An Overview of Springfield’s Lithuanian-Owned Grocery Stores:
By William Cellini, Jr.
1700 Sangamon Ave. market formerly owned by the Mankevich, Yucus, and Meiron families before it became Tapocik’s Market. Sangamon County Recorder of Deeds, 1967.
The enormous influx of immigrants into the United States in the years prior to WWI is often described as the Great Wave. While immigrants were lured to the U.S. by jobs in the labor trades, there was a cross-section who worked in food retailing, either opening their own stores or working for others.
In the Midwest, Southern and Eastern European immigrants dominated the grocery industry despite, in many cases, speaking little English and not even being eligible to vote. That’s because much of the grocery business back then was conducted at the neighborhood level, and grocers with family-owned stores spoke the language or languages of the immigrant neighborhoods where they were located.
Lithuanian-owned groceries, in particular, sprouted up along Sangamon Avenue and Peoria Road, south and east of the Illinois State Fairgrounds, in what was a “Little Lithuania” prior to WWII. However, neighborhoods throughout Springfield, Ill., before WWII, had segments of residents who spoke limited English and therefore, grocery stores owned and operated by immigrants often had an advantage in these areas over a native-born grocer.
By 1918, Springfield was estimated to have a population of 62,800. The city directory for that year revealed over 250 grocery stores operating all over town. A sizeable number of the owners had Southern and Eastern European surnames. At least 10 of the owners were of Lithuanian descent–Stasukinas, Yucabusky, Mankevich, Brioda and Casper among them.
In 1926, one Illinois State Journal ad listing dozens of grocery stores in Springfield mentions 26 likely owned and operated by Lithuanian-Americans. (Editor’s note: Since 1926 fell squarely within Prohibition, it’s likely that the number of Lithuanian groceries was boosted by what formerly had been taverns. Part two of this series will focus on several of these family-owned stores.)
Shopping in a Corner Grocery
Before supermarkets and so-called “mega-stores” existed, shopping at your neighborhood grocery meant that the owner or clerks guided you around the merchandise (consisting of dry goods and other non-perishable items) while you told them what you needed to buy. Store workers pulled merchandise from shelves and bagged it behind the counter, so the only effort you exerted was paying at the register. Items were also staged behind the counter so at times, there was no need to walk around the store.
With the spread of home telephone service, grocery stores provided delivery to your residence for a small fee. Yet, all this personal assistance had downsides. Getting the attention of store clerks or the owner on a busy day meant your shopping time was needlessly lengthened. In addition, the family-run store, while easy to navigate, suffered from a lack of new and rotating selection.
Until the mid-twentieth century in the United States, grocery shopping and store layout remained similar to the model utilized throughout the 1800s. Changes to neighborhood stores languished for several reasons. The proprietor’s family often lived above or behind the store, and to expand retail space was beyond what the family could afford. Equally significant, the lack of transport and refrigeration meant stores did not receive or have equipment to stock perishables. Furthermore, produce was seldom offered in a grocery store because pushcart vendors frequented neighborhoods, delivering fresh fruit and vegetables directly to homes.
(Editor’s note: And, as you can read elsewhere on this blog site, many impoverished immigrants leveraged their backgrounds as former agricultural workers to run small farms in their own backyards for fresh and canned produce and even meat.)
Store size restricted what could be purchased. Even larger chain stores of the early-1920s offered as few as 300 items. And, even when a family-run grocery was large enough to stock multiple deli products, customers paid for each item at its respective counter versus paying for everything at one checkout station.
Grocery Chains and ‘Self-Help’ Shopping
The 1920s ushered in a bull market on the stock exchange as the U.S. and Europe recovered from the Great War. In Springfield, post-WWI prosperity saw a real estate boom that resulted in the development of new neighborhoods that created opportunity for new grocery businesses. Across the U.S., people changed the way they went shopping, and that change was steered in large part by a business plan that transformed grocery store logistics, at least for many chains.
The plan was coined “self-help” It eliminated in-store credit**, brought merchandise standardization and allowed customers to examine and choose the items they wanted without pressure from store clerks. Tennessee-based Piggly Wiggly is credited with launching the self-help model in the U.S.
At its height in 1932, the Piggly Wiggly chain had 2,660 stores across the United States, including 23 in Springfield under the franchise of partners Leon Fisher, a local grocer, and Albert Eisner, Jr., a grocer from Champaign, Illinois. After Fisher’s death, Eisner took over the partnership and opened his own stores. (Editor’s note: In the 1930s, there was a Piggly Wiggly on Peoria Road at 11th Street in “Little Lithuania,” amid multiple family-owned groceries.)
