It didn’t just change the way we buy our groceries. It changed the way we live our lives.
Late last year, on its obituary page, The New York Times acknowledged the passing of a multimillionaire Oklahoma businessman named Sylvan Goldman. SYLVAN N. GOLDMAN, 86, DIES ; the headline read. INVENTOR OF THE SHOPPING CART .
Born before the turn of the century in what was still officially designated the Indian Territory, Sylvan Goldman fought in the Argonne during World War I and returned to join his brother and uncle in establishing a wholesale grocery venture.
By 1936, the Goldmans had absorbed their principal competitor, Humpty Dumpty, and were expanding their Oklahoma City—based chain of Standard Food Stores. Everything seemed to be going well, but early that year Sylvan perceived a distressing phenomenon. He was watching women walk through the aisles of one of his stores, putting their prospective purchases into the wicker baskets supplied for the purpose, and as Goldman remembered it, “They had a tendency to stop shopping when the baskets became too heavy or too full.” Not long afterward, Goldman’s attention fell upon a pair of plain folding chairs. Inspiration struck. What if the chairs were fitted with wheels and baskets were attached to their seats? Wouldn’t that make shopping easier and shoppers thus inclined to purchase more? Goldman sought out a company carpenter and began a series of experiments. Initial prototypes proved unsatisfactory. They folded up on themselves at the slightest provocation and capsized entirely too easily. It took a year to perfect what he dubbed his “folding basket carrier,” a wheeled cart with two wire baskets mounted on it, one offset above the other. In June 1937 the contraption made its debut in Standard stores. The reception, Goldman recalled in a 1977 interview with Charles Kuralt of CBS News, was less than encouraging.
“I went to our biggest store—there wasn’t a soul using a basket carrier.” This despite the fact that an “attractive girl” was posted at the entrance offering shoppers the new cart. “The housewives, most of ’em decided, ‘No more carts for me. I have been pushing enough baby carriages. I don’t want to push anymore.’”
Goldman’s only takers seemed to be pensioners, and it occurred to the inventor that the public might benefit from some subliminal indoctrination. At each store where the carts were available, Goldman installed a covey of young and middle-aged men and women. He instructed them to wander about incognito, filling their folding carriers. “I told this young lady that was offering carts to the customers to say, ‘Look, everybody’s using them—why not you?’” She did, and they did.
On the short list of those things that Americans take most for granted, the shopping cart must rank fairly high. I am in my thirties. I proudly tell ten-year-old acquaintances that I somehow survived a life without pocket calculators, home computers, or video games. My parents used to say as much to me, only substituting different examples: television, jet travel, the Pill, or the Bomb. We divide our personal histories into eras, and our markers are for the most part tangible and technological. When less concrete events serve to separate these chunks of time, they tend to be grand in scale: wars, coronations, assassinations, and the like. This seems curious in light of the fact that the institutional transformations that have often had the most profound influence over the way we actually live are far less celebrated. Take supermarkets, for example.
Between 1916, when a maverick entrepreneur in Tennessee opened what is generally thought to have been the first self-service grocery in the United States, and roughly 1960, by which time supermarkets were selling 70 percent of the nation’s groceries, the evolution of the American supermarket irrevocably altered not only the way Americans bought food but, indeed, the very way they lived. If you are thirty or older, your parents were probably born before the supermarket. Go ahead and ask. Odds are you won’t get much of a response, because supermarkets have been so tightly woven into the fabric of our daily lives that it has become practically impossible to imagine the condition of being without them. And because supermarkets seem so basic, so intrinsically unremarkable, it’s difficult for most of us to comprehend the true impact of their invention. Supermarkets are not like telephones, for instance. Telephones are historically tidy. We can intellectually accommodate the notion of a time before and a time after telephones. Supermarkets, by contrast, seem timeless. They have permeated our entire existence. Even if we accept the proposition that once upon a time there were none, we’re tempted to regard their evolution, in retrospect, as almost imperceptibly gradual. It wasn’t.
