a gym, while the former Safeway store on Dewey Boulevard near Forest Hill Station now houses several small businesses.
In the mid-1960s, Littleman was sold to Cala, and chains began to abandon certain neighborhoods, leading to a resurgence of independent stores, though usually with inflated prices and a heavy dependence on liquor, tobacco, and junk food sales. In 1967, Lucky, a fixture at Lakeshore Plaza since the early 1950s, adopted a discount model, stressing everyday low prices.
By 1970, Safeway had 24 San Francisco locations, including two pre-World War II stores in the western neighborhoods—one on West Portal Avenue and the other on Monterey Boulevard. Both were demolished in the early 1970s, with the Monterey Boulevard store rebuilt on the site in 1972, while the West Portal store relocated to 17th Avenue and Taraval Street in 1973, replacing Holiday Chevrolet. At about the same time, Safeway was also able to create a stronger presence in the Richmond District with a massive store on La Playa, at the site of the old Playland. Originally about 35,000 square feet, it has grown to almost 40,000 square feet. Safeway recently submitted plans to the city that will expand the Ocean Beach location in the next two years to over 65,000 square feet—ironically, identical in size to the old Crystal Palace—thus making it San Francisco’s largest grocery store.
In the 1980s, Cala acquired Bell Markets, and later bought QFI. Safeway then operated 15 stores in San Francisco—the count remains unchanged today, 34 years later—and it was the undisputed grocery leader, while Petrini’s took over the old QFI location in Stonestown, operating it until 1989. At the same time, Lucky had four city stores, including the old 1978-built Albertson’s on Alemany Boulevard in OMI. Ultimately, Albertson’s acquired the Lucky chain and rebranded the stores with their own name, but early in this millennium, the red Lucky signs re-emerged.
Today, big-box giants such as Costco and Wal-Mart have made huge inroads into the grocery business with a limited selection of top-selling products, while the average supermarket now offers 40,000 different items for sale. Given San Francisco’s high cost-of-living, “extreme discounters” such as Grocery Outlet, founded in San Francisco in 1946, but gone since 2001, recently reopened a store on Geary in the Outer Richmond. Trader Joe's, with smaller, easier-to-navigate spaces and a more limited assortment, has become the choice for many, as newer retailers like Whole Foods are offering organic goods, just as single-category stores, produce shops, and bakeries are beginning to re-enter the competition.
The more things change…
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