Howdy folks, today we’re taking a look at what is arguably the most significant grocery store in all of Houston. A humble Lewis Food Town located at 570 El Dorado Blvd, Webster, TX 77598. Starting out as a Randall’s in 1984, this grocery store served an important role only a few years later as an impromptu stop by Soviet politician Boris Yeltsin. Aiming to see how “average Americans” lived, many have drawn a direct line between Yeltsin’s experience and his later role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We’ll get into the history of it a bit more, but first let’s start out with the story behind this store. Opening as Randall’s Store #30 in August 1984, there was little fan fare to accompany the development of this location. It debuted in the middle of Randall’s 1980s expansion which took them from a discount grocer to a decidedly mixed affair. For those who don’t remember, Randall’s of the 80s and 90s was the type of store where you could find Joe Six Pack shopping next to the Bobby Sakowitz. The 1980s stores all featured the same general layout. With service departments along the exterior walls, frozen foods in the center, leading back to the butcher. By the late 90s, Safeway had acquired Randalls/Tom Thumb with the intent on re-establishing themselves in the Texas market. Unfortunately, after a few years of diminishing returns in the increasingly competitive market, Safeway’s confidence in the Texas division once again began to waver. By 2005 sources began to indicate that Safeway may try to sell the division and once again exit Texas. While I could, and eventually will, write up the entire history of this period of Randall’s suffice to say a buyer was never found. Unsurprisingly, by the end of the 2005 a 26 location closure was announced within the Texas division, including the Webster Randalls. Stores remaining would be remodeled under a uniform Lifestyle theme and remain essentially in a status of differed maintenance until the Albertsons buyout.
Before we finish the history of the store, let’s talk about why Boris Yetslin’s visit was so important. As previously mentioned, Yeltsin was a Soviet politician who had been on the rise since the 80s. The political style in the U.S.S.R. was very one-sided, with very little information of government going-ons ever being officially given to the public. Elected officials offered little interaction with their constituents, and this was accepted as “the proper method” for government to operate. The reason for, Boris Yeltsin’s fame comes going against these exact principles. Yeltsin was known for addressing the public, responding to direct questions, and making unannounced visits to stores, factories, and other such locations to help his perspective of everyday life, which in the U.S.S.R. was quite different to the life of a politician. Eventually, Yeltsin found himself as the USSR’s elected representative in the Supreme Soviet (Basically the highest version of Congress among the republics in the Soviet Union), making him one of the most well know Soviet politicians both locally and abroad. During this time, Yeltsin had made multiple enemies within the government, as he consistently called for reform and change in a country that was known for being slow to react. With this new international prominence, he organized a goodwill tour to the United States starting in Washington D.C. where he would meet with then President Bush. By this point, Yeltsin was regarded as a leader of “the opposition” in the USSR, a group which legally or otherwise had not existed in their government since the early 20th century, and it seemed that he wanted to be known as the face of Russian reform in the U.S. as well.
Views from a Soviet Supermarket in 1989
Prior to arriving in Houston, the tour had taken Boris across many different cities including Chicago, and Dallas, with a final stop planned for Miami. It seems that most of what Yeltsin did in any town he stopped in was to call for Russian reform, and improvement in relations with the U.S., compliment the town he was in, and warn of the possibility of Russian Revolution. All pretty much staples of his persona in Russia. It seems that Houston was not originally a stop intended for Yeltsin, and was only added at the behest of Soviet Cosmonauts who Yeltsin was planning to defund. The Houston visit was to be a quick stop over, with his private plane likely landing at Ellington Field, and then being escorted to Mission Control and given a tour of the facilities. The Cosmonauts hoped this view of “what their program could be” would be enough to save their own Space Shuttle program. While impressed by the NASA digs, the Soviet leader ultimately left with his views unchanged, and possibly some extra time left. At this point Yeltsin would make a request, that he had often made in his home country, but had been so far unable to do in the United States. He wanted to drop into a “normal supermarket”, and was granted an unscheduled stop of 20 minutes at the Webster Randall’s, which was accompanied by a small group including a Houston Chronicle photographer. The experience left Yeltsin both impressed and conflicted. While he had constantly called for reform, it seemed to be common belief in the U.S.S.R. that our average citizens had it “just as bad” as theirs did. It seems that this trip to Randall’s shattered that illusion for Yeltsin. Remarking on Randall’s in public, he said that even Soviet Premier Gorbachev didn’t have this level of selection. He was reported as saying privately during his plane ride to Miami, “What have we done to our poor people?”. During his visit to the store, Yeltsin even went so far as to ask questions of employees and other shoppers. Like what certain items cost, or whether being manager required a special degree all while being given free samples of all sorts of items, after initially being offered the customary sample slice of meat and cheese in the deli. Yeltsin would be very vocal in Russia about his trip to America, especially his experiences at Randall’s and how it proved the American standard of living.
Getting back to grocery store history, this Randall’s would sit vacant for the two years following its 2005 closing. Unfortunately, during this time, many “last vestiges of Randall’s decor” were stripped from the building, likely sent to other locations to help patch up the shoestring Lifestyle conversions most remaining locations received. In 2007 work began on the vacant structure, as Randall’s auctioned off any remaining fixtures, likely in order to put this property on the market. The Gerland family would quickly find their way to this property, opening their store in 2009. While the vinyl tile flooring, and decor pieces were all replaced, most other aspects of the original Randall’s remain. Including the ceramic tile service department flooring, all original rooflines, and accent lighting over both produce and dairy. The store even still has the pharmacy spot open and extant, albeit as a “Dollar Spot”. There are however some notable changes, which include the removal of the majority of the coffin freezers (where this famous photo was generated), which was likely done under Randall’s as a cost saving feature. As well as the removal of all service department from the store, as was customary with Food Town operations. Although based off of some glass work I found, I believe the butcher counter may have still been running, or at least more open under Gerland’s ownership. This store was one of the existing Food Town locations that was transferred from franchisee ownership directly to the Lewis family in 2014 when Gerland’s ceased to exist, in a topic that has previously been covered on HHR. During the transfer between owners, there were a few changes in this store. For example, what was the pharmacy under Randall’s and an interior tenant under Gerland’s, was modified into a Dollar Center. The store hours were also reduced from the traditional 24-Hour Gerlands operations to 3-shifts per day. Some of the decor and signage was also updated to better reflect the slightly different product selection that Lewis had for their stores. Otherwise, the store still looks largely as it did after reopening in 2009.
Overall, this was a great store to visit. The “retro wow factor” isn’t as extant as the Randallsarama in Missouri City, but the historic significance of this location far outweighs essentially any other store in the Houston area. If you’re passing through the area, I’d recommend giving this place a stop. The store isn’t as updated as some of the other location, and doesn’t feature self-checkouts, which are increasingly common even at the smaller Food Town locations. It’s a nice pit stop for those driving along Galveston Road, and another Houston, retail relic. While you may not be able to exactly mimmick the Yeltsin freezer photo, you’ll figure something out!