Attempts to fix with any degree of certainty the precise time and location of the modern supermarket’s conception are clouded by a welter of competing claims, but the story has to begin somewhere, and Memphis, Tennessee, is as good a place as any, at Clarence Saunders’s self-service grocery on Jefferson Street in 1916.
U.S. Patent No. 1,242,872 was issued on October 9,1917, to Saunders for “certain new and useful improvements in Self-Serving Stores.” The legitimacy of his claims would subsequently be challenged in the courts and partially voided, but industry historians still count him as the progenitor of self-service food shopping. Saunders, who had entered the business as a fourteen-year-old clerk in a rural Virginia general store, called his new shop Piggly Wiggly—a name inspired by a plump shoat he chanced to see escaping through a fence—and it was an emporium like no other of that time. It had turnstiles at the entrance and a check-out counter at the exit. In between wound a single serpentine aisle lined with easy-to-reach goods. Customers took what they wanted and paid cash.
Simple as it sounds now, Saunders’s idea constituted a radical revision of retailing orthodoxy. Previously, groceries and dry goods had been sold on a credit-and-delivery basis. Customers presented their orders to clerks, and the clerks filled them. Accounts were periodically tallied, and bills prepared. After considerable scrutiny Saunders determined these practices to be massively wrong-headed and created his alternative. (In the interests of historical balance, it should be acknowledged that several merchants in the West, principally in Texas and Southern California, seem to have come to similar conclusions at approximately the same time. But Saunders got the patent.) Having eliminated much of his standing overhead, he slashed prices, and on a masterfully hyped mixture of novelty and economy he proceeded to build an empire.
Clarence Saunders stuck with his formula, and Piggly Wigglys proliferated. At the apex of the company’s growth there were nearly three thousand of them throughout the United States, and they all went by the book. Saunders’s instruction manuals were lengthy and complete, spelling out every aspect of the operation in exhaustive detail. His formula worked, and his corporate worth soared, eventually leading to his undoing. Armed with a satchelful of cash and determined to protect the value of his stock, Saunders stormed Wall Street in 1923. He began placing orders and driving the share price up until, on paper anyway, he held virtually all of the company’s outstanding common stock. At that point the New York Stock Exchange declared a corner, demanded that he pay for stock that he was buying on margin, and the whole precarious construction came tumbling down.
In the decades that followed, Saunders grew crankier and more iconoclastic. He’d built a fabulous pink palace in Memphis, but he never got the chance to live in it. His patent protection diluted, he turned to a new idea and set up a string of Clarence Saunders Sole-Owner-of-My-Name stores. When these foundered, he poured his energies into a futuristic merchandising format that he christened Keydoozle—key does all—a kind of grocery and dry goods automat where shoppers would use special “electric keys” to select items from closed display cases. The goods would then be ferried by conveyor to a check-out counter, there to be picked up and paid for. “Then she gives her tape to the cashier,” Saunders explained to a Forbes magazine reporter in 1941. “It is fed into automatic machinery that uses the punched holes to activate a sorting apparatus backstage. And as if by magic a moving belt produces her beans, butter, bread, cauliflower, Tabasco sauce and scallions. She pays her bill and walks out pop-eyed.” But popeyed was apparently not enough, for Keydoozle never got off the ground. After losing Piggly Wiggly, Saunders never flew quite so high again. Nevertheless, fully fourteen years before the first real supermarket is judged to have been born, Clarence Saunders had anticipated many of its essential elements.
