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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. 

2. ALDI

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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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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