Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest submission from HHR’s good friend Anonymous in Houston with the photos taken by Mike, who has recently published a new page covering the history of Henke & Pillot.
In Houston at least, Kroger has long had a reputation as being a ‘middle of the road’ type of grocer. This has helped Kroger in many ways as the combination of good prices and a traditional supermarket experience appeals to many shoppers and, thus, it has kept Kroger at or near the top of the Houston grocery market share list for decades. That said, as chronicled in February’s The Year of Kroger post about the Cypress Station Kroger, this opened the door for Randall’s to match Kroger’s market share back in the late 1980s and early 1990s by having nicer stores, better service, and only slightly higher prices than Kroger. Thus, Kroger launched their Kroger Signature stores in 1993 to improve their image while still maintaining their ‘Cost Cutter’ prices.
The Kroger Signature format ultimately proved to be a major success for Kroger. At least initially, the Kroger Signature format proved most successful in parts of town where Kroger was traditionally strong, working-class and middle-class areas, as it helped Kroger fight off Randall’s as Randall’s made their push into working-class and more traditional middle-class areas in the 1990s with their New Generation stores. Randall’s move to lower-income areas was ultimately mostly a failure as most remaining Houston Randall’s stores are in more wealthy areas of town.
That said, around the turn of the millennium, Randall’s was still a formidable competitor in wealthier parts of town where Kroger’s more ‘middle of the road’ image was perhaps a hindrance to Kroger. With that, Kroger continued to fine tune their Signature format to make it appealing to shoppers demanding a higher-end shopping experience. We got a look at one of these higher-end stores back in July’s The Year of Kroger post about the Galveston Kroger Signature store which opened in 2000. While Galveston isn’t necessarily a wealthy part of town, there are some wealthy shoppers who live on the Island and there are also tourists willing to spend money at a store with a convenient beach-front store like the Galveston Kroger.
Today, we’ll be looking at another turn-of-the-millennium Kroger Signature store, the West University Place Kroger, HO-314, located at 5150 Buffalo Speedway, Houston, TX 77005. Kroger HO-314 sits right outside the city limits of West University Place, a wealthy urban bedroom community located in the Southwest Houston area. West University Place name refers to nearby Rice University. Not far from West University Place, or West U as locals call it, are some other wealthy residential parts of Houston, such as River Oaks and Bellaire, and the Greenway Plaza business district. Sports fans will know of this area as the home of The Summit, the former home of the Houston Rockets basketball team and Houston Aeros ice hockey team. Highway 59/Interstate 69 separates Greenway Plaza from the West U area.
One close neighbor to Kroger HO-314 is KTRK-TV, Channel 13. KTRK, an ABC O&O station, is arguably Houston’s most prestigious local television channel thanks in large part to having legendary on-screen talent such as Marvin Zindler, Dave Ward, and the rest of the Eyewitness News team. The iconic original part of KTRK’s studios next to the Kroger is shaped like a dome in order to maximize studio space. The iconic Houston Astrodome’s shape was influenced by the KTRK studios. Thus, given the prominence of KTRK in the area, some Houston retail enthusiasts refer to Kroger HO-314 as being the ‘KTRKroger’.
Kroger’s history in the West U area is a bit spotty. Henke & Pillot, which was purchased by Kroger in 1955, had a presence in the famous Rice Village Shopping Center between 1939 and 1972. Henke & Pillot/Kroger had to share Rice Village with fellow grocers Weingarten’s and Rice Food Markets. After this, however, West U shoppers had to travel a little bit further out to go Krogering. A Kroger Superstore HP-227 operated between 1977 and 1989 at 3401 Kirby Dr, Houston, TX 77098 in the Upper Kirby district. The main retailer in that spot today is Office Depot who has been there since 1990. Even today, the Office Depot still looks very much like a Kroger Superstore. HP-277 was essentially replaced by Kroger HO-386 located at 5610 Gulfton St, Houston, TX 77081. The Gulfton Kroger operated between 1987 and 2011. In the stores latter days, it operated as a Kroger Super Mercado Hispanic-format store. Those familiar with the Gulfton area today might be shocked to read that this store served the West U area, but when Kroger planned that location, Gulfton was still a trendy area most famous for the Colonial House Apartments. By 1987, that trendy reputation was falling apart fast just like the reputation of the Colonial House/Lantern Village Apartments, but nonetheless, the Gulfton Kroger was built as an upscale Greenhouse store with hints of the Signature stores to come as discussed in February’s The Year of Kroger post. Finally, shoppers on the south end of West U could shop at the Kroger Family Center store, HP-177, located at 2455 S Braeswood Blvd, Houston, TX 77030. This store opened in 1980 and operated until around 2000 when it was replaced by the KTRKroger and, later, it was also replaced by a Krogertsons located next door, HO-740 located at 7747 Kirby Dr, Houston, TX 77030, in 2002. Kroger Family Center HP-177 was discussed in June’s The Year of Kroger post about the Baytown Kroger Family Center store.
