This article takes a look at the history of the legendary A&P Supermarket chain of grocery stores and what it was like to work in one of them. A&P stood as one of the most loved grocery stores in New York history. The first half is written from a genuine first hand perspective of what it was like working at the A&P Supermarket. The second half of the article looks back at the long history of the store.
When attending junior college in 1981, I walked into the A&P Supermarket in Lake Grove looking for a job. It was tough to find a job in 1981. The United States was in a horrible recession. It was actually the worst year the county had since the Great Depression.(1) Luckily, I walked in at the right time and got hired. I started out in the meat department. I would eventually work in every department of the store, but the meat department was the hardest department to work in.
There were two real tough butchers of German descent in that meat department and a wise guy meat manger. They were tough, but they were genuine and fair. My job was to wrap the meat they cut, weight it, and slap a price on it. This was all old school. Nothing came in prepackaged. It was like working in that meat plant where Rocky hit those sides of beef; just on a smaller scale. Big slabs of beef came in with crates full of chickens. Almost all of the meat cutting was done in that meat department. This is how the A&P Supermarkets operated. I would be sent to other stores on occasion and it was all the same
Some of the meat was cut up on a huge band saw, but the majority of the meat was cut up by hand by these three tough butchers. These guys were good. They would be talking real loud, almost screaming at each other, cutting the meat, swearing, screaming, laughing, talking war stories, work stories, the old neighborhood stories etc…. All while swinging a big scary butcher knife non-stop with brilliant precision while never losing a finger or limb. It was cold. Their faces were red, the cold air they breathed formed big clouds as they talked.
These butchers weren’t scared of anybody but the Board of Health inspectors. When those Board Of Heath inspectors came in, their personalities changed dramatically. These butchers were all union workers. They belonged to Local 342 Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union. In fact, everyone who worked in the store belonged to that union. The union helped protect these butchers from nervous store managers to a certain extent, but there was no protection from the Board Of Health, which for the benefit of all of us was a good thing. If those inspectors found no violations, the butchers would be in the greatest mood for the rest of the day. However, if a violation was written up, the rest of the day would be a nightmare in that department.
The story of these butchers and the way meat was processed in store was very symbolic of the way old school supermarkets like the A&P served its customers. The entire meat department was lined with large glass windows that the butchers could slide open to talk to the customers. There were people who would come in every day and ask the butchers to slice them a certain type of cut of meat. It was face to face contact. The butchers really cared about their work and their customers. I learned a lot about work ethic from those guys. The customers would have conversations with the butchers. The customers looked forward to it and it seemed so did many of the butchers. Many of the customers were older, in their 60s ,70s and 80s. These people were born in the early 1990s. This was an old way of doing things. A&P represented that old way. Of course there are still supermarkets with butchers that have relationships with people, but this was different, this was the norm.
A&P had a large following of customers who loved certain A&P brands. Standing at the top of that list was their Eight O Clock Coffee. While that brand can now still be found in Supermarkets, it was sold differently during the A&P days. At the front of the store were large coffee grinders, Customers would buy the whole bean bags of A&P coffee and the cashiers would actually grind it for them. Ask anyone who you think might remember the A&P supermarkets and I guarantee you the first thing they will mention is how much they loved their coffee. Every day when I went to work, I was hit by that incredible aroma of coffee when I entered the store. Eight O’ Clock Coffee is still being produced by a different company now, but in my opinion, it doesn’t smell or taste that same as it did when A&P sold it.
I worked in every department of that A&P store. The deli department was much smaller than we see now in stores like Shoprite or Stop & Shop. It was so small that most of the time it was only manned by one or two workers. As in most supermarket delis, ham, cheese, turkey roast beef were all the cold cuts most commonly sold. However, there was a significant base of customers , usually those 60 and older that would order old school deli cold cuts like head cheese and liverwurst. Once again, it was that old customer base shopping for old time products.
Back in the 80s, the grocery clerks were still using grocery guns to place prices on grocery items. Scanning had not yet infiltrated the stores. Clerks would get a sheet of prices and set the gun for the price and date. You were assigned one grocery gun and if you lost it, it would cost you. When items went on sale, one would have to slap a new sticker over the old sticker with the sale price. And then do it again when the item came off sale. It was a never ending battle of stocking shelves and pricing items all in real time. Savvy customers would often try to peel the stickers off to see if there was a cheaper sticker underneath. New items were always placed in the back of the shelves behind the older items. Whenever I go grocery shopping, I know to reach into the back of the shelves because that item is almost always fresher.
