Howdy folks, and welcome back to Houston Historic Retail. Today we’re heading back down Highway 6 to the small town of Santa Fe. You may remember our last stop focused on a former Minimax that HEB had purchased and continues to run essentially as a Pantry Foods store, lacking service departments. This Arlan’s nee Big Chief we’re looking at today is actually a larger store than HEB, and more importantly, features service departments (deli, bakery, and floral). Let us get started by talking about the history of this store. The Arlan’s designation is relatively recent, with this location being bought out in 2011 when original owners Tab and Gail Watt decided to sell the store. The history of Big Chief prior to the Watts involvement is a bit hazy, but what I have been able to find is that the Big Chief name seems to have been developed in the early 50s by a grocer out of the Highlands. The name would be licensed to other stores with a total high of about four concurrent locations by the 1960s. In the 1980s, the Watts, who, as far as I can tell, were previously unassociated with the chain, purchased the rights to the Big Chief name with plans for a new store in Santa Fe.
The purchase of the existing name made lots of sense. The town of Santa Fe is named after the railroad that runs through the middle of it, with the Texas Chief passenger train passing through Santa Fe until the mid-70s. The town’s high school even took on the motif, using the Indians as their mascot. It seems that the Watts knew this branding would fit in perfectly and began work on a shopping center styled after the Southwest, going so far as to convince McDonald’s to add a teepee to their playground. During this time, the other Big Chief locations started to close, mostly due to increased competition. However, Watts attempted to grow the chain by pledging to purchase an AppleTree store in 1993. However, this transaction would never go through. While the exact details have been lost to history, it seems that some friendly negotiation took place between Watts and, at the time, newcomer Ames Arlan, who had an existing location near the store Big Chief had pledged to buy. This comradery would come back to assist Watts nearly 20 years later when he and his wife finally decided to leave the grocery business. When looking for a successor, the Watts wanted a company that would maintain its high level of quality and commitment to Santa Fe. After speaking with regional and national grocers, the store was purchased by Arlan’s, who continues to operate the store much as the Watts did.
Now this is a good looking store supermarket! This is certainly a much nicer looking store, and more complete, than the Santa Fe HEB Pantry Foods. This Arlan’s might not have been a Safeway, but it is not hard to see where the inspiration came from for many aspects of this store. That said, the entry vestibule and the artifical skylight are not typically Safeway designs so the ideas for those came from somewhere else. In some ways, those features make the Arlan’s look a bit more upscale than the average 1980s Safeway. Anyway, hopefully this store can continue to compete against the nearby HEB Pantry Foods store.