From the Homestead Kitchen: “Super” Markets in Los Angeles

by Alexandra Rasic

One of my favorite things to do when travelling, especially if it’s to another country, is to visit a grocery store or public market. I’ve always liked how different they can be from what feels like a very mundane shopping experience back home: rules might be different (for example, before the pandemic hit you were already expected to wear disposable gloves in Italian supermarkets when buying fruits and vegetables); and choices can be limited or endless in variety, familiar, or brand new. One is wise to simply take in the lay of the land before filling a basket.

I think we can all agree that grocery shopping at this point in time is anything but mundane. It’s foreign. Each and every time we step into a market it is with purpose. No lollygagging. We limit touching, try to keep 6′ away from other shoppers and staff, and cross our fingers that we can find what we came in for.

Unless you are an essential worker (thank you!), shopping for food is one of the few regular outings that adults have right now. One of the grocery stores that I visit in my neighborhood is Vons. Their signs are a familiar sight on our suburban Southern California landscape, like those of In-N-Out Burger and 76 gas stations. Vons was founded by Charles Von der Ahe in downtown Los Angeles in 1906. A native of Denmark, he immigrated to the US in 1889, first settling in Illinois. He opened Vons Groceteria at the corner of 7th and Figueroa streets the same year that he moved to LA. By the time he sold his business in the late 1920s, there were 87 locations. In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, two of Von der Ahe’s sons, Wilfred and Theodore, got the financial support from their father to start a new grocery business, the Vons Grocery Company, which is the Vons we know today. The family parted ways with the business once more in 1969, and today it is a subsidiary of Albertsons Companies, Inc.

Von der Ahe’s Wikipedia page notes that he helped make popular the system of cash and carry vs. charge and deliver. “He also pioneered the combination store concept, through his idea of leasing open storefronts to produce vendors and butchers, innovation which would eventually lead to the development of the first supermarket in California.” In 2018, the Homestead acquired a couple of images of a Vons market in Los Angeles, taken around 1915. The image below shows their branded awnings and a sign advertising an annual dollar sale.

Vons Store Front 2
Enticing displays welcome shoppers at Vons, cira 1915. 

Prior to supermarkets as we know them today, shopping in a grocery store around the turn of the century was more of a social exchange. A customer would often tell a grocer or shopkeeper what they needed and items would be pulled from inventory. Well into the 1920s, it was not uncommon to see cookbooks direct readers to ask their local grocers or dealers (as shopkeepers often “dealt” in specific items or brands) to recommend the best quality products. You had much more interaction with store staff. Some even learned your preferences and alerted shoppers to special inventory. So has the age of the small family grocery shop come and gone? No way.

Los Angeles Grocery Store 2010.288.1.1
Another image of an early Los Angeles grocery store from the Homestead’s collection. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US a couple of months back, many of us in Southern California were shocked to find near-empty shelves at our large local grocery stores. Out of both desperation and worry, people began visiting small local markets in and around where they lived and were delighted to find them well-stocked and ready to serve shoppers. Others, like Homestead collaborator Karen Cordova, a business owner and poet who lives in Irvine, remembered businesses from further away, like one of the Homestead’s local favorites: Hacienda Village Meat and Italian Deli.

A couple of weeks ago she shared, “I won’t go inside a grocery store; I’m in duo isolation with my mother. I’ve been having trouble with getting meat. When ordering it via Instacart, invariably the market is out of most of the meat I want. So I called the two local meat markets, but the prices were extraordinarily high. And so I thought of the wonderful meat market/deli on Hacienda that you recommended. I placed an order, drove all the way to Hacienda Heights and received my order with terrific contactless service. They put the order in my trunk while my mother and I sat in my closed car. They put the meat in boxes and ice bags on top of the meat, due to the long ride.” She raved about the extraordinary customer service she got from business owner George Viola.

George has been in business in Hacienda Heights for over 30 years. He immigrated to the US with his parents from Italy when he was 12, and his first job was in a meat market. Originally, HVM started as a meat market that sold a few grocery items, but he expanded the business a few years later to include the deli. He embodies the kind of service people were used to getting over 100 years ago from local shopkeepers, and it might also help explain why his business has survived and thrived while located across the street from a Vons! People are discovering and rediscovering businesses like George’s, and many are saying that they plan to keep patronizing them post-pandemic because of the kind of personal service they’ve received. 

All this got me wondering about where the Temple family might have shopped around the time that La Casa Nueva was completed in the late 1920s. George and his family certainly weren’t here yet! Covina was a nearby town bustling with activity, and a local newspaper. A look at the weekly-published Covina Argus from May 1928 reveals that they had a Piggly Wiggly, the originator of the self-service grocery store, similar to what a grocery shopping experience is like for us today.

Covina PW 1928
Ad from the Covina Argus for the local Piggly Wiggly, May 25, 1928.

The first Piggly Wiggly opened in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1916. At their peak in the early 1930s they had over 2,600 stores across the US. Today they have over 600, and all are located in the Midwest and South. Did the Pig (as it is affectionately called by fans) displace local businesses with its new concept? Probably. But today we are reminded that many small businesses like George’s can pivot faster to serve customers, just like local restaurants have with takeout and the selling of staple goods such as milk, flour, and sugar. Customers will have anecdotal stories like Karen’s that will endear them to small businesses.

While grocery shopping has evolved to the point that we can click to add items to virtual carts and have them magically appear on our doorsteps, there is something special about safely interacting with human beings right now that we will have shared stories and memories with. This memory-making is the making of history that we won’t soon forget.

Leave a Reply