Before H-E-B, before Randalls, Houston was ruled by a different grocery chain. Even before Kroger or franchises like Minimax and Lucky 7, there was a grocer many of us still know by name, Weingarten’s. Shutting down most operations 40 years ago, it’s incredible that so many still have such a fond place in their heart for Weingarten’s. Why did people love Weingarten’s so much, well, that’s a complicated question, but the answer is mainly in the company’s history. Weingarten’s started out as a local grocer next to Houston’s Market Square in the early 1900s, just as “grocery shopping” was becoming fashionable. The store would be one of the first in Houston to adopt a self-service model, only about a year after it debuted at Piggly Wiggly. By keeping ahead of trends, Weingarten’s established itself as many Houstonian’s favorite grocery chain. To do this, Weingarten’s would try to stay ahead of the technology curve, implementing basic things, like shopping carts, refrigerated cases, and even air conditioning, years before the competition. Next, the operations were very community focused; whatever town Weingarten’s was in, they would donate, sponsor events, and, most importantly, employ people with fair wages. Finally, Weingarten’s had some of the best locations in town. Large in part thanks to their in-house realty division, which planned not only new stores but entire new shopping centers, the grocery stores often served as community landmarks. By the late 50s, Weingarten’s was operating in four states and looked like it might be ready to become a more dominant regional grocer. However, the reality was that after nearly 50 years of continuous growth, the family began losing their focus on groceries. The realty arm of the business was bringing in large amounts of money. Even in places where Weingarten’s stores had failed, they could still turn a profit by leasing out the space.
When Grand Union took ownership of Weingarten’s in 1979, they inherited a few problems. Nothing unfixable, but issues that, if left unattended, would eventually have drastic effects. Much of this fell back to the mid-70s when it became apparent that Weingarten’s was not the force it once had been. With more senior members of the Weingarten family dying off quickly, the number of “idea men” behind the chain was in short supply. Many stores dated back to the fifties and sixties were now competing with brand-new Safeway and Eagle outlets. The ever-increasing value of the property as real estate pushed the family to sell the stores and keep the property. Despite most Houstonians remembering Grand Union as picking up the chain directly, the buyer was actually a company named Cavenham Industries. A British-owned company Cavenham also recently purchased Eastern supermarket operator Grand Union and had been working on expanding into the South via Florida. The idea was to merge the two into a “mega” regional chain able to compete in the modern realm. It was a task that would be possible but would require a great deal of money and focus from Grand Union. For the first few years under new ownership, Weingarten’s was essentially left alone, fulfilling commitments it had made to the Realty Company when they were still connected. However, that was not to say that Cavenham had no control.
1980 was the start of the end for Weingarten’s, even though it wasn’t plainly obvious quite yet. A few months after taking control, Cavenham replaced senior Weingarten’s personnel with Grand Union employees. While Grand Union wasn’t failing, the two different corporate cultures clashed. Weingarten’s had been pretty open toward their employee’s suggestions. Whereas with Grand Union, you were expected not to question decisions. The stores which Grand Union had inherited were a wild mismatch of locations. Weingarten’s seemed to have a case of “feature creep” when deciding just how big they would want to be. With stores across three states, and a mix of urban, suburban, and even rural stores, variety was essential. The River Oaks Weingarten’s wouldn’t carry something like Chicken Feed, which might be found in a store like Texarkana. However, Texarkana wouldn’t have Caviar, which River Oaks absolutely would. According to former employees, managers were advised to keep a pulse on their neighborhoods and invited to change selection accordingly by Weingarten’s. Unfortunately, though, Grand Union took a completely opposite approach, wanting to have all stores identically stocked, which means if you shopped a Grand Union in New York and a Weingarten’s in Louisiana, you could buy essentially much all the same products.
Weingarten #8136 – 15152 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77083 – The Final Houston Store
Within about two years of their purchase, it seemed that Cavenham had finally grasped what they had actually bought in Houston. To try and help improve the direction of the chain, Grand Union would receive the directive to end Weingarten’s operations outside of the Houston area. While it did make sense to an extent, this was likely a foolish move. To Grand Union’s credit, Weingarten’s had given even less attention to their Arkansas and Northern Louisiana stores. However, the customer base was loyal, and the competition was considerably light. It seems that these stores and a few other locations in Texas were shed because Grand Union felt they could best apply their model to Houston. To understand Grand Union’s point of reference, it’s essential to know that grocery shopping in New England was quite different than the rest of the country at the time. The idea of “one-stop shopping” was still a novel concept and was considered a passing phase by some. The final stores Weingarten’s built were getting close to 40k Square Feet, and Grand Union was building stores closer to 30k Sqft. At the same time, competitors like Kroger and Safeway were quickly approaching and then breaking 50k Sqft for their newest stores at the time. Ultimately, Grand Union’s refusal to adapt to the market caused Weingarten’s downfall in Houston. A famous quote from a manager at a closing store goes something like, “I was allowed to sell wine, but not a corkscrew.” With the chain quickly sinking, a few new locations were constructed in the early 80s, some only lasting a few months, before Grand Union pulled the plug entirely by secretly arranging the sale of all but 1 of the remaining stores to Safeway, which is a story for another day.