During the early decades of this century a few major grocery chains—the Krogers and Safeways, the Grand Unions, and most of all the Hartford brothers’ Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company—came to dominate the nation’s retail food trade. The first A&P opened in 1859. By 1930 there were almost 16,000 of them. Between 1914 and 1930 the number of corporate chains more than tripled, while their cumulative retail outlets increased from 24,000 to some 200,000. The keystone of chain store development was an equation that linked efficiency and expansion. Independent stores were owner operated. Owners purchased their stock from wholesale distributors and sold it to consumers, earning a profit on the markup. Chain stores were operated by salaried clerks and supplied by the parent company, which bought goods directly from the manufacturers. The more outlets that were added to a chain, the greater was the portion of a producer’s output controlled by buyers for that chain, and thus they exerted an inescapable influence over price. As the chains’ range and power grew, they commanded ever more potent economies of scale and tightened the screws on independents.
Not surprisingly, the independents fought back, enlisting their customers and communities in what they cast as a struggle for the preservation of local ownership and accountability and a decentralized economic structure—to say nothing of their own livelihoods. A raft of anti-chain store legislation was spawned, mostly at the municipal level, culminating in 1936 with the passage of the Robinson-Patman Act, which mandated federal regulation of wholesale pricing and distribution. The independents also formed so-called voluntary chains, seeking to match the corporate chains’ economies. The best known of these cooperatives is probably the Independent Grocers Alliance of America, or IGA, whose signs still decorate corner groceries everywhere.
Prior to 1912 all grocery stores, chain and independent alike, were fully clerked, credit-and-delivery affairs. In that year A&P began tentatively to introduce what it described as “economy stores” into its system. The clerks remained, but credit and free delivery disappeared. Operating costs were also trimmed by standardization and restriction of store fixtures and stock. A small portion of savings was passed along to the consumer in the form of lower prices. Customers responded, albeit a bit reluctantly at first, by switching their allegiances from more expensive, locally owned establishments to the new economy stores. The independents and conventional chains initially saw little cause for concern. The attrition among their clientele did not yet seem significant, and besides, they retained the lure of liberal credit. In what was still a predominantly agrarian society, cash flow was a sometime and seasonal thing. Credit—be it at the grocer’s or the feed and grain dealer’s, the hardware store or the milliner’s—was not a luxury but a necessity. The independents confidently predicted that the cash-and-carry chains would never gain more than a toehold.
But the nation was already transforming itself around them. The population was becoming measurably more urban, and it was also becoming wealthier, especially in the midst of the euphoric recovery that followed World War I, when the manufacturing and service sectors of the economy waxed in importance, and agriculture waned. An extraordinary transition was taking place. What had formerly been an overwhelmingly self-reliant, even a subsistence economy, was giving way to what was primarily a cash economy. That shift paved the way for the supermarket movement to come.
Society was changing in other ways as well. What would be called the mass media surfaced in the form of national weeklies and monthlies and in the burgeoning public appetite for radio entertainment; the automobile rolled into the mainstream; mobility increased, and distances shrank. Suburbs and planned communities sprang up, residential hermaphrodites that claimed to blend the best aspects of country living with the most desirable qualities of a life in town.
With the nation rearranging itself at such a rate, new retail forms tailored to changing needs prospered. As of 1918, every A&P store in the United States had converted to cash-and-carry. All the ingredients necessary for the creation of the modern supermarket were now in place. It remained only for someone to see them successfully combined.
To that role I nominate Michael Cullen, grocer extraordinaire and leading contender for the title of father of the American supermarket. We are in suspect terrain here, ambiguous and hotly contested territory. The Food Marketing Institute, an industry lobby and research organization, diplomatically allows as how the question of supermarket primacy is “subject to dispute.” If pressed, however, it will come down in Mike Cullen’s camp. A couple of Los Angeles chains—Von’s and Ralph’s—can also lay legitimate claims to having been first, and the term supermarket itself seems to have been formally adopted for the first time by William H. Albers, a former Kroger’s president, who in 1933 founded his own company and called it Albers Super Markets. But it seems to have fallen to Michael Cullen finally to marry the individual elements that, united, form our understanding of what a supermarket is.
