Howdy folks, and welcome back! It should be no secret by now, that I have a bit of an obsession with Safeway/AppleTree. While I don’t really remember Safeway’s presence in Houston, I do have lots of distinct memories of AppleTree. In learning about AppleTree, I’ve also learned lots about Safeway. One fact, I didn’t originally know, was that most Safeways in Houston were built with an adjacent Eckerd location. It seems that the deal allowed Safeway to have a strong smaller tenant as a guaranteed neighbor, and as a bonus early Safeway locations weren’t built with pharmacies, so Eckerd would have a good client mix. It seems that the Safeway/Eckerd pact dissolved at some point. With Safeway building newer stores with pharmacies, Eckerd left the task of winning over Safeway pharmacy customers to other companies. It should be noted that the Eckerd deal was not exclusive with Safeway, and they often did locate next to other grocery chains, like Weingartens, during the same time period. Over the years, most strip center located drug stores have moved to out parcel locations. The advent of the drive-thru pharmacy was likely a big push in building freestanding drug stores from the 90s onwards. Of course Eckerd wasn’t the only competition in town so today, we’re taking a look at a former Safeway which opened in 1980, along with the former Walgreens next door.
The former Safeway is located at 4705 Highway 6 North, and as far as stores from the 80s go, it’s massive. The location clocks in upwards of 45,000 Square Feet, which is larger than the Walmart Neighborhood Market across the street! This would have been one of the biggest Safeways throughout the Texas division when it was built, at a time when stores averaged closer to 30,000 Square Feet. During their first round in Houston, Safeway put emphasis on building in new and developing communities, and this store was in a perfect location. The neighborhood of Bear Creek was already relatively established by 1980, with their own Eagle Discount Grocery serving the neighborhood for the past few years, but a new development, Glencairn along with expansion of existing neighborhoods had already attracted a Kmart to this plot of land West of Highway 6. With Eagle closing their store in 1985, Safeway essentially became the only chain grocery option for these two neighborhoods. Of course, Safeway would begin to experience company-wide troubles of their own in the late 80s, that ended with the creation of AppleTree.
By 1990 little had changed in terms of grocery options in the area, AppleTree continued unabated until a new challenger arose in 1990, HEB Pantry Foods. Unfortunately for AppleTree, HEB had their eyes on a couple of former Eagle locations. Prior to this, AppleTree and Safeway had only dealt with HEB in their standard format stores in the areas around Austin. Pantry Foods was specifically designed to be as cut-throat on pricing as possible. Eliminating service departments and any other extras in favor of jam packing the stores with cheap staples. At the time, AppleTree was in the midst of bankruptcy, and not just losing customers but also employees to new competition. The decision was made in mid 1992 to shut down this store for good. Within 2 years, the space would become Hobby Lobby, who would use the building until about 2005.
As for Walgreens, their store which opened in 1980 along with the Safeway quickly became the community pharmacy for many residents. However, by 1996, increasing competition in the area drove Walgreens from this spot. By this point, Safeway and AppleTree had been closed for nearly 4 years, so it’s likely that most competition was coming from places like the Kmart in the rear of the shopping center. An interesting side note, is that while most other Kmarts of this time period were moved into Venture stores, or had their building expanded for Big Kmart, the Bear Creek store managed to survive essentially unchanged until the chain pulled out of Houston. Almost immediately after Walgreens moved out, Dollar General moved in, and would operate in this space until 2001. From then on, it has served as a Family Dollar. Many external and internal cues hearken back to the former identities of these store as they appeared over 40 years ago!
My closing thoughts on this shopping center, would be that if you’re into retail, and it isn’t a hellish drive for you, then go and visit! I’ve been coming to this area for years mostly because my younger brother loved having birthdays at Track 21, but also remember coming here with my grandparents to visit the Kmart, and Hobby Lobby. Very little has changed at this property, but don’t expect it to stay that way for good! At the moment, this is likely one of the better preserved vintage shopping centers in the area. The buildings have been able to stand up to tornados, and other natural disasters but won’t stand up against redevelopment!