Making Groceries: Schwegmann Brothers Giant Super Market
By Kevin Brown
As a child raised in New Orleans, there were many iconic institutions that “Ain’t dere no more.” Many of these influenced us deeply. I bought my first record at a K&B during our weekly jaunt to buy candy. I would walk with friends to Security Sporting Goods once a week. Sunday morning doughnuts from McKenzie’s made going to church that much sweeter. But the one New Orleans institution that may have shaped the city as much as all of these were the huge Schwegmann Brothers Super Markets in many neighborhoods.
Long before there was a Super WalMart the Schwegmann Super Markets dominated New Orleans. The original “Super Store” was founded in 1869 in Bywater at the corner of Piety and Burgundy. Like other groceries of the day, there was no self-service and groceries were delivered by a horse drawn wagon. In 1946, however, Schwegmann Groceries would undergo a transition that would revolutionize grocery shopping and cause “Making Groceries Schwegmann Style” to become a New Orleans tradition.
Born above the original store in 1911, John G. Schwegmann didn’t want to continue the family grocery business founded by his grandfather. He worked for the U.S. Postal service, as a salesman and tried his hand at banking and real estate before joining his family at Schwegmann’s. It wasn’t long before he was called to military service in World War II.
Joined by his brothers Anthony and Paul, Schwegmann Brothers was born in 1946. Starting with one store on St. Claude near Elysian Fields, the chain quickly blossomed. In 1957 Schwegmann Brothers could boast having the largest grocery store in the nation, a 155,000 behemoth on Old Gentilly Road. At its peak the chain could boast 46 stores.
Size wasn’t their only innovation. Until Schwegmann Brothers, groceries were picked off the shelves by shopkeepers from lists given them by customers. The Schwegmanns offered a discount to shoppers for picking their own items off the shelves. The concept of self-service shopping rapidly took off and became an industry standard.
Savings wasn’t limited to self-service. Schwegmann Brothers recognized the importance of low prices and could command them because of the incredible quantity purchased through their chain. Saul Stone, a Schwegmann attorney, noted: “The best way to success was volume with a low markup. He [John Schwegmann] said [that] he would rather make $100 off $1,000 in sales than make $50 on $100 sales (Times Picayune Obituary of John G. Schwegmann, 3/7/1995).” These lower prices did not deter more well-heeled shoppers either; on any given day one could see society mavens shopping next to dock workers.
Furthermore groceries weren’t the only offering at a Shwegmann Brothers store. The stores were complete with bakeries, jewelers, hair salon, florist, post office, banks, notary services, even shoe stores. In fact, many New Orleanians would go to Schwegmann Brothers to meet friends for lunch and never purchase groceries. Because the food was good and inexpensive, Schwegmann became a lunch destination for many hungry New Orleanians. Eventually this “one-stop shopping” concept would be popularized nationally by Sam Walton and his WalMart chain, but it was started here in New Orleans by the Schwegmann family.
Then there were the bags. A Schwegmann’s bag was a billboard. John G. Schwegmann was a perennial candidate for office and the grocery bags were his main advertisment. His election to the Louisiana House of Representatives (1961), the Louisiana Senate (1968) and the Public Service Commission (1974) were partially due to the colorful printing on the grocery bags. In addition to the campaigns of the Schwegmann family members, the bags were used to advertise charity events that were special to the family.
According to C. Christenson (http://www.gumbopages.com/you-know.html) the Schwegmann bag can even be used as a unit of measurement, as in: “Did ya catch a lot at da parade? Yeah you rite! A whole Schwegmann bag full!”
The honor for the most innovative use of the bags probably belongs to the Saints fans of 1980. In that season the team went 1-15 and fans resorted to using Schwegmann bags to cover their heads in shame, proclaiming themselves the “Aints” for the second half of the season.
Ultimately Schwegmann Supermarkets became victims of their own success. When the father (John G.) handed the reigns to the son (John F.) an ill-advised expansion plan was undertaken. Adding to the 18 successful stores, another 28 stores were purchased from the National Tea Company. The financial woes that followed were so consuming that one year later the chain was sold.
Schwegmann Brothers Super Markets disappeared from the New Orleans landscape in 1996, leaving behind large buildings and an occasional sign. For many New Orleanians “making groceries” will never be the same and this cultural icon will be sorely missed.
For more information see: