Groceteria on Capitol Hill

Seattle's first self-service grocery chain, Groceteria, opened its Broadway store in the Summer of 1916 at 233 Broadway East, just south of Thomas. It served the neighborhood along with Capitol Hill and Renton Hill stores for a decade before Groceteria's surprising collapse.

Listen to Rob Ketcherside’s interview with NPR 88.5 KNKX about Seattle’s Groceteria stores and the tragedy of Alvin Monson, from Saturday January 6. It repeats on air Monday January 8 at 7 PM.

It started with retail innovation

Prior to the 1930s creation of supermarkets, food in America was sold at specialty stores focused on individual product types: green grocer (fruits and vegetables), fish monger, butcher, baker, and grocer for example. They were clustered in neighborhood business districts and shared space in public markets. Contrary to the name, only two of the dozen-odd public markets in downtown Seattle were publicly owned. But they all guaranteed one-stop shopping and easy access to streetcar lines. If a Seattleite couldn't find what they needed near home, they could certainly get it downtown.

After the onset of World War One in mid-1914, inflation set in worldwide. This included a rise in the price of canned and packaged foods that were sold at grocery stores. Grocers immediately felt strain on their service-rich business model. Most stores offered purchase on credit, delivery by horse and buggy and ordering by telephone. Notably "cash groceries" offered no-frills purchases. The standard shopping experience was like a deli: shoppers asked for items at a counter and it was slowly filled from the back while they interacted with one of the many clerks. Stores filled their shelves with piecemeal deliveries by distributors and layers of middlemen.

Within a few years, self-service shopping at chain grocery stores upset the industry. If you know anything about self-service grocery history, then you believe that Piggly Wiggly started it all in Tennessee in late 1916. The Smithsonian believes that. Wikipedia believes that. But it's wrong.

Self-service groceries actually started a bit earlier. The exact genesis hasn't been yet told, but here's my best take. In 1908 the discount chain Basket Stores opened its first store in Lincoln, Nebraska and grew to at least 70 stores. In 1912 the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company started its A&P Economy Stores, which added 1200 stores in 3 years in the eastern US. The first self-service stores on the West Coast were in late 1914 or early 1915 in Los Angeles. The concept of the still-new cafeteria -- a restaurant where you pick your own food and pay at the end of the line -- was applied to groceries, and the term groceteria was invented.

(Article about Stoddart's Mission Groceteria in Redlands, California from 1915 Los Angeles newspaper)

Serendipitously, Capitol Hill Historical Society board member Tamara Bunnell's great grandfather was one of those Los Angeles innovators. Here's a clipping from a 1915 Los Angeles newspaper about his store in Redlands, a live/work building with the family residence upstairs. He also had a store in Los Angeles proper. Digitized newspapers indicate that the trend spread quickly in Los Angeles. Other 1915 examples have been found in Pasadena, Long Beach, Santa Monica and downtown LA.

Seattle's Groceteria

Seattle's first Groceteria opened in November 1915 in the White Public Market. That's where the Gap is today at the corner of 5th and Pine.

Seattle's Groceteria differed from the Los Angeles stores because founder Alvin Monson wasn't satisfied with reducing the cost of retail labor. He looked at the entire enterprise in a way that no one on the West Coast was doing. He brought knowledge of Nebraska's Basket Stores, personal experience with groceries, and the vision to build a grocery chain of his own at age 25.

Monson's grocery career was young, but it was built on business experience that belied his own youth. Alvin Monson loved business. At age 14 he bought a still-rare car in 1906 and started a jitney service around town his rural hometown of Osceola, Nebraska (think of it as a one-man, app-less Uber). Monson lived with relatives to attend a business school in Chicago in 1910, where he thrived. After that he attended University of Nebraska-Lincoln for just a year.He struggled at the university in the broad range of coursework, only excelling at math. After dropping out of the UNL he returned home in 1913 and took over his father's grocery store. Monson must have encountered Basket Stores during his year in Lincoln, and it apparently inspired him to take the idea further west.

Back in the small farming town he began experimenting with the grocery, mimicking the Sears-Roebuck catalog that his customers knew so well. He put merchandise on display, letting customers touch it and choose for themselves. He labeled it with prices. He offered discounts for purchases of 5 or 10. He got rid of credit. He got rid of sale prices, reducing all regular prices instead. And he started driving his truck around, selling fresh coffee and other sundries off the back to increase spot purchases and differentiate from the catalog. These were all of the trademarks of a discount, self-service grocery store.

But there were quick limits in the small town of Osceola. Monson began dreaming of how to apply the economies of scale that he studied in Chicago and probably to mimic Basket Stores. He thought of every wasteful spot in the producer-to-consumer grocery supply chain. He had a scheme that would take more than one store to be profitable. He could undercut all of his rivals, but it would take many, many stores -- perhaps 100 -- operating on the same efficient system.

Monson needed a fertile, unsaturated, perhaps over-ripe retail market. The West Coast was still a legendary land of opportunity. In 1915 he left with his brother Walter to tour the coast from Los Angeles north, looking for a prime spot. He found it in Seattle: no grocery chains, a market heavy with costly middlemen and naive retailers.