In order to make room for the KTRKroger, an apartment complex had to be torn down that was on the land that eventually became the Plaza in the Park shopping center that the KTRKroger is located in. Mature oak trees on the property were retained and became part of the new shopping center. The KTRKroger opened on January 20, 1999 as a 64,000 sq. ft. Signature store with a Spanish-themed exterior like the S. Voss & San Felipe Kroger Signature store. The KTRKroger was the first Kroger in Texas with a Boar’s Head shop and the store featured Kroger’s U-Scan self-checkout system. In addition to those features, it had all the expected Kroger Signature features such as a power alley, a Bank United branch, and a video rental center. Not surprisingly, KTRK personalities, most notably Don Nelson, were on-hand at the grand opening festivities. In 2004, the KTRKroger was expanded to around 84,000 sq. ft. in size.
The KTRKroger opened with Kroger’s Millennium décor package. In the 2009, in response to new competition from the HEB Buffalo Market, which will be discussed later in this post, the KTRKroger was heavily renovated for a second time since the store had opened a decade earlier. The renovation refreshed the service departments, added a mezzanine seating area called ‘The Patio’ which expanded the store size to around 90,000 sq. ft., and the KTRKroger was one of the first Houston Krogers to receive the Bountiful décor package (also referred to as the 2012 décor package). Excellent photos of this upscale 2009 Bountiful renovation are available at a website run by one of Kroger’s contractors. Like the Galveston Kroger, the KTRKroger did not wear Bountiful for long as the store was renovated to the décor package it uses currently, Banner (also referred to as ‘Marketplace’). As always, I recommend reading Retail Retell’s guides at his Mid-South Retail Blog to the Millennium décor package and also to the Bountiful and Banner décor packages. One interesting aspect of the KTRKroger is that it sports local flair. Most interestingly, the store has a historic photo of the Henke & Pillot supermarket on Congress St., the location which now houses a bar called Henke & Pillot. Not surprisingly, the KTRKroger, being a higher-end Kroger, has vinyl flooring cover. The floor has a fake wood pattern in parts and also a Script/Fresh Fare décor package era checkerboard floor pattern.
Like other turn of the millennium-era Kroger Signature stores, including Galveston, the KTRKroger has store offices in an open mezzanine at the front of the store in addition to ‘The Patio’ customer seating area that was added in 2009 and remains open today. The KTRKroger has had various coffee vendors over the years including Jitters Coffee Bar, Starbucks, and Seattle’s Best Coffee. Starbucks entered the KTRKroger via the 2004 expansion, but the KTRKroger also briefly had a Seattle’s Best Coffee stand on ‘The Patio’. Today, like at other Houston Kroger stores, Starbucks is the only coffee provider.
Of course, the KTRKroger needs to look upscale to compete with a strong lineup of competing supermarkets. North of Highway 59, in the River Oaks area, are a number of upscale niche grocers such as Central Market, Whole Foods Market, and Trader Joe’s. Closer to the KTRKroger are two full-line supermarkets which also sit on the West U boundaries, HEB and Randall’s. The Buffalo Market HEB sits directly across Buffalo Speedway from the KTRKroger and is the newer of the competitors with the Buffalo Market HEB opening in 2009. The HEB, which sits on land which once housed a Luby’s Cafeteria and Buffalo Pharmacy, is a smaller than normal HEB, but HEB does try a little harder here to appeal to the higher-end demographics of the area by being somewhat of a combination regular HEB store and a Central Market store. Still, it is very much a warehouse-like store even if it is smaller than the KTRKroger. As mentioned previously, when the Buffalo Market HEB opened, Kroger made a pretty strong effort to make the KTRKroger even more upscale than it was initially, but in more modern times, some of the expanded service department offerings built in 2009 have been scaled back. The store still feels upscale for a Kroger though.
The KTRKroger’s long-time competitor is the Weslayan Plaza Randall’s Flagship, formerly Weingarten’s until 1984, located at 5586 Weslayan St, Houston, TX 77005. In fact, this part of town is one of Randall’s strongest areas and they even have a second Flagship store serving West U at the Vanderbilt Square shopping center at 3131 W Holcombe Blvd, Houston, TX 77025. It’s fair to say that the two Randall’s and the HEB offer very different shopping experiences with the Randall’s being the calmer, more traditional upscale supermarkets and the HEB offering lower prices in a bustling and austere-looking warehouse-type store. The KTRKroger exists somewhere in the middle with a store design that more closely resembles the two Randall’s stores, but with prices closer to the HEB. The Kroger is also the largest store of the bunch. With that, it is not hard to see why the KTRKroger is a very busy store itself, but all four of these stores do well.
In a bit of a rarity for the Houston area, the West U area is a part of town where supermarkets compete not just on price, but on the quality of the appearance of their stores and services. That makes the KTRKroger an interesting store to analyze. If you have any questions, memories, or other thoughts about the KTRKroger or the other grocers in the West U area, feel free to leave a comment below. We love to hear from our readers!