Safeway History

Printable version

NOTE: The history section from 1940 on was created in 1999 and as of July, 2010, is in the process of being updated. Material here may be incomplete and not 100% accurate. 

The 1950s

Like most other large chains (and many independents), Safeway had moved from small neighborhood stores to larger supermarkets by the start of the 1950s. While many of the older, smaller stores remained in operation — with many being remodeled and enlarged — the trend was definitely toward a modern new prototype, a step between the semi-classical stores of the 1940s and the bold arches of the 1960s.

Safeway crossed the $2 billion national sales mark in 1957, with 1958 stores in operation. Robert Magowan succeeded Ling Warren as Safeway’s president in 1955, much to the relief of many store managers who believed that 20 years was enough and that Warren’s ideas were wearing thin.

This was the era of America’s classic gleaming bright supermarket, with white walls, fluorescent lighting, and lots of glass. Large parking lots were becoming the rule. A side effect was that all supermarkets began to look a like. It takes a trained eye to distinguish between a 1950s Safeway, Lucky, or QFI store. All had the box shape with the rounded roof (often hidden) and many had great advertising pylons.

Safeway was no exception. Until the early 1990’s, it was possible to find some of these stores relatively intact and still operating as Safeway. The picture on the front page of this site was taken in Lodi, California in 1993, and another store on Clement Street in California closed in 1995 and was recently demolished.

Safeway had 35 stores in San Francisco in 1951; 21 of these survived until 1960. In addition, 11 new locations opened during the period, leaving the total at 32 as the 1960s began.

Very few of these 1950s-era stores have survived in San Francisco, fewer than either the stores from the 1940s or the 1960s. Examples are easier to locate in the suburbs surrounding the city, where many still stand, occupied by thrift stores, churches, auto parts stores, and even the occasional chain pharmacy.

The 1960s

Safeway expanded worldwide in the 1960s, with divisions established in the UK (1962), Australia (1963), and Germany (1964), In addition, there were experiments with a drugstore chain (Super S Stores). Quentin Reynolds became president of the company in 1966.

In the US, however, the never-successful New York division was divested, sold in 1961 to First National (Finast) Stores. Growth was steady in other divisions, however.

Safeway stores from the late 1950s and early 1960s are some of the most easily-identifiable structures on the west coast. A classic and simple modern design, with three main variations, these stores look as clean and fresh today as the day they opened. Many of these stores, such as San Francisco’s Marina Boulevard location (the first such store in June 1959), continue to operate with only minor exterior modifications forty years after their construction. Some 1950s box stores were converted to this format as well.Many locations have been transformed into other chain outlets and uses, such as Walgreen’s, MacFrugal’s, and Grand Auto Supply. Many continue to serve as supermarkets, including several Piggly Wiggly stores in Kansas City, and Grocery Outlet and FoodsCo stores around San Francisco.

Safeway has also drastically modified many of its original stores. In 1998, the landmark store on Market Street in San Francisco was remodeled into a super-sized post-modern nightmare, with only the hint of an arch and the enormous tower sign being preserved. A mint condition late 1960s location in Oakland has recently been similarly disfigured; the same is coming soon to a branch in Pollocks Pines CA. Both stores are particular losses as their interiors had never been significantly renovated either. A well-preserved example remains in Fresno CA, although no longer bearing the Safeway name.

The three main variations of Safeway’s golden era, replicated countless times from Kansas City to Seattle, are as follows. All three designs are reminiscent of Victor Gruen’s designs for the Penn Fruit Company stores. Kohl’s Supermarkets in Wisconsin used a similar design, as did, I’m sure, countless stores around the country:

  • The “Marina” (Safeway’s internal name for the prototype): This classic look was named for the first store so designed, on Marina Boulevard in San Francisco. Hundreds of these remain around the country, including the original. Most have been remodeled and expanded.
  • “Marina With Wings” (my own designation): This style added wings to the arch, often faced in stone, with the actual arch still covering a glass facade. This is probably the most common of the three variations, and was used in both freestanding and shopping center locations. It’s just a guess, but it seems likely that wings were added to some of the “classic” stores for expansion purposes as well. This is the most common type still in use and can be seen at San Francisco’s Inner Mission store.
  • “The Glass Gable” (again, my own designation): This was a late 1960s variation of the winged quonset hut which blended better in residential areas. Essentially, the arch became a gable, and still covered a primarily glass facade with stone or stucco on the edges. None of these survive in San Francisco, although the Grand Auto Supply store on Ocean Avenue is a modified version of this prototype.

San Francisco began the 1960s with 32 Safeway stores, some dating from the late 1930s. Over the course of the decade, 15 of these older stores closed, while 7 new ones opened, leaving a net total of 24 San Francisco stores in 1970 (two or three of which were still remodeled branches from before 1940).

