The supermarket is a 20th century development. In the past, those who were not able to grow their own food relied on small grocery stores, and specialty shops such as the butchers or the bakers. In more rural areas the larger towns might have a General Store that sold food, clothing, household implements and almost anything else for which there was a demand. In towns and cities, grocery shopping occurred on almost a daily basis. You took your list to the grocer and waited while the order was filled or you called in your order with delivery as an option. Selection was limited to what the grocer had in stock on that particular day. Since the icebox was used for storing foods that needed refrigeration, “stocking up” was pretty much limited to items the housewife had managed to preserve. As a result, purchasing and preparing food were time-consuming tasks. By the late 1930s, Ypsilanti had two supermarkets, an A&P and Packers Outlet, both located on Michigan Avenue; the A & P was on the corner of Grove while Packers stood near the intersection with River Street. Supermarkets would have a significant impact on American life. Less time was needed for marketing, more types of foods became readily available affecting the American diet, and the cost of many goods was reduced. Ypsilanti’s first two supermarkets had very different origins. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company was founded in1859 as a mail order tea and spice business by George Huntington Hartford and George Gilman. The company opened stores along the East Coast to supplement their mail order business. In 1912 John Hartford pushed for the development of an economy store, limited assortment, cash and carry, no frills format. By the early 1930s, A&P had 15,737 stores nationwide including a number in Canada. A&P developed a number of house brands such as Eight O’clock Coffee and Quaker Maid products. Clearly they were the Goliath of the grocery business. In the meantime, Charles Grosberg, a native of New York who settled in Detroit after his marriage, established a wholesale grocery business. His father-in-law, Joseph Wolf, was a retail grocer. The two businesses merged. A small chain of Wolf Cash Markets was established in and around Detroit, while the wholesale business continued to prosper. The Depression acted as an impetus to create a type of “hybrid” store, a warehouse type food store, self-service, featuring surplus or distressed merchandise from canners, packers and other merchandisers affected by the Depression. Grosberg would soon modify the concept to include national brands, meat and produce at lower prices than the small independent retailers. Grosberg was an innovator whose marketing strategy would later be adopted by merchants such as Sam Walton. He was ahead of his time in another way: he recycled buildings. He used industrial buildings, automobile showrooms, furniture buildings, and in the case of Ypsilanti, the car barn that once housed the Inter Urban trolleys. He needed at least 5,000 square feet for his operation. Initially planks were laid on sawhorses to hold the cartons of merchandise. Meat and dairy products were sold behind a counter and produce was weighed and packaged by clerks. My father, Don Porter, was the first manager of the Ypsilanti Packers. Dad had learned the grocery business while working for Lamb’s, a well-established grocer in the heart of downtown. He started out as a delivery boy in his teens and ended up as a junior partner. After he married, it became clear that he needed a position that would bring increased income as well as longer-term potential. An innovator himself, he was a natural to manage this new type of store. The grocery store shared a parking lot with Miller’s Ice Cream on the corner of Michigan and River. When you entered Packers you faced a row of five or six checkout stands. The meat department was on the left side of the store with produce on the right. There was a loft at the back of the store that served as the manager’s office. The center had aisles of canned and packaged goods. Eddie Mayfield, the butcher, was a particular favorite of mine. Occasionally, he would come to visit. One time when I was in the front yard he slowed his car as he approached and drove up with two wheels on the margin and two on the street. I found this stunt very funny and asked him to “Drive your car on the sidewalk, Eddie!” Eddie was a bit of a wild and crazy guy but hardworking. Later he would marry one of the checkers. Dad hired a number of high school and college students to carry out groceries for customers and stock shelves. Some of them went on to become leaders in the community. Vanzetti Hamilton, the late African-American attorney, used to say, “Don Porter gave me a job when no one else would hire me.” The store held regular promotions. One was for Phillip Morris and featured a visit from Johnny the Bellhop. I had heard Johnny’s “Call for Phillip Morris” on the radio and was excited at the prospect at meeting this “celebrity.” Johnny was a Little Person. I think I knew this but became very shy when I actually went up to meet this man who was about my size. Charlie Grosberg would come by the store almost every week. Dad got along well with his boss. After a meeting in the store, they would cross the parking lot to Miller’s where Charlie would treat Dad to a dish of ice cream. My father, who was also a skilled carpenter, shared his ideas on shelving and displays with Grosberg. Soon Packers Outlet became Packers Supermarket with Dad acquiring regional responsibilities for layout and shelving of new stores in the growing chain. The long hours, travel and talk of a pending merger combined with my father’s increasing community involvement brought my Dad’s supermarket career to a close. He went across Michigan Avenue to become a sales manager for Davis Motors. Less than two years later he was named Business Manager for the Ypsilanti Public Schools, a position he held until his retirement. In 1951, Packers merged with another chain to become Wrigley’s Super Markets. During the 1970s the large, chain supermarkets left Ypsilanti to establish stores outside the city. The city had one small supermarket in the downtown area. The neighborhood “Mom and Pop” stores held on for awhile but eventually most of them closed. Today, there is a growing demand for food stores in cities. Few of the existing chains have established urban markets. The Ypsilanti Food Coop on River Street reflects this need. Corinne Sirkowski, General Manager, reports that business has more than doubled in the last two. Charlie Grosberg’s innovations (i.e., recycling existing buildings, focusing on meat, produce and groceries, no frills with an emphasis on customer service) seem even more relevant today. Epilogue: A & P filed for bankruptcy in December 2010. Sources: 1. A & P’s History (available on the web), and 2. Charles Grosberg: a Supermarket Pioneer, Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, 1985. (Peg Porter is the Assistant Editor of the Gleanings and regularly contributes articles) Photo Captions:
Photo 1: An early Ypsilanti grocery store. The pulleys on the right held string or twine to wrap customer’s parcels.
Photo 2: Don Porter’s Roosevelt High School graduation picture. He began work as a delivery boy for Lamb’s Grocery while still in his teens.
Photo 3: An order slip written in Porter’s unique handwriting, a cross between printing and script.
Photo 4: The Ypsilanti car barn that was converted to house Packers Outlet.
Photo 5: Johnny, the voice of “Call for Phillip Morris” visited Packers on a promotional tour.
Photo 6: Packers, 27 East Michigan Avenue, exterior around 1940.