In his 1955 manifesto The Super Market: A Revolution in Distribution , M. M. (“Zim”) Zimmerman, a trade editor and publicity man who became one of the supermarket’s earliest champions and, over the course of his long career, indisputably its preeminent proselytizer, defines the creature as follows: “A Super Market is a highly departmentalized retail establishment, dealing in foods or other merchandise, either wholly owned or concession operated, with adequate parking space, doing a minimum of $250,000 annually. The grocery department, however, must be on a self-service basis.” Updated somewhat, that definition still holds, though it was drawn from the first number of the first volume—dated 1936—of Zimmerman’s defunct trade publication Super Market Merchandising . The business has grown some. The Food Marketing Institute reports that 1983 average sales per store, industrywide, hovered near the eight-million-dollar mark. Concession operations, whereby independently owned departments—a butcher, for instance, or a baker or a greengrocer—did business under the supermarket’s aegis, have long since been abandoned. Several other defining characteristics also apply. Supermarkets are super. When the first of them burst upon the scene more than fifty years ago, they were often eight or ten times the size of standard groceries. Supermarkets, now as then, deal in low margins and high volumes. They are amply stocked, usually offering a wide variety of national and private-label brands. They often feature loss leaders, goods sold at or below cost for the sole purpose of attracting customers. They tend to be located away from crowded downtown centers, within driving distance of large populations. They emphasize convenience and price, and they are, like Ernest Hemingway’s famous café, reliably clean and well-lighted places.
Michael Cullen’s was a life in the grocery trade. He joined A&P as a clerk at eighteen and stayed for seventeen years before moving on. In 1929, when he was forty-five years old and employed as the manager of a Kroger’s branch store in Herrin, Illinois, he addressed a long letter to the company president, William Albers. In it he presented the essence of a career’s worth of experience and observation. He knew how the grocery business operated, he said, and he believed he could do better. Cullen sought Albers’s and Kroger’s backing for a string of five prototype supermarkets, “monstrous in size,” to be opened in low-rent facilities several blocks off any main drag. The key to his plans lay in the conviction that by moving a great quantity of merchandise rapidly through his stores, he would be able to show a profit with much lower markups than had hitherto been thought possible. “This is the kind of cut-rate Chain of Wholesale selling direct to the public that I want to operate,” he explained in his splendid harangue.
“I want to sell 300 items at cost.
“I want to sell 200 items at 5% above cost.
“I want to sell 300 items at 15% above cost.
“I want to sell 300 items at 20% above cost.
“I want to gross 9% and do a grocery, fruit and vegetable business of $10,000.00 per week, and make a net profit of 2½% on the grocery department, and 3% on the meat department.…
“Can you imagine how the public would respond to a store of this kind? To think of it—a man selling 300 items at cost and another 200 items at 5% above cost—nobody in the world ever did this before. Nobody ever flew the Atlantic either, until Lindbergh did it.
“When I come out with a two page ad and advertise 300 items at cost and 200 items at practically cost, which would probably be all the advertising that I would ever have to do, the public, regardless of their present feeling towards Chain Stores, because in reality I would not be a Chain Store, would break my front doors down to get in. It would be a riot. I would have to call out the police and let the public in so many at a time. I would lead the public out of the high priced houses of bondage into the low prices of the house of the promised land.
“I would convince the public that I would be able to save them from one to three dollars on their food bills. I would be the ‘miracle man’ of the grocery business. The public would not, and could not believe their eyes. Week days would be Saturdays—rainy days would be sunny days, and then when the great crowd of American people came to buy all those low priced and 5% items, 1 would have them surrounded with 15%, 20%, and in some cases, 25% items. In other words, I could afford to sell a can of Milk at cost if I could sell a can of Peas and make 2¢, and so on all through the grocery line.
“The fruit and vegetable department of a store of this kind would be a gold mine. This department alone may make a net profit of 7% due to the tremendous turnover we would have after selling out daily and not throwing half the profit away, which is done at present time in 25% of the Chain Stores throughout the land.