The self-help shopping model was appealing to some women in the post-war era. According to one Piggly Wiggly operator in 1929, “A woman does not like to run a gauntlet of clerks looking over her when she enters a store. This is sometimes the case in stores where the clerks are not busy and loll over the customer…”
Another self-help grocery to aggressively expand in the 1920s was the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company. That chain’s roots go back to 1876, when Bernard Kroger took a job selling coffee and tea door-to-door for The Great Northern and Pacific Tea Company in his hometown of Cincinnati. Following the financial Panic of 1893, Kroger purchased numerous grocery stores that had fallen onto hard times.
By the end of the crisis in 1897, he owned 17 locations in Ohio. Kroger bought in bulk and sold staples, like in-store baked bread, at better prices than competitors–while offering enhancements like in-store butcher service. By the 1930s, the company was consolidating the industry, buying-out smaller groceries, including over 100 Piggly Wiggly stores in Illinois.
Springfield was home to Kroger chain stores from the mid-1920s until the 1980s, when its locations were bought-out by the National Supermarket chain. Today, the Kroger name lives on as the largest supermarket entity in the United States with over 2,500 locations in 34 states.
Economies of Scale
The aim of Piggly Wiggly was to cut labor costs when it first allowed customers to select their own groceries and take them to a cashier. However, the main competitive challenge that chains began to present to independent, family-owned groceries came from the economies of scale these chains benefited from on both the buy and sell sides of their business.
Grocery store chains bought enormous lots of goods and sold them in equal volume as quickly as possible through as many stores as possible. As major customers for processors and suppliers, they were able to demand supply-side discounts that translated into tremendous per-unit retail discounting. Due to their much higher volumes, chains reaped superior profits while offering steeper discounts over independent grocers. Profits could be ploughed back into growth, resulting in even greater market power.
With their size and resources, chains eventually became vertically integrated on the supply side, as A&P did when it took its processing in-house to bypass the middleman. The impact was made clear in a 1929 Chicago grocery analysis that found that self-service grocery chains had significantly lower prices on nationally branded items–underselling independent stores by an average of 8.82 percent to 11.54 percent.
Private-Label Brands, Advertising and the A&P
Prior to WWII, the foremost leader of chain grocery stores in the United States was A&P (Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company). A&P is credited with being the first grocery to build chain stores across the United States. Founded by George Gillman of New York, it was expanded in 1870 by George Hartford of New Jersey using a business model that called for no price cuts and no sales—but instead, narrow markups on certain items week after week.
Like the Kroger stores, A&P offered private-label foods such as their freshly ground Eight O’Clock Coffee and Our Own Tea to attract shoppers. By the early 1930s, A&P controlled one-sixth of the U.S. coffee market, and the chain’s business model paid off in 1930 when it became the first retailer to sell $1 billion in merchandise in a single year. By 1950, Time magazine boasted, “Of every dollar the U.S. spends on food, about 10¢ is passed over A&P counters… A&P sells more goods than any other company in the world.”
From the 1920s until the 1980s, Springfield had several A&P stores in various locations around town. The grocery chain self-help model coincided with targeted advertising campaigns for women promising low prices and customer independence. A&P’s advertising in the late 1920s (above) emphasized the woman’s role in the family and equated frequenting A&P with homemaker empowerment.
From Neighborhood Store to Supermarket
WWII brought a widespread slowdown in real estate development across the U.S., as manufacturers converted peace-time work to war production. This decelerated new grocery store development.
However, in the decade immediately following World War II, the chain grocery industry experienced rapid growth in the types of stores developed, as well the types of non-food items (mainly health and beauty products) offered in them. The Kroger Co. (its official name after 1946) was at the forefront of this trend with most of its stores featuring a full health and beauty product line by the end of the 1940s.
The average size of a chain grocery increased from 5,000 to 8,000 square feet at war’s end to 20,000 to 30,000 square feet in the early 1960s. This reflected a new business model whereby store count fell as stand-alone groceries were replaced with supermarkets. With the rise of the automobile and suburban development, larger stores with multiple product lines had increased market power from increased volume and were stronger magnets for the new consumers able to drive across town for sales and bargains.
Store consolidation by the national chains came to an end in the mid-1960s, when conversion to the supermarket model was essentially complete and newly formed corporate grocery entities began acquiring mid-sized regional chains. Throughout the nation, as well as in Springfield, the family-run neighborhood grocery lost profitability and appeal as its customer base sought the wider range of merchandise and discounts offered by supermarkets and commercial strips well outside the old neighborhood.
** Store credit, called being “on the book,” arose from the seasonal unemployment of coal miners and was a feature of the corner grocery business across Springfield through the 1932-36 Mine Wars strike and beyond.
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