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The Origins of 12 Supermarket Chains

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From the days of home delivery to streamlined self-service stores, here are the stories behind 12 supermarket chains.

1. Albertsons

After 12 years as a clerk and manager for Safeway stores, Joe Albertson decided to open his own business. In 1939 Albertson formed a partnership with two other men, including fellow Safeway employee L.S. Skaggs, and used his life savings and a $7,500 loan from his aunt to open the first Albertsons Food Center in Boise, Idaho. According to the Encyclopedia of Entrepreneurs, the store featured a fresh bakery, an automatic doughnut machine, one of the first magazine racks in the country, and double-dipped ice cream cones called “Big Joe” that cost a nickel. Albertson, who made a $10,000 profit in his first year, opened two more stores in 1940 and surpassed $1 million in sales. 


One of the world's largest discount grocery chains was founded as a modest shop in Germany in 1913 by the mother of Theo and Karl Albrecht. The brothers took over their mother’s small business after World War II and began shaping the company into what it is today. By choosing not to spend money on advertising and opening small, no-frills stores with a limited selection of goods, the Albrecht brothers were able to offer lower prices than their competitors. ALDI opened its first store in the United States in southeastern Iowa in 1976 and initially carried only 500 products. Today, the company boasts more than 1,000 stores with a greater selection of products in over 30 states.

3. Food Lion

Ildar Sagdejev, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1957, former Winn-Dixie employees Ralph Ketner, Brown Ketner, and Wilson Smith opened the first Food Town supermarket in Salisbury, North Carolina. A decade later, the trio's empire had only grown to seven stores, so the company began using giveaways and promotions to lure customers. That year, Ralph Ketner reportedly spent three days in a Charlotte motel analyzing Food Town’s sales. After crunching the numbers, Ketner determined that the company could slash prices on 3,000 items and still turn a profit if sales increased by 50%. The strategy sparked rapid growth and prompted the introduction of a new slogan: LFPINC—Lowest Food Prices in North Carolina. “Our bumper stickers, highway signs, everything zeroed in on LFPINC, and each year we continued to cut prices, and it just fed on itself,” Ketner told Fortune in 1988. When Belgian supermarket chain Delhaize purchased a majority stake in Food Town in 1974, the company prepared to open stores in Tennessee and other neighboring states. During this expansion, Delhaize decided to rebrand the store for several reasons, not the least of which was that Tennessee already had an established chain called Food Town. Ketner lobbied for Food Lion since Delhaize’s logo featured a lion, and the change would only require switching two letters in the name. From 1977 to 1987, the chain opened more than 400 new stores.

4. Kroger

Barney Kroger used his life’s savings of $372 to open his first store, The Great Western Tea Company, in downtown Cincinnati in 1883. By 1902, Kroger had opened 40 stores and incorporated his chain as the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company. Less than 20 years later, the company had grown to more than 5,000 stores nationwide. Kroger’s stores featured bakeries and were among the first to combine meat markets and grocery stores under one roof. He advertised regularly in newspapers and started a private-label line of goods, including sauerkraut and pickles made by his mother. Kroger retired in 1928, but the company continued to grow and remained a pioneer in the industry. In 1972, Kroger was reportedly the first grocery retailer to test an electronic scanner. Today, Kroger boasts more than 2,500 stores in 31 states and sales of more than $100 billion.

5. Piggly Wiggly

Clarence Saunders changed the way that people shopped for groceries when he opened the first Piggly Wiggly in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee. Traditionally, a customer would present a list of groceries to a store clerk, who would gather the goods off the shelves while the customer waited. Saunders’ first store featured shopping baskets and open shelves that enabled customers to shop on their own. Time described the stores as cafeteria-groceries. The origin of the Piggly Wiggly name is unknown. When asked why he chose the name, Saunders once replied, “So people will ask that very question.” Saunders lost more than $3 million after attempting to corner the market on Piggly Wiggly stock and left the company in 1923. In 1937, he opened Keedoozle, the first fully automated grocery store. 