“Then the big meat department. This would be a bee-hive. We would have the confidence of the public. They knew that every other grocery item they picked up they saved money on same, and our meat department would show us a very handsome profit.…
“I was never so confident in my life as I am at the present time; and in order to prove to you my sincerity and my good faith, I am willing to invest $15,000.00 of my own money to prove that this will be the biggest money maker you have ever invested yourself in.…
“Again you may object to my locating two or three blocks from the business center of a big city. One great asset in being away from the business section is parking space. Another is, you can get generally the kind of store you want, and on your own terms. The public will walk an extra block or two if they can save money, and one of our talking points would be, the reason we sell at wholesale prices are that we are out of the high rent district.…
“Before you throw this letter in the wastebasket, read it again and then wire me to come to Cincinnati, so I can tell you more about this plan, and what it will do for you and your company.
“The one thought always uppermost in mind—How can I undersell the other fellow? How can I beat the other fellow? How can I make my company more money? The answer is very simple:—by keeping my overhead down, and only by keeping this overhead down can 1 beat the other fellow.
“What is your verdict?”
The verdict, despite Cullen’s impassioned prospectus, was negative. Within three years Albers would leave Kroger to start his own supermarket chain, but for the present he was having none of it. It later came out that he never even read Cullen’s letter; a subordinate rejected it. Mike Cullen resigned and moved East. In New York City he found a willing partner in Harry Socoloff, a wholesale grocer, and shortly thereafter took out a lease on a vacant garage at 171-06 Jamaica Avenue, in the borough of Queens. There, in August of 1930, the first King Kullen Grocery Company store—the first true supermarket—opened its doors.
“Mike Cullen came out with his first newspaper advertising,” Zim Zimmerman writes in The Super Market . “It was fantastic, unorthodox, contrary to what any experienced advertising man would have considered good copy, but it caught the attention of the people around Long Island.” As well it might have. Mike Cullen’s advertisements ran across whole pages and two-page spreads. Columns of brand names and prices were capped with screaming boldface banner headlines. KING KULLEN, WORLD’S GREATEST PRICE WRECKER , the tag lines declared, and then was posed the rhetorical question, HOW DOES HE DO IT? Here and there were inserted blocks of pithy, combative text. “Chain Stores read these prices and weep. You Wall Street Chain Stores have been making millions from the public for years with your outrageous prices. Chain Stores, drop your prices, give the poor buying public a chance.” When the local papers resisted running his incendiary notices, he had them printed as broadsides and delivered door to door.
The buying public, as prophesied, came in droves. A second store soon followed, and then a third. Cullen’s plan proved popular even beyond his superheated expectations. He threw himself into spreading the gospel so vigorously that when he died suddenly in April 1936 of complications following an appendicitis operation, his friends and family believed he’d worked himself to death. His wife, Nan, took over the reins; the chain her late husband had founded only six years earlier had grown to include fifteen stores, and King Kullen’s competitors, having begun to despair of ever beating him, were moving to join him.
Before long there were dozens of entrepreneurs “wrecking prices” nationwide. Just across the Hudson River, in an abandoned automobile factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the Big Bear set up shop as a self-proclaimed “Price Crusher” whose promotions made Cullen’s seem sedate by comparison. There was King Arthur in Newark, Penn Fruit in Philadelphia, and the Dawson Trading Post in Chicago. There was Alpha Beta in the West, Jitney Jungle in the South, and a menagerie of others: Bull Market, Giant Tiger, Great Leopard. Zim Zimmerman’s 1934 survey counted ninety-four supermarkets. By 1936 his census had jumped to some twelve hundred stores in eighty-five different cities. The major chains balked briefly, then plunged. A&P opened its initial supermarket in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1936. The company opened approximately three hundred more in the ensuing twelve months. In the Middle West, Kroger weighed in with its Pay ‘N Takit Supers, and Safeway was hastily converting its units on the West Coast. The chains underwent a sharp contraction, closing smaller neighborhood stores and consolidating their operations into fewer, larger outlets. Assertions that supermarkets were merely a Depression-fueled passing fad proved no more prescient than had the independents’ earlier assessments of the long-term prognosis for chains.
