On This Day in 1930: A Behemoth Was Born

On this day – August 4th, 1930 –  a giant marvel of a masterpiece was unveiled on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, New York. It involved a big building, a big parking lot and a plethora of products that extended far beyond what anyone could have imagined before. Aptly named King Kullen, it was King Kong-ish in size and scope and quickly took over an industry in a way only a behemoth of a good idea could.  It was the birth of the super market – the very first large space grocery store that contained not only food items but also hardware, paint, automotive, cosmetics, shoe shine, kitchenware, confectionery and drug departments all under one roof.

Michael J. Cullen (1884-1936)

The brainchild of grocery store employee, Michael Cullen (who spent half of his adult career working at The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company and then grocery retailer, Kroger) imagined a better, larger, less expensive shopping experience that would cut grocery prices in half for the customer and allow more space for the store to sell bulk items in mass quantity. Essentially it is the same concept that our modern American grocery stores still follow to this day.

Before Michael and his big-brained idea came along, people grocery shopped in small pocket stores like this one photographed in the 1920s…

These independent stores definitely filled a need and were vital businesses to the community but they were also very limiting and not very private. Space was an issue for the store owners which meant that many items had to be special ordered for customers on a need-by-need basis,  extending the shopping transaction by days or sometimes even weeks.  Service was also an issue as items were frequently stored up high or behind counters making it necessary for grocery employees to gather specifically what was needed.

This one-on-one buying model may have helped develop customer relationships but it also created lengthy wait times for other shoppers while each order was filled.  Speculation and gossip seeped into the buying process too as the whole store could see (and hear!) what everyone was buying. Combined with the fact that meat was purchased from the butcher, bread from the baker, fish from the fish monger and specialty cans and shelf stable items from the grocery, meant that the whole shopping experience could take hours out of the day.

Refrigerators of the late 1920’s provided enough storage to stock foods for up to a week.

Michael took note of all these clunky patterns, accessed the growing rise of refrigerators popping up in American homes and started jotting down ideas for something easier and faster involving less commotion and less expense. While he flushed out his thoughts he was still working at Kroger. He brought up his ideas to his boss who didn’t give Michael’s thoughts any merit. So Michael left Kroger and opened King Kullen Grocery Company independently months later. Michael knew he had a great idea – the right concept at the right time. He had worked in the grocery business for 28 years at that point, long enough to see where the consumer experience needed improvement and how profits could be made.

By building a bigger store in a bigger space, King Kullen initiated the self-serve shopping concept where all products were in easy reach of the customer with a large quantity of the same item available. So you could zip in and out of the store much more quickly. No more waiting, no more special ordering, no more gossip.

King Kullen also eliminated the idea of credit registry systems, another time sucker, by only dealing with cash transactions. And they axed the local delivery system which for small, independent grocers meant additional employees and additional expense. Combining all these elements – bigger store, easy to reach items, large selection of product and a faster payment system was much more efficient and empowering to shoppers.  Independent groceries were old-fashioned and pokey where King Kullen, in 1930,  was up to the minute modern.

And then there was the significant pricing system. Upon opening, King Kullen boasted that they could reduce your average grocery bill by 10-50% which during the Great Depression years was a major attraction for struggling wage-earners. By offering everything from house paint to ham (the “super” market concept)  under one roof, King Kullen became a one-stop shop. You can see the price difference between Kroger in the 1920’s and King Kullen in the 1930’s in these advertisements…

Late 1920’s Kroger grocery advertisement on the left, 1933 King Kullen Advertisement on the right

Some of the significant savings included:

  • Tea –   $0.29 per 1/2lb at Kroger vs. $0.39/per 1lb at King Kullen
  • Boiled Ham – $0.33/lb at Kroger vs. $0.21/lb at King Kullen
  • Catsup – $0.15/bottle at Kroger vs. $0.10/bottle at King Kullen
  • Whole Chicken – $0.33/lb vs. $0.19/lb at King Kullen
  • Beans – 4 cans for $0.23 at Kroger vs. 6 cans for $0.25 at King Kullen

Finally, by providing a large parking lot able to accommodate a vast amount of cars, King Cullen changed how people shopped. Families went together, some traveling up to 100 miles away from home so they could fill their car with foodstuffs and stock their shelves for a lengthier period of time. The super market also hosted all sorts of product events and giveaways making each shopping trip to King Kullen unexpected and engaging. It was a seamless, adventuresome outing, easy to navigate and fun to participate in.

King Kullen caught like wildfire in the hearts of the American public. Thousands flocked to the new Jamaica Avenue store on opening day, leading a trend that other grocery stores (like Michael’s previous employer, Kroger) noted and then soon replicated. Throughout the 1930’s store after store opened under the King Kullen brand. Unfortunately in 1936 tragedy struck when Michael died just six years after debuting his first Jamaica Avenue store from complications following an appendectomy.

With the help of his wife and his sons, Michael’s legacy and the King Kullen brand continued to thrive. Today there are 32 King Kullen grocery stores still in operation, proving that Michael was a true visionary. The motto of the brand from the beginning was “We are here to stay and to please the public.”  Eighty-seven years later and still going strong, they have definitely accomplished their mission and in doing so affected change across the entire grocery industry.

Just listed in the shop this week is a cookbook published in 1955 celebrating the 25th anniversary of the supermarket. Titled the Silver Jubilee, it contains over 500 pages of recipes utilizing ingredients easily found at King Kullen-sized stores.