6. Ralphs

In 1872, 22-year-old bricklayer George Albert Ralphs lost an arm in a hunting accident and was forced to find a new occupation. Ralphs took a job at a grocery store in downtown Los Angeles and saved enough money to open his own store with his brother two years later. Ralphs Bros. Grocery provided lodging for farmers who came to Los Angeles to sell their crops, enabling its founders to establish a good relationship with some of their main suppliers. By 1928, Ralphs, had 10 cash-and-carry stores. As Ralphs grew over the next several decades, it opened bakeries, creameries, and floral departments in its stores. In 1978, Ralphs introduced a line of Plain Wrap products, an alternative to name-brand items. Today, Ralphs is the largest subsidiary of Kroger.

7. Safeway

In 1912, Sam Seelig opened the first grocery store bearing his name in Los Angeles. By 1922, the Seelig’s chain had grown to 71 stores. When Seelig decided to leave the company to enter the real estate business two years later, a contest was held to rename his stores. "Safeway" - a reference to the chain’s cash-and-carry policy - was the winning submission. While many grocery stores at the time offered credit, Seelig’s did not, making it the “safe way” to shop and avoid falling into debt. Safeway’s 322 stores merged with M.B. Skaggs’ chain of 428 stores in 1926 and was first listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1928. 

8. Shaw’s

Shaw’s traces its roots to Portland, Maine, where George C. Shaw opened a tea shop in 1862. In 1919, Maynard A. Davis, who owned a small chain of grocery stores in Massachusetts called Brockton Public Market (BPM), purchased the George C. Shaw Company. The two entities continued to grow over the next several decades, opening stores throughout New England. In 1978, BPM stores changed their name to Shaw’s Supermarkets to streamline the marketing and advertising efforts of the two companies, which formally merged one year later.

9. Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s began in 1958 as a small chain of convenience stores called Pronto Markets. In 1967, owner Joe Coulombe decided his stores were too similar to 7-Elevens, changed the name of his company, and opened the first Trader Joe’s in Pasadena, California. Coulombe stocked his stores with unique food items and attracted a strong base of environmentally conscious consumers by publishing the Trader Joe’s Insider Report, which included commentary on conservation issues and stories about the various wines the store sold. (The newsletter is still published today as the Fearless Flyer.) In 1977, Trader Joe’s introduced the first “Save-A-Tree” brown canvas bag, and in 1993, the company opened its first store outside of California. The first bottles of Charles Shaw, better known as “Two Buck Chuck,” debuted in 2002.

10. Vons

Charles Von der Ahe, who grew up in the grocery business as a delivery boy and clerk, opened his first store in downtown Los Angeles in 1906. Von der Ahe leased his storefronts to produce sellers and butchers, an idea that would lay the foundation for the first supermarket. By 1928, Vons had grown to more than 80 stores. Von der Ahe sold the chain in 1929, but his sons re-launched the business four years later and opened a supermarket that offered self-service produce, meat, and deli departments in 1948. The business expanded to 159 stores during the 1970s and experienced additional growth during the 1980s after being designated the official supermarket of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Today, Vons remains prominent in Southern California as a division of Safeway.

11. Wegmans

Wegmans was founded in 1916 by John and Walter Wegman as the Rochester Fruit and Vegetable Company. Wegmans stores were incorporated as Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., in 1931 after the brothers opened a 20,000-square-foot store in Rochester that featured a cafeteria, meats, produce, groceries, dairy products, and baked goods. Over the next few years, Wegmans introduced refrigerated display windows, vaporized water sprays in the produce section, and homemade candy. Wegmans launched a line of private-label products in 1979 and opened its first store outside of New York in 1993. 

12. Whole Foods

David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

University of Texas dropout John Mackey and his girlfriend, Renee Lawson Hardy, opened SaferWay Natural Foods in Austin, Texas, in 1978. Mackey and Hardy lived in the store and bathed using the water hose from the Hobart dishwasher. Two years later, with some help from his dad, Mackey raised about $200,000 to expand his business. He and Hardy partnered with Craig Weller and Mark Skiles, owners of the nearby Clarksville Natural Grocery, to open the first Whole Foods Market. The store was an instant success and attracted a loyal following. While it carried a huge line of natural and organic products, Whole Foods differentiated itself from the handful of other natural food stores of the time by catering to vegetarians and carnivores alike and carrying refined sugar and eggs. The Whole Foods chain expanded to 10 locations, including Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, and Palo Alto, by 1990.

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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.


It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.


It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.


While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.


It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.


May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.


Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.


Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.


American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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