Lewis & Coker

Lewis & Coker was a small grocery chain based in Houston that operated for just over 50 years along the Gulf Coast. Its history can be traced to Lou Lewis and Floyd Coker. Lou Lewis entered the grocery business with his brother Joe around 1920 in Houston. The two brothers already had years of experience in retail thanks to their dad, who operated various dry goods stores. He had a robust store in Galveston, but it was destroyed by the Great Hurricane of 1900. The family relocated to Houston, and his sons helped establish the new store. Once the brothers were old enough, they branched out independently, moving into grocery. Their first location was Lewis Food Store, which operated near Market Square. Very little about the first store is known, but it successfully pushed the Lewis brothers to expand. The brothers identified the Heights as an area of growth and opened their second location there in 1929. At this point, they also joined the Red & White Co-Op, helping them to become a more modern store. The brothers store would operate under the name “Lewis & Lewis.” While Joe and Lou had worked together for years, their career goals drifted apart shortly after opening the second store. In the 1930s, a neighboring grocery store that had gone bust during the Depression was picked up by Lou without the help of Joe. The new store would take the name “Lou Lewis Food Market” and was a smash hit. The stores provided lots of funding to Heights organizations, such as funding their high school football team and making Lou Lewis a community fixture in the Heights. This loyalty to the area brought in customers hand over fist. While brother Joe would continue to run Lewis & Lewis, he would take the back seat compared to his brother. In 1937, the newest Lou Lewis Food Market was announced. The building was quite large for the time, and a portion of the space was reserved for a new post office, making the store a gathering spot. Around this point, Joe and Lou would dissolve their partnership, and Lewis & Lewis would close (the original Houston store had been closed for a few years.)

The Lewis & Coker at the Palm Center Photo Courtesy: KHOU/HMRC/TAMI

Lou Lewis had the premiere grocery store in the Heights at the time, but he no longer had a partner. Grocery was and continues to be a manpower-heavy operation, forcing Lewis to begin looking for an associate. The new Lou Lewis Food Market in the Heights was doing good business, attracting his suppliers’ attention. In 1942, after five years on his own, Lewis joined Grocers Supply Co. alum Floyd Coker. From what I can tell, Coker was originally a salesman with GSC, which is how he came to know Lewis. He would walk away from a promotion to vice president from within the supply company to take on becoming Lewis’ partner. While Coker’s initial role was that of a silent partner, the two were making plans for a bigger, better store for the Heights. The first store, Lewis & Lewis, was located on West 19th, which was already filled with side-by-side shops to create a small shopping district. The pair found half a block of homes adjacent to the Heights High School (Regan HS at the time) which was under construction at the time. The duo bought out the homeowners, giving themselves new land in the heart of the Heights. The new site would include a supermarket, hardware store, and second-story apartments. While it was constructed for and operated by Lewis & Coker, it would initially don the name Roberts Supermarket. The building was a massive (for the time) 20k Square Feet, and the hardware mentioned above store provided an early one-stop shopping experience. From what I understand, the name confusion comes from a short-lived plan for Lewis & Coker to operate only the hardware side. However, this would never come to pass, and Lewis & Coker’s first store would quietly open in early 1947, still sometimes referred to as Roberts for the first few months. This new store was again extremely popular, and while Lewis & Coker would use the new name on this store, the original one would still be named Lou Lewis Food Market. The new store was building an enormous reputation for the chain. Shoppers would come from outside of the Heights just to shop the new giant store.