It is hard to imagine this being a novelty cookbook now but if you think about having to stop at 5-7 different food stores to pick up ingredients for one recipe you can understand how enormous this concept really was between the 1930’s – 1950’s. We take so much for granted now in the form of food buying and what we expect from the process. The Silver Jubilee really helps us understand the marvel behind the modern just like Michael helped us experience the efficiency behind the industry.

Cheers to Michael and his revolutionary idea and a happy birthday to King Kullen!

Later this month we will be featuring a few recipes from the Silver Jubilee cookbook in our first ever cross country cook-a-thon. Stay tuned for that!  In the meantime, find the celebratory Super Market Cook Book in the shop here.

Tahiti Bound: An Exotic Adventure in the Vintage Kitchen!

Vintage Tahiti travel poster.

This week in the vintage kitchen we are going on an exotic adventure to the beautiful beachy, balmy enclave of Papeete in the French Polynesian island of Tahiti. The weather in Ms. Jeannie’s world as of recent has been crazy. She’s seen it all – frost, snow, heat, humidity, rain, strong winds, fog, sleet, hail and tornado warnings all just within the past 14 days. And while the air and temperatures of the past few weeks have been very unsettled,  Ms. Jeannie is excited because all of this wacky end of winter weather means that sunny Spring will be here very very soon!

While she waits for Mother Nature to get her schedule sorted out, Ms. Jeannie has been day dreaming of tropical island breezes thanks to the help of Mr. Victor Bergeron and his 1968 Pacific Island Cookbook. 

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If you are unfamiliar with Victor’s full name, you might know him by his more casual moniker, Trader Vic, the king of 20th century hospitality. A world-wide traveler and an enigmatic restaurateur Victor founded the world’s first highly successful string of polynesian themed restaurants.

Victor Bergeron (1903-1984) the founder of Trader Vic’s restaurant chain.

First opened in the 1950’s in California, the still growing Trader Vic’s restaurant brand was a re-invention of Bergeron’s first attempt in the food industry with his humble lodge-style eatery and bar called Hinky Dink’s which he opened in 1934.

Victor smiles for a photoshoot in a 1951 issue of Holiday magazine.

Victor smiles for a photoshoot in a 1951 issue of Holiday magazine.

Learning the ropes in the food industry taught him a lot those first twenty years, so by the time Trader Vic’s (the restaurant) launched, Victor was a skilled businessman with a big flair for entertaining and fine tuned instincts as to what people wanted in a dining experience. As a lover of Cantonese style cooking, Bergeron married exceptional story telling, authentic exotic antique decorations and traditional South Seas recipes with a festive dining atmosphere to create a unique brand of restaurant chemistry that appealed to the adventure seeker and jet-setter of mid-century America. It was the rise of all things terrifically tiki!

Victor Bergeron mixing it up!

Victor’s travel experiences are all colorfully detailed in his cookbook making it a sort of fun travel journal and kitchen cooking primer in one. And then there are the drinks!  In addition to cooking Victor was also a mixologist creating a slew of enticing cocktails, like the first Mai Tai, which launched a wave of tropical drink requests for bartenders from then on out. Escapism never tasted so sweet!

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Which gets us back to Ms. Jeannie’s island getaway in the kitchen this February day. With 30 degree temperatures chilling the air outside, Ms. Jeannie cracked open coconuts, peeled ginger, poured a rum cocktail and got down to cooking all the while pretending she was beach-side in Papeete where the view looks like this…

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Vintage Tahitian postcard of Papeete.

Cheers to Victor! It’s Pote on the menu tonight served alongside steamed rice and chicken sauced with coconut ginger.

Pota with Chicken and Ginger

Pota with Chicken and Ginger

Pota

4 tablespoons diced salt pork

1/2 cup chopped cooked chicken

5 cups coarsely chopped Bok Choy

4 tablespoons chopped green onions (scallions)

1/2 cup chicken stock

Salt & Pepper to taste

Juice of 1/2 lemon

4 tablespoons coconut milk

2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 1/4 cup water

  1. Saute salt pork until brown in large skillet. Add chicken, chard and green onion.
  2. Stir in chicken stock, seasonings and lemon juice. Simmer until chard is tender.
  3. Add coconut milk  bring to a boil but just barely. Thicken with cornstarch, stirring constantly, adding just enough to thicken the mixture.
  4. Serve immediately or keep warm over low heat until chicken and rice are ready.

Chicken with Ginger

1 whole chicken, 5 lbs

1/2 cup flour seasoned with salt and pepper

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

1 piece fresh ginger-root (about the length of your thumb finger), grated

1/4 cup coconut milk

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cut chicken in pieces. Do not remove the skin.
  3. Place chicken, flour and salt and paper in a paper bag and shake until all chicken pieces are well-coated.
  4. Heat the oil in a large pan on the stovetop and then saute the chicken, turning only once, until thoroughly cooked on each side (internal temperature should be 180).
  5. Remove chicken from heat and place in oven proof dish.
  6. In a separate bowl mix together coconut milk and ginger. Pour over chicken and place dish in the oven for 5 minutes until the coconut sauce melts.

Serve alongside Pota and steamed rice and a fun fruity cocktail! Perhaps a homemade Mai Tai or two in Victor’s honor. He’d be as pleased as (rum) punch!

A Tahitian Dinner: Pote and Chicken with GInger

A Tahitian Dinner: Pote and Chicken with Ginger

This is a surefire recipe to chase away those end of winter blues. Satisfying for the spirit and for the belly! Find more Trader Vic recipes here. And more tropical cookbooks here. Manuia!