Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest submission from HHR’s good friend Anonymous in Houston with the photos taken by Mike
In April’s The Year of Kroger post here at Houston Historic Retail, we took a look at the Texas City Kroger, the second oldest still-operating Kroger building in the Houston area. If you think that store is unique, we have a special treat for you today. As promised in February’s The Year of Kroger post about the Cypress Station Kroger Signature store, we will take a look at a Houston-area Kroger Family Center store here in The Year of Kroger series.
The subject of today’s post is the Baytown Kroger, HP-974, located at 1700 N Alexander Dr, Baytown, TX 77520. For those unfamiliar with Baytown, it is an industrial suburb on the far east side of the Houston area. Even though Baytown is quite far from downtown Houston, it is still predominantly in Harris County, the main county in the Houston area. Baytown, like Texas City, is heavily reliant on the petrochemical refinery industry. Long-time HHR readers will remember previous Baytown subjects on the blog such as the San Jacinto Mall, TG&Y’s AIM For the Best upscale discount store, and the Kmart that opened in Baytown in 1962 which was one of the first Kmart stores ever in the chain.
Given the similarities between Texas City and Baytown, perhaps it is not a surprise that the oldest still-operating Kroger building in the Houston area is in Baytown. While the Texas City Kroger has changed a lot over the years as it transitioned in various stages from a Superstore/SupeRx combo to a Signature store, the Baytown store has not changed as much. This lack of change at the Baytown store is a treat for us in modern times as it allows us to look at Kroger’s Family Center past.
A recurring theme in The Year of Kroger posts is that today’s Houston-area Kroger locations tend to be replacement locations for older Kroger locations. This is also true with Baytown. Baytown originally had a Henke & Pillot/Kroger location located at 900 W Texas Ave, Baytown, TX 77520. This is located on the land where the Dwight Lohkamp Tennis Facility is today. This location was replaced by the Kroger Family Center, the subject of today’s post, which opened on October 19, 1971. Baytown eventually gained a second Kroger location, HP-265, on Garth Road, 4533 Garth Rd, Baytown, TX 77521, in 1982 not long after San Jacinto Mall opened on Garth Road. The Garth Kroger was replaced by a Kroger Marketplace store, HO-150, located at 6315 Garth Rd, Baytown, TX 77521, in 2016.
The 2016 opening of the Baytown Kroger Marketplace store was not Baytown’s first experience with a Kroger store that also doubled as a general merchandise discount store. That first experience was, of course, with the Kroger Family Center store that opened in 1971. The Pleasant Family Shopping blog detailed what a Kroger Family Center store was like on their blog in 2009. I recommend reading that blog post. That said, the blog post does contain some inaccuracies about when Kroger started and ended operating Kroger Family Center stores. In particular, the post implies that the Kroger Family Center format was losing steam in the 1970s and that Kroger abandoned the concept during that decade. That might have been true elsewhere in the country, but that was not at all true in the Henke & Pillot/Houston Kroger division. Kroger Family Centers, or Kroger Discount Family Center as Kroger referred to the chain when the Baytown store opened in 1971, were still fully operational through the 1970s and into the 1980s.
The Henke & Pillot/Houston division of Kroger rolled out the Kroger Family Center to many markets in Texas and Louisiana, mainly mid-sized markets, starting in the early 1960s. Some of these markets were ones which did not have Kroger stores prior to the entry of the Kroger Family Center stores. Examples of this include Austin and Corpus Christi. In fact, one of the Corpus Christi Kroger Family Center stores is now an HEB. The Kroger Family Center stores built in the earlier part of the 1960s actually used the Henke’s Family Center name instead of Kroger Family Center since Henke & Pillot still had better recognition initially after Kroger bought Henke & Pillot in 1955. The Orange Leader newspaper has significant coverage of the 1962 opening (press the right arrow button on the link to see additional pages) of the Henke’s Family Center in Orange, TX, a small city located near the Texas-Louisiana border. Remarkably, this ~60,000 sq. ft. store, Kroger HP-950 located at 1600 N 16th St, Orange, TX 77630, is still in operation as a Kroger over 60 years later! While the outside design of this store has not changed much from the opening, Kroger did upgrade the Orange store to Signature status some years ago.