Lewis & Coker’s reputation began to proceed the duo at this point. Their next chance for expansion came only months after opening their large Height store. Wildcatter and investor Glenn McCarthy wanted to recruit the duo to construct a store adjacent to his planned Shamrock Hotel. McCarthy’s plans could have easily been Houston’s first actual shot at a “modern mall.” The original plans called for the store to be named the Shamrock Supermarket and come in at a whopping 72k Sqft. The supermarket would feature an entire grocery store alongside hardware, sporting goods, electronics departments, and a lunch counter. It would be built as an entirely air-conditioned three-story structure and connect to other large shops. Construction was supposed to begin by the start of the new year, so the mall would open with the hotel, but in my research, it seems that no one other than Lewis & Coker ever signed on to the project, and it was eventually dropped. While the Shamrock project wouldn’t proceed, they may have been a blessing in disguise, as this allowed Lewis & Coker to focus fully on their existing stores when the large Heights location caught fire. As mentioned, this location also housed a hardware store, which worsened the fire. The oils, paints, and other chemicals held in cans exploded during the fire, hampering efforts to fight it. In the end, the shoppers and employees in the store, along with the residents and pets of the apartments above, were all safely evacuated, but the entire complex had to be written off as a loss. One story worth mentioning from the fire was the loss of a ring. A woman dropped off her recently departed husband’s masonic ring to be cleaned so that she could have it as a keepsake. While everyone involved was sure the ring would be impossible to find, an HPD officer guarding the scene accidentally found it, which was returned to its owner. Once the cleanup of the site was complete, Lewis & Coker would begin working on a new store for the site. This replacement store would be almost identical to the original but would no longer feature the hardware store—the replacement store opened in the summer of 1949.

A Lewis & Coker sign at an unidentified location. Photo Source: TMC Library Centennial Photo Display

On the south side of town, Lewis & Coker realized the Shamrock Supermarket would likely never work out. Glenn McCarthy had raised enough money to build the hotel and was dependent on crowds, which died down after the grand opening. Simply put, the hotel was far too big, and while the draw of constructing a mall would have likely brought in guests, McCarthy was in too deep. By 1950, it was apparent that work on the mall would not begin, and rumors of McCarthy losing the hotel started to spring up. Lewis & Coker were unhappy with this outcome as they identified the area as having massive potential for a modern supermarket. The exploding residential building had hardly been followed by commercial buildings, with Rice Village being the most prominent shopping destination. Lewis & Coker elected to build a shopping center at Greenbriar and W. Holcombe (Still Bellaire at that point), less than a block from the hotel, to compete and draw in likely some of the other planned players for the mall. This new store would be about 5k Square Feet smaller than their first but was the only complete supermarket in the area. Lewis & Coker Store #2 opened in 1951, just a year before Glenn McCarthy lost his hotel. For the next few years, Lewis & Coker would maintain their three stores as Houston’s growth appeared to be non-stop. In 1954, the chain added two more locations. One would be the old Lou Lewis Food Market, which had recently expanded into the old post office. The second was a location in the Palms Center. Again, these stores were large and popular destinations for shoppers. Around this time, Lou Lewis’s son Eugene became heavily involved with the business. Eugene had been helping his dad since the start, and with Mr. Lewis getting older, Eugene became the heir apparent. Mr. Coker also took a bit of a backseat; he was a bit younger than Lou, but with his other ventures, he was ready for an early retirement. The introduction of new blood into the chain was a good thing at the time, but it would eventually come back to haunt them.

The grocery market of Houston during the 50s and 60s was quite unique. We were one of a handful of cities that really held onto the idea of local chains over nationals. Even Kroger, who had planned to use their name here, opted to let Henke & Pillot ride for years before attempting to change it. Competitors like Weingarten’s, Gerland’s, or the then-new Randalls all tended to have loyal customers. This was an environment that allowed Lewis & Coker to thrive. However, the upwardly mobile Houstonians meant one needed to be careful when selecting a location. Going near a competitor could spell instant death, and L&C did not seem as gifted in property acquisition as their competitors, which meant they grew at a slower pace. By 1960, the chain was up to 7 locations, mostly around Houston, with the newest in Pasadena. It was obvious to all involved that L&C still had room to grow, and the company had a plan. Kmart was in a growth mode at the time. The national discounter had also adopted a practice of building grocery stores next to their department stores. The problem, however, was that Kmart did not have the knowledge or distribution channel to operate grocery chains. Unlike their merchandise, which was usually very national, grocery was still relatively local then. Kmart would partner with local grocers, operating the stores under Kmart’s name. In Houston, the selected operator just happened to be Lewis & Coker. While it was not heavily advertised at the beginning that L&C owned these stores, most customers could piece together clues, like similar selection and prices, and eventually run co-branded ads. Throughout the 1960s, the number of Lewis & Coker-operated Kmart Foods would grow, eventually surpassing the number of Lewis & Coker branded stores. Kmart was so impressed with L&C when they began to expand into other cities like Austin, Victoria, Corpus Christi, and even McAllen they brought Lewis & Coker with them rather than picking a more local partner. GSC still supplied Lewis & Coker, so a store could be operated anywhere they could deliver.

