I’m not to far from that age when you start getting offers to join AARP in the mail. The neighborhood that I grew up in was a little isolated and behind the times, even for the sixties and seventies. The area we lived in had some of the oldest houses in the city, some of them dating back before the Civil War. We had a coal furnace until I was about twelve, for example. My grandfather went down to the basement where the beast lurked and fed it several times a night. At first he had to shovel the coal in by hand, then we updated to a stoker. You filled the stoker with granulated coal and it would shoot the stuff into the furnace at pre-set intervals. We finally got gas when I was just turning thirteen.
It was about that time that I actually set foot inside of a “supermarket” for the first time. They had built an A&P store within walking distance of the house. Up until that time you went around the corner to George’s carrying a list of groceries and he would cherry-pick them off of the shelves in the back room and put them into a cardboard box for you. The only thing that was up front was a milk case, the meat counter, and a couple of soda machines. Oh, I almost forgot, there was also a candy rack stuck over in the corner where the little kids couldn’t get to it. George’s was for the daily shopping, but if you really wanted to stock up on the canned goods, you made the two block trek to Mauer’s. That was my grandmother’s job, while my grandfather and me made the hour-long trek down to Soulard Farmer’s Market to gather fresh fruit, vegetables, and milk.
When I moved to the other side of town to live with my parents, the grocery stores of choice were Tom Boy’s and Cook’s Market, and finally Kroger’s. Most large metropolitan areas have a big selection of supermarket chains to choose from, but in St. Louis, that is not the case. The last national chain, Kroger’s, abandoned ship back in the 80’s. Wal-Marts with grocery sections and Sam’s Clubs are starting to creep in around the edges of the city, but surprisingly, most of the Wal-Marts here only carry a small selection of food. Despite a long, drawn out union strike a few years ago, the family-owned chains seem to be holding their own, for now anyway.
Schnuck’s is the largest locally owned group of stores with a little over 100 units. They have been in business for about 60 years and have recently expanded a little into Illinois and Indiana. They were the first to start replacing the older stores with new 24-hour “super centers.” I’ve noticed that a lot of the 24-hour locations now close at midnight since the strike. The stores are well lit, clean, modern, and huge. I think that over the past few years there has been a race between them and their nearest competitor, Dierbergs, to build the biggest store. The prices overall, are competitive, but they seem to be a little higher priced on the non-food items.
Dierberg’s has always been Schnuck’s upscale cousin. Started in 1914, Dierberg’s located themselves in the more trendy and well to do neighborhoods. They were the first to have a full-service FTD florist in the store and first to have a full Video Center. (Schnuck’s has dropped theirs altogether). Dierberg’s also pioneered the store-within-a-store concept, offering such things as banking, cooking classes, European bakery, fresh fish market, and full-service restaurants in some of their stores. The deli department beats Schnucks and Shop n Save hands down. The thing is about a city block long and carries everything that you could possibly imagine. Recently they have added a full line of pre-prepared meals. Despite all of this, their prices really aren’t that much higher than Schnuck’s, even lower on some items.
Shop n Save opened its first store over in Illinois in 1979. Their concept was to eliminate the frills to save customers up to 20% on their grocery bill. The thing that I like about Shop n Save is that they have upgraded from the stacks of cut open boxes, generic plain label place that they started out to be. Now they look as good as the competitors and their prices overall are lower. Sometimes service is lacking though, with not-to-friendly employees and long waits at the checkout.
Straub’s has been in the grocery business since 1901. If Dierberg’s is the upscale version of Schnuck’s then Straub’s is the upscale version of Dierberg’s. The small specialty markets are usually the last resort if you are looking for a hard to find food item, but not really practical for your everyday shopping. And they are pricey.
It took a bit of searching, but I was amazed to find out that there still is a Tom Boy Market in St. Louis on Donovan Street in St. Louis hills. It is said they have the best meat counter in town. Maybe there is hope for the neighborhood grocery after all.