Weingarten’s Food Fair is over, now it’s Lewis’ Food Town

Weingarten is a grocer I never knew, They were gone by the time I was born but oddly were still held in high regard. The chain folded in 1983, after a buyout in 1979. While many put the blame onto an over-eager chain wanting to expand but incompetent in running stores in unfamiliar territory. While this is partly true, the issue was in fact much broader and stems from a little-known origin story, which is that Weingarten was not directly purchased by its later parent, Grand Union. It was in fact purchased by a British company named Cavenham Foods, which also purchased Grand Union. The intent behind purchasing Weingarten seemed to be to support an expansion of Grand Union as a national brand. While the name would never be dropped, the company would quickly be integrated into the Grand Union management style. The biggest changes from this were updated signage to implement Grand Union’s Big Dot design, and a reduction in selection as Grand Union made store selection choices at an executive level, decisions which had previously been made by department managers. Some slightly more noticeable effects would include redesigns for some store entrances and a few entirely new stores built to Grand Union specs. During this era, Grand Union’s most distinctive features were arches in their entrances, which thankfully, today’s former Weingarten had no trouble pulling off. Thus it is not surprising that today’s Inwood Food Town, located at 6470 W Little York Rd, Houston, TX 77091 retains its original exterior and large portions of the original interior. This former Weingartens, may not be the nicest grocery store in Inwood, but is one of only two mainline stores at this point.

 

As a Weingarten this store would operate from 1970 to 1984, giving it just under a 15-year lifespan. While this was a relatively short run, that 1970 opening date points to underlying issues that led to a smaller chain picking this store up as opposed to another chain grocer. In this time frame, supermarkets in Houston had come under great pressure from outside competition. With longtime locals, like Lewis and Coker and Minimax finding themselves battling off not only national chains like Safeway, but newly formed regional grocers as well like the Lucky backed, Eagle Discount Center Supermarkets. Changes in retail had pushed grocers away from traditional stock with the early idea of building “superstores”. While we were years away from a Hypermarket situation, grocers during this time often found themselves having to increase hard-line stock, while working on keeping grocery prices competitive with huge chains. While it was a difficult undertaking, Weingarten had a decent pool of talent and resources to pull from during this time. However, despite their best efforts in dealing with the grocery side of the chain, the Weingarten family found themselves having much more success on the property development side. Within a few years, moves were being made to eventually implement a sale of their grocery chain. The sale was well-timed in a few ways, not only did the family miss out on an increasingly difficult price war, but they also left the business just as the idea of operating a neighborhood grocery store was evaporating.

 

When Weingarten was establishing a presence in Houston, it was quite a different city. Prior to World War II, we were a bit of a lame duck, a large city, with a good amount of industry, but it didn’t seem destined to last long. Thankfully with our wartime, reliance on oil and gas Houston began to and has continued to grow since. Weingarten’s predated this development, with their first store in Houston opening around 1901 (a few pre-1900 stores existed but none of them were grocery). As Weingarten’s developed and began building branch locations in the early 20th century, they were often located along streetcar lines. As time went on, and Houston began to rely more on the car, locations were moved closer to freeways, but many “neighborhood stores” located on streets once holding trolley tracks remained into the 1980s. While many stores had been relocated during the 70s, a good number of older locations from the 40s, with their tiny footprint, and cramped shelves were purchased in the lot by Grand Union. While Houstonians mostly remember Weingarten for their large-scale supermarkets, the smaller stores also made up an important part of their business often serving as the only grocer in certain parts of town. With little interest in running these outdated stores, a large number were shuttered once the Cavenham takeover was complete, and Grand Union gained control of Weingarten. However, on the flip side Grand Union was also slowly building new Weingarten locations. Only about 5 stores would ever be built, none serving as direct replacements for shuttered stores.

Once Weingarten’s head was finally on the chopping block, it was a toss-up to see who would end up with the stores. The locations that remained included some of the most sought after grocery spots in town. Anything deemed non-crucial having been lopped off either in the 1980 buyout, or the ensuing shutdowns since then that took Weingartenf from over 100 stores to just about 70 when they made plans to sell out. The chain would be divided up amongst only a few grocers. Safeway would take the lion’s share, and while they quickly gobbled up every high-performing location, some of the ones they were forced to take would eventually lead to growing pains as AppleTree. This location, along with two other Weingartens were acquired by Gerlands, just prior to splitting up the business amongst the sons of Mr. Gerland. As Gerland’s, and later a franchised Food Town/Gerland’s the store seemed to do well. While some of the service departments remained under Gerland’s, everything was streamlined during the Food Town conversion. This was done with the benefit of becoming more price-competitive in the area. While Food Town of 2022 isn’t doing great price-wise, they are still one of the only grocers in the neighborhood. If you get a chance to stop by, I’d say it’s worth giving it a look around. It may not feel like what I think of when I think Weingarten, but it’s no doubt a vintage treat.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for the article! I shopped here regularly back in its Gerlands days. We primarily shopped at the Safeway up North Houston Rosslyn so I don’t recall visiting this place as a Weingarten. I do remember the sign being changed from the original to the Grand Union red dot version.

    I cannot verify this but my mother told me that the store opened in 1977. My parents moved to the area in 1976 and were happy to have a nearby grocery store. The Antoine and Pinemont Kroger was their best option beforehand. I do know that North Houston Rosslyn was rerouted when the shopping center was built. Old maps show that the street was once continuous. Apparently the construction of the center coincided with Bingle being extended north and as a result North Houston Rosslyn was curved to the south and the section south of West Little York became discontinuous.

    Finally that enclosed courtesy booth is new. Back in the day it was on a raised platform but it was open. You could also see the safe and the computers that ran the front end. I imagine the enclosure was done for security reasons. Not a bad idea.

  2. That’s a great write-up about the history of Weingarten’s. I certainly do remember Weingarten’s and they are a much-remembered grocer in this area. While some like to call HEB a local grocer, and HEB certainly tries very hard to make themselves look Texan, we once had even more local major grocers like Weingarten’s and Randall’s that didn’t need to try hard to seem Texan in order to appeal to the local shoppers.

    Given how this Food Town looks compared to the neighboring Randallsarama and Food Town’s increasingly spotty prices, it is a bit of a surprise to see that the Food Town actually beats the Foodarama in Google user ratings. With that in mind, it seems that Food Town is doing what it takes to appeal to Inwood Forest shoppers. I’m glad that the residents in the area have found a supermarket that works for them, I’m sure the Randallsarama gets decent business from the locals as well.

    1. Oh man, the citing of HEB as the “local” chain in Houston drives me nuts, though it’s hard to blame folks who haven’t been here that long for taking HEB’s posturing hook line and sinker. Most of the grocery banners operating in Houston today, including essentially all of the “conventional” grocers, were here before HEB. Decades before in many cases.

      This is a great-looking Food Town, though. If there’s one good thing about the limited budgets of Houston’s smaller grocery players it is that we all get to see some classic architecture remain in place at their stores.

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