By the early 1970s, Safeway began to move away from its modernist designs. The location at 3350 Mission Street seems to be the final San Francisco store built in the classic motif. Stores were increasingly more likely to be found in shopping centers and suburban residential areas, and Safeway joined McDonald’s and others in the period known as “the beige era”, with blander and more “environmentally-conscious” designs, and commercial architecture entered a very generic and nondescript era, at least as far as exteriors were concerned.

The 1970s

The 1970s seem to have been a period with no distinct design scheme for Safeway. Variations on the Marina prototype continued to be built until about 1975, but stores were increasingly located in shopping centers with predetermined designs. I can’t find much evidence that any particular interior motif prevailed either, although I’m sure there was one.
The Super S drugstores were divested in 1971. Dale Lynch became company president in 1977, spearheading Safeway’s move toward superstores, one-stop centers with food, drugs, and more.

Safeway started the 1970s with 24 stores in San Francisco, the oldest being three pre-1940 stores at 1010 South Van Ness, 279 West Portal, and 1330 Bush, all of which are now demolished. These and nine others were closed during the decade (the Bush Street store being relocated next door) and three were opened. Most of the closed branches were small, urban locations with no parking. The 3350 Mission store was the final Marina prototype built in San Francisco. In 1980, Safeway was operating 15 stores in the city and the transition to large supermarkets was complete.

One interesting addition to the San Francisco scene about 1970 was the still-open store on Jackson Street in the Financial District. Reversing an old trend, this store was small (under 10,000 square feet) and decidedly urban, located at the base of a high-rise apartment building and offering no parking lot.

The 1980s

After a dry spell in the 1970s, Safeway began to contemplate design again in the 1980s, with both its remodels and its new stores. New prototypes included a model with large wall graphics of food items, the “marketplace” stores with models of small-town storefronts above major departments, and a related gray and red look (without the models) for smaller stores and remodels.

Safeway added a Mexican presence with its Casa Ley partnership in 1981. The Omaha division was sold in 1982, while the Australian division was sold to Woolworth’s Ltd. (not related to the American dime store chain) in 1985. In addition, Safeway bought Northern California’s Brentwood Markets and its warehouse chain, Pak ‘n Save, in 1983. James Rowland became company president in 1983.

The big news, though, was a hostile takeover bid in 1986. Few prior events had affected the chain so dramatically. With the assistance of KKR, the company was take private and assumed tremendous debt. Entire regions were liquidated, and Safeway’s national presence was reduced to Northern California and several western states and the Washington DC area Altogether, nearly half the 2200 stores in the chain were sold.

Unloaded were the UK, Dallas, Salt Lake City, El Paso, Oklahoma, and Liquor Barn divisions (1987) and the Kansas City, Little Rock, Houston divisions (1988), among other areas. Many of the liquidated divisions just happened to be in areas where Safeway had labor problems. Stores in these areas were acquired by Piggly Wiggly, Kroger, Randall’s, Farm Fresh, and various independents.

In Southern California, Safeway sold most of its stores to Vons, in exchange for a 30% interest in the company. Safeway pulled out of established markets like Los Angeles and San Diego, and diminishing operations in Fresno, Modesto, Stockton, and Sacramento. Save-Mart purchased the few remaining Fresno stores in 1996.

Safeway started the 1980s with 15 San Francisco stores. The oldest was the pre-1945 Monterey Boulevard store (which remains Safeway’s oldest location in the city). Four stores closed during the decade and five new stores opened, for a total of 16 in 1990. Another store in the first level of an apartment building opened in late in the decade (on Ocean Avenue) but was closed in approximately 1995.

The 1990s and the Present

Safeway has recovered from its problems during the 1990s, and is now aggressively remodeling and expanding, building new stores, and acquiring chains around the country.

Interestingly, the company seems to be moving back into many of the very areas it devested in the 1950s and 1980s, with Randalls and Tom Thumb in Texas, and Genuardis in the northeast. Additionally, Safeway exercised an option to purchase the Southern California Vons stores (in which it had held a 30% stake since the 1980s) in 1996.

The companay also purchased Carr’s, and Alaska competitor, and Chicago’s Dominick’s chain. The latter purchase was almost universally viewed as a disaster, and Safeway somehwat quickly tried to unload the troublesome chain.

In San Francisco, a mammoth new store was opened at 2300 16th Street, the site of a former White Front, as part of the new Potrero Shopping Center. The flagship Market Street store was enlarged and remodeled, taking over the space of the former Super S Drugs next door.

29 October 2004 brought the grand opening of San Francisco’s Mission Bay Safeway at Fourth and Townsend. This distinctly urban, custom-designed store is at the base of a high-rise apartment building and serves the new mixed-use neighborhood which is growing around SBC Park. Its most prominent feature is a huge deli section which caters to residents and nearby workers alike.

The Marina stores are disappearing even faster than the pylon stores did, with most having been closed or remodeled beyond recognition. It’s hard to find many traces of the old Safeway, but they’re around if you’re willing to look for them.