An ad from the 70s, show a new logo progression for L&C. Published in the Houston Chronicle

These new Kmart Food stores were a new high for the company. While many within Lewis & Coker saw the chain’s potential, it’s unlikely that the founders ever saw L&C growing this big or using another company’s name. Still, the chain was doing good and continuing to grow. However, the end of the ’60s would bring competition to the Houston grocery market. Companies like Eagle and Safeway would all descend on Houston simultaneously, creating a super intense grocery war. While previously stores had experienced wonderful loyalty, with a growing number of young families in Houston, prices quickly became the bottom line for many, and that was not something Lewis & Coker was great at. While they weren’t as expensive as a specialty store, their limited size made volume deals extremely difficult. Even co-ops like Minimax or Lucky 7 were able to run better specials. These new stores would also be much larger than the existing Lewis & Coker locations, some of which were over 30 years old by this point. L&C would still open a few new locations in Houston, but the 70s would become quite a slow time for the chain. Outside of the grocery wars, it was becoming apparent that operating outside the Houston area was stressing the company. With Eugene Lewis now at the helm and his father and Mr. Coker both retired, the chain would begin a hasty retreat that would end up drug out over the following three decades. The first locations to go were largely the underperforming Kmart Foods locations. By this point, Kmart was seeing a similar trend with other grocery partners throughout the U.S. Essentially, splitting your business was rarely a good idea. Kmart decided to stop opening new food locations and would start allowing Lewis & Coker to rebrand or break the lease at certain stores. By the end of 1977, 13 Kmart Foods/Lewis & Coker locations had been closed. For most, Kmart would expand into the spaces to expand their stores. The Kmart closings hurt, taking the chain from an all time high in the 70s of 33 concurrently operating stores down to 20. While things were not looking great, it didn’t seem like there was an impending disaster until there was.

In the summer of 1978, Lewis & Coker filed for bankruptcy. The filing was quiet and, while not totally out of the blue, did surprise many. One of L&C’s first actions during bankruptcy was to try and cancel union contracts. Beyond the obvious problems of the Houston grocery wars, wages at L&C were on the higher end. Most employees would agree to a reduction in salary on the condition that the chain might go under without the move. When Eugene Lewis was questioned about the status of his company, he explained that while business was not bad in Houston, there were existing Kmart Foods that were dragging the company down. Add this on top of increased operating costs, larger competition, and everything else that comes with a grocery war, and L&C could not win. During the company’s bankruptcy, they would continue to cut stores to help balance the books. Just over a year after filing, L&C was making money again, but the writing was on the wall for this small chain.  Throughout the end of the ’70s and the start of the ’80s, it seemed like at least one store would close every year. Larger competitors were running over iconic locations that had been in business for 30+ years, and with as small a company as L&C had become, they had no choice other than to continue cutting locations. In 1980, L&C proposed another wage cut, which sent butchers on strike. Even this small action was detrimental with five stores closing as a result. By 1983, L&C had only six stores; by 1986, they had only one remaining store. The location on 12516 Memorial Dr, Houston, TX 77024, which opened in 1962, was not a large or fancy store by any means, but it did have the great advantage of being one of the only grocers in the area. Many from the Memorial community loved their Lewis & Coker, and it was apparent that Eugene Lewis loved to operate his store. Anytime he was asked about the downfall of the chain, he turned it into an opportunity to speak about the pleasures of being an authentic neighborhood grocery. In 1995, Lewis & Coker would file for bankruptcy a second time. Blame was put mainly on the new nearby Randalls, and in 1997, Rice Epicurean would purchase the final Lewis & Coker, closing a brief but fascinating chapter in Houston’s grocery history.