Every department had their own manager. Meat, produce, frozen, deli, front end and so on. Most of these managers were full time and lifers. It was a good full time job. The pay was good, there was always overtime and there were benefits. Of course, if you were a department manager you always worked way more hours than you really should have. Most people were dedicated and of course needed to make the numbers work in their departments so they would not be forced out by being sent to another store two hours from where they lived. It was a good job, but like many jobs, there was intense pressure and I could see it on their faces everyday. The managers had to know exactly how much of a product to order and make sure all of it sold. They had to know their customer base real well. What they liked, what they could afford and what they would buy or ignore. That is what separated stores like A&P and that era to the way supermarket chains operate now. It was on a much more personal level. That personal level is a great place to start when looking back at the history of the A&P supermarket chain.
A&P Supermarket History
The history of the A&P Grocery Stores goes all the way back to the Civil War. The company began as a mail order Tea Company. The company’s original name was set as the Great American Tea Company. It was started by George Huntington Hartford and George Gilman in 1863. Six years later they renamed the company the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company. With its origins in New York City, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company would become one of the United States first big chain stores. While tea was the first featured specially item sold by the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, the developing grocery store chain would become famous for their own specialty products besides tea. This would include of course their Eight O Clock Coffee, along with their own special brand of spices and very much needed condensed milk. Customers fell head-over-heels for these products immediately. Products were sold at very reasonable prices which helped forge an incredible loyalty between the customers and the stores. For many, that loyalty lasted a lifetime. I observed it firsthand working at that A&P.
In 1901, A&P became a corporation and moved its headquarters to New Jersey. From that point on it would concentrate on become the biggest grocery store chain in the United States. A feat the company would achieve for a certain amount of time. From 1917 to 1962, they were the most successful supermarket chain in the United States.
The company set the way for many other future companies in the way their vertically integrated their business. Profits will always be higher if your selling you own products instead of another companies. A&P introduced their own brand called Ann Page that produced a wide variety of products that sold cheaper than the name brands. This was not about a name brand company slapping the grocery store’s name on their products. A&P actually manufactured their own products. The company even purchased fishing fleets and did their own fishing. The company also would produce their own baked goods and even went as far as to publish their own magazine called Woman’s Day. What better way to sell products than to advertise them in a magazine you own and is read by the gender that basically did all the shopping. The company had taken a page out of John Rockefeller’s play book of Vertical Integration from the turn of the century and made it their own by establishing modern ways of producing, advertising and selling goods that had never been done that way before.
A&P had started out as a mail order tea company that evolved into delivering multiple products to people. They eventually opened up twenty eight grocery stores mostly located in New York. By 1900 they had grown to two hundred grocery stores. By the year 1925, the company had over fourteen thousand grocery stores across the United States and had started to break into other countries such as Canada. In 1936, A&P evolved from being known as a “grocery store,” to a “supermarket.” Simply put, the stores expended in size. However, in similar fashion to the trust busters of the President Theodore Roosevelt era at the turn of the 19th century, the United States Department of Justice went after monopolies once again in 1938. The A&P Corporation responded by closing many of its divisions of goods productions to slim down its methods of vertical integration.
From 1950 to 1974, A&P continued to expand its stores in size. They changed their model from grocery store to supermarket. Sadly, that change would also result in the company closing many of its smaller stores permanently. In the late 1970s, the company was sold to the Tengelmann Group of Germany. In the 1980s, A&P would begin to acquire other supermarket chains such as the Food Emporium and Waldbaums. Many Waldbaums customers would start finding A&P products in their stores not knowing that Waldbaums was now owned by A&P, because A&P never changed the names of the stores they purchased.
In 2007 A&P went for broke and purchased the Pathmark Chain of supermarkets. It was not a wise decision. Of course, hankering again back to the days of John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, the concept of buying out your largest competitor still seemed to fuel the A&P business model. Nonetheless, it turned out that although Pathmark was their largest competitor as far as supermarkets went, their most dangerous competitor would turn out to be Walmart’s grocery department. The financial crises of 2007 and 2008 only made things much worse. A&P filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Five years later during the summer of 2015, A&P filed again for bankruptcy. On November 25 2015, A&P closed all of its stores for good. A company that had begun in the middle of the Civil War over one hundred and fifty years earlier closed its chapter and role in American History permanently.
A&P Founder George Huntington Hartford
Photo of window display at A&P Grocery Store in 1938
(1) Sablik, Tim. “Recession of 1981–82.” Federal Reserve History. Accessed June 9, 2020. https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/recession_of_1981_82#:~:text=July 1981–November 1982,effort to fight mounting inflation.&text=The economy was already in,unemployment at about 7.5 percent.
Eisenstadt, P. E. (2005). The encyclopedia of New York State/ editor in chief, Peter Eisenstadt ; managing editor, Laura-Eve Moss ; foreword by Carole F. Huxley. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. p. 1