Greensboro returned to third place (behind Charlotte and Winston-Salem) among North Carolina cities in the 1950 census, with a population of 74,400. A 1957 merger with the adjacent town of Hamilton Lakes would eventually take Greensboro into the number two position statewide.
The suburban boom was on, and Greensboro saw a boom in shopping center and housing construction on its fringes. Grocers began to see the need to move away from downtown and into the new outlying neighborhoods where their customers lived.
Arguably, Greensboro’s first shopping centers were such planned community centers as the Tate Street area near Women’s College, the State Street area in McAdoo Heights, and the Bishop Block, just north of downtown on Elm Street. All were developed and planned by a single entity and qualified technically as shopping centers. However, the well-known suburban model began in Greensboro with 1950’s Summit Shopping Center, a large center with its own parking lot sited across from St. Leo’s Hospital at the former entrance to the ORD army base.
By late in the decade, community shopping centers were joined by larger regional centers with a broader array of merchandise and even branches of the downtown department stores. Friendly Center, located on Friendly Road between Greensboro and the neighboring town of Hamilton Lakes, was the prime example in Greensboro.
New Greensboro shopping centers of the 1950s (and their supermarket anchors) included:
- Summit Shopping Center, Summit and Bessemer Avenues, 1950: A&P
- Lawndale Shopping Center, Lawndale Drive, 1950: Ralph’s Food Palace and Big Bear
- Plaza/Irving Park Plaza, Battleground Avenue, 1951: Colonial
- Florida Street Shopping Center, Florida Street and Freeman Mill Road, 1957: Winn-Dixie
- Friendly Center, Friendly Avenue, 1957: Colonial and (five years later) Winn-Dixie
- Southside Shopping Center, Asheboro Street, 1958: Colonial
- Northeast Shopping Center, Summit and Bessemer Avenues, 1959: Big Bear
A&P began the 1950s with six locations in Greensboro. Of these, three were less than five years old, while two others had operated for more than two decades.
The Summit Shopping Center branch was brand new, having opened in 1950 as an anchor of Greensboro’s first large-scale suburban shopping center. The other two newest branches, on Commerce Place and Asheboro Street, remained solidly anchored downtown.
The two oldest branches, one on East Market Street and one on Lee Street would not make it to 1955. Market Street closed for good early in the decade, and Lee Street relocated to a new. modern building a few doors down in 1954.
On 26 June 1957, the ten-year-old store on Walker Avenue relocated farther out on Walker near its intersection with West Market Street, west of the old town of Hamilton Lakes. The new 14,000 square foot store featured six checkout lanes, a self-service meat department, and parking space for 114 cars.
By decade’s end, A&P had five locations in the city, none of them in the northwestern quadrant where Greensboro’s growth would ultimately occur. This was a mistake the chain would repeat in countless American cities.
I. Essa had opened his grocery on Gorrell Street in east Greensboro in 1935. Robert Butler had opened his store in working class Glenwood in 1936. In 1955, these two independent grocers, along with C.R. Little and several others joined together in a cooperative venture known as Bi-Rite stores. Their original intent was to band together in order to pay for newspaper advertising to compete with the large chains. Eventually, the federation engaged in cooperative buying, and the stores all assumed the Bi-Rite name. Butler became president of the new organization.
Bi-Rite reached into many outlying areas of the city, particularly in the southwest and the east, before the chains did, and therefore the co-op was well-positioned when development caught up.
Butler’s store in Glenwood took on the new name in 1955, following a large-scale expansion. New (not rebranded) stores opened on Lawndale Drive (1957) and High Point Road (1959) among others. In addition, the former A&P on Walker Avenue was purchased by one of the co-op members when A&P relocated in 1957.
Bi-Rite very quickly became one of the biggest names in Greensboro grocery retailing, and remained so for two decades.
George Hutchens’ National Food Stores (no relation to National Tea Company) had operated stores in neighboring High Point since 1915, and its first Big Bear supermarket had opened there in 1938. The chain had expanded to Winston-Salem in the early 1940s. On 23 March 1954, the first Greensboro branch opened in the new Lawndale Shopping Center, northwest of downtown and a few doors down from Ralph’s Food Palace. The new store featured a Kiddie Korral, complete with merry-go-round, TV, and blackboard.