Images from 1916 ad in Seattle Times

(Ad in December 15, 1916 Seattle Times)

Groceteria grew quickly. Nine months after opening at 5th and Pine they opened store number nine in September 1916 on Broadway just south of East Thomas street. It was next to a drug store and across the street from two established grocers. Another nearby Groceteria opened on Renton Hill (now Pike/Pine) in 1917, and a third operated briefly in 1923 on 15th.

The chain faltered in 1919 after founder Alvin Monson returned from World War One with severe PTSD. He was unfit to run the business but his family continued trying to reintroduce him to his work, hoping familiar activities would help him recover. As Groceteria stalled a number of other discount, self-service chains entered the Seattle market from outside. First and chief among Groceteria's rivals was the Washington franchise of Piggly Wiggly.

Groceteria closed all stores but the Pike Place Market shop in 1926. That store closed as well in 1928. The hole left by Groceteria was filled by a growing list of ever-larger chains. During the Great Depression these coalesced into Safeway and its local rival Tradewell.

The Wilshire or Lota Building

The 1916 Broadway Groceteria was at 233 Broadway East.

229-235 Broadway East is known today as the Lota Building, owned by long-time local attorney Lois Edwards.

It was built in 1903 by Washington State Senator W. W. Wilshire (William Wallace Eugene Wilshire). Back then the state legislative sessions were short and biannual, meaning Wilshire continued his career on the side. Coincidentally he was an attorney as well, partner in the law firm Wilshire & Kenaga with A. H. Kenaga.

(1892 Wilshire home at 228 Harvard Ave East. At the time the cardinal was "North". 1937 King County tax assessor photo courtesy Washington State Archives Puget Sound Regional Branch. Scanned by CHHS volunteer Gloria Fletcher)

Wilshire moved to Seattle from Washington, DC in the late 1880s with his wife Alice. Wilshire had worked as a land use attorney for the federal government. After renting on Denny Hill the Wilshires built just off Broadway at 228 Harvard Ave East in 1892, making them early streetcar commuters in the area. (The house was demolished for the 1964 apartment building Harvard House.)

He became King County Prosecutor while living at 228 Harvard Ave East. Among the many headlining trials he prosecuted, one stood out for his personal touch. The 1895 headline read, "Fists as Arguments -- Come Into Play Between Enraged Attorneys":

"If you say that I have done anything, you are a --- liar."

"'You are a _____ ___ ____ ___.' [said Wilshire] "Quick as a flash, Winstock's fist shot at Wilshire's face, and Wilshire shot back his fist at Winstock. It was a regular stand-up fight... some were of the opinion that Winstock landed on Wilshire's face, and others thought Wilshire parried and got in one on Winstock."

In 1899 Wilshire was elected to the Washington State Senate for our district. He proceeded to build a new, larger home for himself and his wife Alice.

(1900 Wilshire home seen in 1937 King County Assessor photo courtesy Washington State Archives Puget Sound Regional Branch. Scanned by CHHS volunteer Gloria Fletcher)

In 1900 they moved across the street at 302 Harvard Ave East. (This house was demolished for the mid-century apartment building that was recently demolished for Harvard Flats). Their home faced Harvard Place Park and an empty lot across Harvard. Wilshire was active in community issues and later led the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Presumably Wilshire developed other buildings in the area but so far the two homes and the commercial building are the only ones known.

(A: 228 Harvard Ave E; B: 302 Harvard Ave E; C: Wilshire Building, 229-235 Broadway E. Also note the buildings across and kitty corner from the Wilshire Building at Thomas and Broadway (clockwise): Rossman's super service station (1937 photo); Dodds/Progress Grocery (1937 photo); and the Fleming & Moore Grocery. This aerial image is from the 1937 King County Aerial Survey, a pdf is available.)

The Wilshire Building was completed in 1903, designed by architect Henry Dozier and constructed by E. D. Davis. The dossier on Dozier is surprisingly thin: the Pacific Coast Architecture Database only lists one building; and the tomb Shaping Seattle Architecture has only a few more and a typed out ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ for biographical information. Luckily a determined doctor in Denver has been researching Dozier for the last twenty years, and has a 96-page article with built works profiles and biographical information online.

(Photo of Wilshire Building from King County Assessor records for parcel 600350-1191 courtesy Washington State Archives Puget Sound Regional Branch. Scanned by CHHS volunteer Gloria Fletcher)

(December 2017 photo of Lota Building, originally known as the Wilshire Building. Rob Ketcherside)

Other Wilshire Building tenants

Initial tenants included a maternity home upstairs which women rented by they week as they prepared to give birth. By 1914, and throughout the time of Groceteria in the 231 storefront, the Rex Sanatorium occupied the upstairs rooms. Per advertisements it was "a modern sanatorium, complete in every detail". Rex expanded on the maternity home's services, offering "convalescent, surgical and maternity" care. Rex later moved to the other side of Cal Anderson Park, so by the 1937 photo it was replaced by Hume's Sanatarium. Leanna M. Hume had been matron of the Rex Sanatorium.

The corner store at 235 Broadway East was occupied by the pharmacy of M. P. Leary. Leary's shop remained from 1903 for about a decade. Leary was replaced by the second Swift's Pharmacies store, which remained past Groceteria's tenancy next door. Swift was replaced briefly by a store for the Jamieson Drugs chain from about 1931-1933, and that was replaced by the Dempsey's Pharmacy that appears in the 1937 photo.