A symbiosis quickly evolved between the nascent supermarketing and massmerchandising movement and American business and popular culture. The rise of the supermarket was changing the way we live even as advancing technologies and changing social norms were making that rise possible.
Consider, for example, the business of food processing, packaging, and distribution. Without dramatic changes in each of these areas the supermarket as we know it today could not exist. Because supermarkets depend for their profits on high sales volumes, it follows that consumers must buy in large quantities. But in the absence of hygienic processing and packaging and of any sort of efficient means of home refrigeration, buying perishable foods in bulk was simply inconceivable. New packaging and processing methods and the advent of the domestic refrigerator changed that forever.
Similarly, supermarkets, to maintain their low overheads, were obliged to seek alternatives to hiring an army of clerks to cut and package meats, produce, and even some groceries. This demand grew for precut and prepackaged products. Clarence Birdseye had perfected his process for flash-freezing foods in 1927 and sold it to the General Foods Corporation, but before frozen food could gain any broad popularity, better commercial freezer cases had to make their way into supermarkets. To facilitate self-service shopping, packaging took on a markedly increased importance. Where previously many items had been distributed to stores in bulk containers and broken down, or packaged individually for each patron, most groceries now had to arrive at the store already wrapped and boxed in what producers judged to be convenient sizes. Finally, as more women joined the work force during the Second World War, the time set aside for cooking the family meals dwindled. Processed and precooked foods came along to fill the gap.
It is probably fair to suggest that the advent of mass marketing made mass media advertising inevitable. It seems equally valid, though, to surmise that without advertising mass marketing could not have endured. Again a mutually dependent relationship evolved. In the supermarket, advertising and packaging merged. The product’s package acquired an added responsibility, having not only to supply protection in transit to the store but also to project a unique and identifiable image on the shelf. Much of what we have come to regard as typical about consumer advertising developed in conjunction with the supermarket.
In a 1952 report on supermarkets, Business Week quoted the industry pioneer Roy Dawson, who had predicted as early as 1933: “Some day, supermarkets will do nearly all of the business all over the country. It’s inevitable because it’s cheaper, because people have automobiles, and because they like to shop. It’s the new method of retailing.” Dawson’s reasoning was as accurate as his forecast. From the first, supermarkets sought to make shopping an entertainment rather than a chore. In the main they succeeded. Piped-in music, bright lights, and colorful displays, in some cases even in-house child care, coffee shops, and lounges—all contribute to the sense of a visit to the supermarket as a pleasure trip. Indeed, shopping has become a social phenomenon. In Washington, D.C., where there is a preponderance of young, single people, the Georgetown Safeway is highly regarded as a place to go looking for potential dates. And the suburban shopping mall—the supermarket’s direct descendant—is typically filled with browsers who go there primarily to pass the time.
Supermarkets cannot be called the cause of highway shopping malls and strip development, nor are they to blame for the decline of the nation’s downtowns. That unhappy honor belongs to the automobile. But the supermarket undeniably blazed trail by demonstrating conclusively that consumers would go out of their way to shop. The same reasoning that led Mike Cullen to an empty garage in Queens prodded other sorts of merchants to follow, taking up residence on the city’s edge. Large spaces, low rents, easy access by car, and ample parking are as important to supermarkets today as they were to Cullen in the thirties.
The markets themselves have changed, of course. The first King Kullen unit occupied six thousand square feet and stocked about a thousand items. By the 1950s, when three new supermarkets were opening daily, stores averaged twenty thousand square feet and carried six thousand-items. Nowadays an up-to-date standard supermarket might sprawl over more than thirty thousand square feet of floor space and sell as many as eighteen thousand different items. Chains remain prominent, though some, like A&P, have recently been struggling.