A second Big Bear followed in 1955, on Fourth Street in the Proximity mill village. This branch was replaced four years later by a 17,200 square foot store in the new Northeast Shopping Center a few blocks away. National Foods, as the parent company was still known, was the developer of the center. The Big Bear store was called the “most completely equipped and stocked food store in North Carolina” upon its opening on 10 November 1959. It featured one of the chain’s trademark “Deli-Kitchens” and a two-way radio linkup to the corporate offices and warehouse in High Point.
In 1950, Greensboro was served by two Colonial stores, both of them downtown. These two were joined by the first suburban location, in the new Irving Park Plaza on Battleground Avenue, in 1951.
Like Big Bear, Colonial recognized Greensboro’s northwesterly pattern of development early on; the chain was an anchor in the city’s first regional shopping center, Friendly Center, in 1957. However, Colonial Stores also launched stores in the southwest (High Point Road) and southeast (Asheboro Street) in 1959. These twin 16,500 square foot stores featured the corrugated metal front and modernistic “rooster pylon” that were duplicated all over the south. Both eventually anchored small convenience shopping centers, and both offered a unique parcel pickup system wherein customers picked up their groceries using a numbered slip at a pickup station on the side of the store.
An additional Colonial store operated briefly on the edge of Sunset Hills on Madison (now West Friendly) Avenue from roughly 1953-1958. The newer of the two downtown stores closed in the late 1950s, while the 1938 Washington Street store remained open. By decade’s end, Colonial had five Greensboro locations.
On 26 June 1955, Dixie-Home Stores of Greenville SC opened its first Greensboro location,a 15,000-square-foot unit on on Battleground Avenue. Dixie-Home had been operating in the southwestern part of the state for some time, and this was the first of four Greensboro stores planned by the company. Dixie-Home would, later that year, merge with Winn & Lovett stores of Florida to become Winn-Dixie.
Two more stores opened, now under the Winn-Dixie banner, in 1957, one in the Florida Street Shopping Center and another near the corner of Spring Garden Street and Pinecroft (now Holden) Road.
Kroger entered the Greensboro market in 1952 after several successful years in neighboring High Point and Winston-Salem. The first Greensboro location was on Spring Garden street, a few blocks west of the Woman’s College campus.
Bucking most trends of the time, the second was located downtown on Bellemeade Street on the site of the old Tate-Walsh mansion. Open 28 June 1955, its 18,000 square feet of floor space were decorated in pastel red, gray, and green with a “scenic wallpaper” above the meat department. The store also featured nine checkout lanes and a “new” parcel pickup system very similar to Colonial’s “unique” one.
A warehouse and a third store were under construction in the 1950s as well, although the latter would not open until 1960.
There was considerable activity among Greensboro’s independents and small chains as well.
The Ivory Store was down to one location by 1950, its location at 610 Walker Avenue. Now called Hensley’s Ivory Store, this store relocated to a 1930s-era A&P at the corner of Walker and Elam in 1958. Additionally, a new store had opened around 1953 on High Point Road on the southwestern edge of the city. The High Point Road store was expanded in 1958.
Piggly Wiggly made a reappearance in 1959 in a building vacated by Colonial Stores a year earlier on Madison Avenue near Sunset Hills. The 8,000 square foot store was completely remodeled by the company and franchised to veteran grocer J.D. White.
Ralph’s Food Palace, the six-year-old pioneer on Lawndale Drive burned down in 1954 and was rebuilt simply as Ralph’s, an apparently rather whimsical store with cartoon-like murals and aisle markers with “street names” like Pickledilly Lane, etc.
Perhaps the most prophetic event, however, was the 11 September 1958 opening of Clark’s on Burlington Road. The innovative New York chain operated some of the first superstores in the country, combining a discount department store and a supermarket under one roof. Greensboro’s branch, located in a former tobacco warehouse, just as its first A&P supermarket had been twenty years before, contained 120,000 square feet and was one of the first big stores to be open on Sunday. Clark’s opened stores in Winston-Salem and Charlotte around the same time as the Greensboro store.