Kroger opened Kroger Family Center stores in Houston proper later in the 1970s-early 1980s such as the I-45 & FM 1960 store which was discussed in the aforementioned Cypress Station Kroger Signature post and the location at 2455 S Braeswood Blvd, Houston, TX 77030 near the Astrodome which sits right next to the Krogertsons which replaced it. The newer Kroger Family Center stores in Houston proper might have had a smaller selection of general merchandise than the older ones, but they still had an expanded selection of general merchandise as compared to regular Krogers of the time. This Houston Chronicle slideshow contains some photos from 1984 showing some of the general merchandise items sold by the Conroe Kroger Family Center store. As one can see, these stores eventually adopted the Bauhaus décor package famously used by other Kroger stores. This 1983 ad from The Baytown Sun (press the right arrow button on the link to see additional pages) shows the diversity of general merchandise goods that Kroger Family Center stores were selling even into the 1980s.
When Kroger Family Center stores such as the Baytown one opened, they were quite unique as compared to earlier attempts to sell groceries and general merchandise under one roof such as the early Kmart stores with attached Kmart Foods locations and similar setups from Target. While Kmart and Target separated their grocery operations from their discount stores and had different registers for the two parts, the grocery stores were usually operated by third-party operators such as Lewis & Coker in the case of Houston’s Kmart Foods locations, Kroger had a more unified approach. Although the Baytown store had separate entrances for grocery and general merchandise, the store utilized a centralized checkout area like a modern supercenter. That said, even into the 1980s, Kroger Family Center stores did accept credit cards, but they only did so for general merchandise. With that, and with the Texas Blue Law restricting the purchase of general merchandise on Sundays until the law was repelled, shoppers did have to be at least a little cognizant of the differences between groceries and general merchandise when shopping at Kroger Family Center stores.
As the 1980s wore on, the Houston division of Kroger did abandon the Kroger Family Center format. Kroger itself didn’t return to operating stores with a heavy selection of general merchandise until 1998 when Kroger purchased the Fred Meyer chain of hypermarkets in the Pacific Northwest. This led to Kroger returning to Family Center type stores with their Kroger Marketplace format such as the Baytown store on Garth. By 1988, many of the Kroger Family Center stores in non-traditional Kroger markets, such as Austin and Corpus Christi, had closed. Others, such as Baytown and Orange, were converted into conventional Kroger stores. In 1985, the Baytown Kroger Family Center spent most of the year undergoing a renovation while the store remained open for business. The completion of the renovation was celebrated with a second grand opening for the store on October 30, 1985. It was at this point in 1985 that the Family Center part at the Baytown Kroger Family Center started to fade away.
Kroger Family Center stores were quite large for normal Kroger stores after the conversions, but Kroger was slowly moving towards opening 60,000 sq. ft. standard stores even in the late 1980s as we saw in February’s Cypress Station The Year of Kroger post. As large as the Baytown Kroger Family Center store must have felt as a regular Kroger back in the 1980s, at ~56,000 sq. ft., it is now a little bit smaller than the Signature stores built in the 1990s. In fact, the Baytown Kroger Family Center store never did become a Signature store even when many smaller, older Krogers were converted to the Signature format in the 1990s and early 2000s. That said, in current times, the Baytown Kroger Family Center store has many of the features one would expect from a Signature store such as a pharmacy with a drive-thru lane and an in-store bank. In fact, the in-store bank at this location, a First Convenience Bank, is probably the largest in-store bank I’ve ever seen. The size and layout of the bank rivals standalone bank branches.