Location List

Store No.
Address
Notes
11329 Arlington St, Houston, TX 770081946-1978, Demolished ~1990
22266 W Holcombe Blvd, Houston, TX 770301951-1983 Built instead of Shamrock Mall location, CVS as of 2024
35602 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 770561954-1984 Opened 4th, Men's Wearhouse as of 2024
4250 W 19th St, Houston, TX 770081955-1961 Opened as Lou Lewis Market 1937, Converted to LC 1955
55328 Griggs Rd, Houston, TX 770211955-1983 Palms Center, Still standing
69767 Katy Rd, Houston, TX 770071958-1984 Bunker Hill Shopping Center, Demolished during Katy Freeway expansion
7914 W Southmore Ave, Pasadena, TX 775021959-1974 Richmore Shopping Center near Pasadena Blvd, Demolished
82145 Red Bluff Rd, Pasadena, TX 775061961-1978 Family Thrift
97200 Bayway Dr, Baytown, TX 775201961-1982 Unsure
1012516 Memorial Dr, Houston, TX 770241962-1997 Final Location, Sold to Rice, Closed in 2015 with most other stores, Briefly Fresh Market, Total Wine as of 2024
119645 Hillcroft St, Houston, TX 770961964-1982 Still standing?
125241 Buffalo Speedway, Houston, TX 770051964-1966 Became an S&H Green Stamp Redemption Center
149180 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 770361972-1982 Welcome Food Center?
153100 S Gordon St, Alvin, TX 775111972-1981 Highland Square Mall, Demolished for Kroger
161031 Dixie Dr, Clute, TX 775311973-1977 Kmart Foods? Maybe just adjacent
172700 S Texas Ave, Bryan, TX 778011974-1977 Kmart Foods?
1812141 Katy Fwy, Houston, TX 770791974-1978 Kmart Foods
198425 Stella Link Rd, Houston, TX 770251976-1978 Former A&P, Later Food City
518315 Long Point Rd, Houston, TX 770551962-1977 Kmart Foods?
521402 Spencer Hwy, South Houston, TX 775871962-1978 Kmart Foods
531901 N Pruett St, Baytown, TX 775201962-1978 Kmart Foods?
545702 Van Fleet St, Houston, TX 770331965-1986 Kmart Foods?
5512401 S Post Oak Rd, Houston, TX 770451967-1977 Kmart Foods
561421 W 20th St, Houston, TX 770081967-1978 Kmart Foods
578150 Southwest Fwy, Houston, TX 770741967-1977 Kmart Foods
5811037 East Fwy, Houston, TX 770291967-1977 Kmart Foods
596401 Stewart Rd, Galveston, TX 775511969-1977 Kmart Foods
60630 W Little York Rd, Houston, TX 770911969-1977 Kmart Foods
614717 S Padre Island Dr, Corpus Christi, TX 784111970-1977 Warehouse Groceries, Former Kmart Foods?
624200 Pasadena Blvd, Pasadena, TX 775031970-1982 Kmart Foods
633333 Telephone Rd, Houston, TX 770231970-1986 Kmart Foods
643901 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 787041971-1977 Warehouse Groceries, Unsure
658701 Research Blvd, Austin, TX 787581971-1977 Warehouse Groceries, Unsure
661801 S 10th St, McAllen, TX 785031971-1976 Kmart Foods
673601 N Navarro St, Victoria, TX 779011972-1978 Kmart Foods

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