The relentless drive for efficiency has come to be symbolized today by the new electronic check-out scanners. Reading the printed bars of the Universal Product Codes stamped on nearly everything sold, the scanners permit store managers and owners instant analysis of sales trends while eliminating the need to take inventory. The check-out line moves faster, allowing a reduction in the number of cashiers. Unknown a little more than a decade ago, the scanning systems are now operating in approximately ten thousand stores. Encountering one for the first time, listening to the stream of digital beeps, and reading the magically itemized register tape, shoppers might well react as their forebears did to Clarence Saunders’s Keydoozle and walk out “pop-eyed.”
Indeed, there is a cyclical feel to many aspects of supermarket history. Just as the Depression prompted the demand for lower food prices that helped push the supermarket into prominence, so the recession of the 1970s laid the groundwork for what’s been called warehouse or no-frills retailing, which some industry insiders suggest may be the next “new method.” I have before me a stack of supermarket trade publications, journals with names like Chain Store Age , Progressive Grocer , Supermarket Business , and Mass Market Retailers . These are service magazines, and what they’ve focused on mostly of late has been the emergence of the superwarehouse store, a concept that is to today’s standard supermarket what King Kullen and Big Bear were to the conventional grocery of the thirties. The new superstores and super warehouse stores are cavernous places, some of them as big as sixty or seventy thousand square feet. Like the first supermarkets before them, they concentrate on price. Most offer volume discounts and few of the amenities of a typical supermarket. Many sell goods directly from pallet loads of cartons or crates. Is this the shape of things to come?
“In a sense, the conventional supermarket in many markets has outlived its usefulness,” Ken Partch, the editor of Supermarket Business , says in an April 1984 editorial entitled “Will Only the ‘Big’ Survive?” “The causes for the great changes taking place in the ’80s appear to be somewhat similar to the causes of the ’30s, although there are also differences. The causes of the ’30s that gave birth to self-service were economic, social and psychological. These are the same causes for today’s great changes. Seen in that light it is quickly realized that this wave of change cannot be stopped but only temporarily held back.” Mass Market Retailers calls the superwarehouse store a “concept which has struck fear into the hearts of retaileVs around the country,” and to Progressive Grocer it is “The New Breed.” Writes Ken Partch: “If the supermarkets of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s could follow the consumer into the suburbs, then the … super warehouse store can now follow the consumer into exurbia via the superhighway.… In order for the independent to participate in the change to the new breed of grocery retailing, he needs access to things that only large capital and new operating methods and techniques can supply.” Mike Cullen would feel right at home.
I drove out to Queens not long ago, on a sort of pilgrimage, to seek out the site of the first supermarket. The day was cold and gray under a slanting winter rain. The decades have not been kind to Jamaica Avenue, as the neighborhoods it crosses have slipped inexorably from suburb to slum. At the corner of 171st Street I found Quasar Liquors, whose owner conducts business from behind a bulletproof Plexiglas shield. Most of the rest of the stores on that side of the street were long gone.
Across the avenue, where I figure King Kullen’s must have stood, the World’s Greatest Price Wrecker was nowhere in evidence. There was a discount auto parts supplier, a machine shop, and a nameless corner bar whose curled and faded window placard promised “Topless Go-Go Dancers 7 Nites.” The sidewalk was deserted.
This is America, land of the possible, where we keep our eyes fixed on the future and our backs turned toward the past, and nobody, I suppose, understood that better than Mike Cullen. The chain he established is still thriving, an institution on Long Island. Still, it seems a shame to me that this spot goes unmarked. If every inn where George Washington ever slept can count itself a shrine, then surely King Kullen deserves at least a small sign, one of those dignified little bronze tablets you find posted alongside secondary routes, framed in black and gilt. HERE STOOD THE FIRST SUPERMARKET IN AMERICA , it might say, and then, if Mike Cullen could have anything to do with it, SALE IN PROGRESS .