Perhaps the most unique thing about the Baytown Kroger Family Center store today is the unique layout of the store. This store uses a ‘reversed’ type layout with produce on the left side of the store. That itself is not totally unusual, but the produce is actually at the front of the store rather than at the side as is customary at many supermarkets. Furthermore, meat is on the side of the store near the produce! The oddest part of the store is the deli-bakery island in the middle of the store. Yes, actually at the very center of the store. This is very unusual for any supermarket, but it is especially unusual for a Kroger. The deli used to have a ‘Have a Seat’ seating area which likely closed during the Covid-19 pandemic and which has not reopened even though the sign for it still exists. The center seating alcove just added to the oddity of the center deli-bakery island.
This tour of the Baytown Kroger Family Center store is the first The Year of Kroger tour showing off Kroger’s Banner, also known as Marketplace, décor package. This Kroger received that décor in 2018 after spending many years with the Kroger Script décor package. In fact, this was one of the last Houston-area Kroger stores to have the Script décor package. Retail Retell of the Mid-South Retail Blog maintains excellent guides to the Kroger Banner (Marketplace) and Script décor packages. This store uses the low-ceiling height implementation of Banner even though it had normal Script décor in the past. One very interesting aspect of this Kroger’s ceiling is that it has the exact same type of jumbo round HVAC registers as 1960s and 1970s Kmarts. It is fitting that Kroger installed Kmart-like HVAC registers in this store given that the Kroger Family Center concept is rather similar to the concept behind 1960s Kmart stores!
Although the area north of State Highway 146 in Baytown has a considerable amount of grocery competition from the aforementioned Kroger Marketplace, HEB, HEB’s discount format Joe V’s Smart Shop, Aldi, Wal-Mart Supercenter, Target, and two Food Towns (one is a former Food Lion and the other is an Albertsons Town), the area south of SH 146, where the Kroger Family Center is, has very little competition even though there are numerous neighborhoods nearby. The only major competitor is Food Town’s third location in Baytown at 1700 Decker Dr, Baytown, TX 77520 which was initially a Walgreens’ Globe Shopping City discount store and Rice Food Market combination which provided the Kroger Family Center significant competition during most of the 1970s. Thus, with limited competition in the southern part of Baytown, the old Kroger Family Center will probably continue serving Baytown for many more years given their importance to the community.
That said, one very interesting aspect to the history of this Kroger Family Center store is that Kroger did try to replace this store with a brand new store in the mid-2010s. In 2015, Baytown awarded Kroger many concessions in exchange for building a new ~100,000 sq. ft. store at 1800 N Alexander Drive. This is back behind the current Kroger Family Center store and the land the new store was supposed to go on once housed a Gibson’s Discount Center. Kroger publicly announced the new store and a sign was placed for the new store on the property. By 2016, construction was delayed and Kroger was blaming the delays on HR hold ups with claims that the real estate people were building faster than they could hire people. Kroger said the opening of the new store would be postponed until 2018, but in 2017, Kroger publicly stated that construction of the new store was discontinued and the sign indicating a new store was coming was removed from the property. Members of the Baytown City Council were allegedly told that Kroger had to cancel a number of projects due to financial concerns at the company.
As we’ll see in a future The Year of Kroger post, this was not the only ‘ghost Kroger’ where Kroger announced a new store for the Houston area in the mid-to-late 2010s which ended up not being built. Ultimately, even with Kroger’s own public proclamations around a decade ago that the Kroger Family Center store was old and needed to be replaced, Kroger ultimately decided to renovate the Kroger Family Center store in 2018 by installing the Banner décor package and, by all accounts, the Kroger Family Center store will be the Kroger this part of Baytown will have for the foreseeable future.
Do you have any memories of shopping at Kroger Family Center stores? Do you have any memories of the Baytown Kroger stores? If so, or if you have any other thoughts about this Kroger, please feel free to submit a comment in the comments section below. We love to hear from our readers!