Supermarkets like Penny’s, Country Club, Applebaum’s, Shoppers’ City and Rainbow came and went.
Only one old grocery chain still brings a smile to people in the Twin Cities. Former employees get together to reminisce about it. EBay sells nearly 700 nostalgic items from it.
It’s been 30 years since Supervalu Inc. purchased Red Owl, a company that dates back to 1922 when it sold groceries, dry goods and coal. “Be wise, burn Red Owl coal” was the original slogan. The company was led by Ford Bell, a son of General Mills founder James Ford Bell.
“General Mills wanted to make sure there was a retail outlet for the products they were producing,” said Alan Stone, 86, a former food distributor and owner of a Red Owl store in St. Louis Park. “It was well-run and well-operated when Ford was in charge.”
Today, the Twin Cities grocery business is cut into smaller and smaller pieces by Cub, Hy-Vee, Lunds & Byerlys, Fresh Thyme, Aldi, Costco, Trader Joe’s, Target and Walmart.
At its peak, Red Owl had 55 percent of the grocery business in Minnesota, according to Stone, who lives in Minnetonka. “They were the most important people in the food business in the Midwest in their time.”
In the 1960s, Hopkins-based Red Owl had 172 stores in 10 states including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, the Dakotas and Michigan. Currently, Supervalu has 213 stores in nine states and Hy-Vee has 245 stores in eight states.
Many Red Owl employees have died, but a group of them still meets annually to have lunch and talk about the store they loved. Seventy-five gathered last month at the Golden Valley American Legion — former executives, office staff, cashiers, truck drivers, warehouse employees and grocery managers.
“I came because I wanted to see old friends and renew old friendships,” said Val Schulz, 88, a former executive vice president of Red Owl who later led another chain called National Tea. “Red Owl was my first and only love in my work life.”
Schulz, who lives in Minnetonka, said Red Owl was impressive because it was an early predecessor of big-box stores. “We were innovators with a larger selection of products and one of the first to introduce self-service packaged meat.”
Red Owl’s meat department was a huge draw. Its turkey was called the Juicy Bird.
“We advertised that we put the best side of the meat down,” said Jack Woodruff of Andover, a meat cutter who worked at Red Owl for 21 years. “If a package of meat looked great on the side shown, it would look even better on the side not shown.”
In the 1960s, supermarkets were closed on Sundays. Red Owls didn’t open until noon on Mondays to allow for an 11 a.m. weekly store meeting. After competitors such as Byerly’s started opening on Sundays in the late 1960s, Red Owl’s meat departments remain closed.
“Customers had to reach under paper covering the meat because the meat cutters union didn’t want to sell meat on Sundays,” Stone said.
Bernie Gaytko of Chanhassen worked in Red Owl’s buying department for 18 years. “The consideration for our customers made it unique,” he said. “Managers wore name tags that said ‘My pledge to you, Servitium optimum.’ ” Translated: optimum service.
Employees and analysts say the decline began in the 1970s after it was purchased by Gamble-Skogmo. In a Star Tribune article in 1986, a securities analyst said, “The deprivation of capital in the late 1970s and early 1980s gave Red Owl a ‘second class’ image with consumers that resulted in declining market share.”
“Gamble wasn’t interested in food,” Schultz said. “They wanted to sell nonfood items like freezers and refrigerators. By the time they sold us to Wickes, there was no capital to expand, remodel and grow.”
Dick Koop of St. Louis, who traveled the farthest to the December reunion, said that he recalled the day when an executive from Wickes said his company needed $1 million a day from Red Owl. “That was the toughest day I ever had in my working life,” said the 71-year-old retired director of groceries.
By the time Supervalu purchased Red Owl in 1988, the stores were past their prime and looked it. Koop said, “I played golf with Gary Zimmerman [a Supervalu executive at the time] and he said, ‘I can’t believe how much you guys did with mirrors.’ The company had so little resources after Wickes.”
Others said that Red Owl’s decline was caused by experienced union workers making $10 to $15 an hour compared to less-experienced workers at new-to-the-market Cub and Rainbow making around $4.50. A similar debate exists in today’s Twin Cities groceries, with unionized workers at Cub and Lunds & Byerlys, and nonunion workers at Hy-Vee, Target, Aldi and Walmart.
Gary Newman, 73, of Brooklyn Park, a former produce and merchandise manager at Red Owl for 30 years, takes the changes in stride. “Everybody has their chance at the top. Red Owl was there, and then Cub did well and now Hy-Vee is doing well.”
His man cave is filled with Red Owl memorabilia. He has a display case and a safety deposit box filled with Red Owl shirts, belt buckles, spice tins, tie tacks, Winross trucks, glassware, matchbooks and two solid blue neck ties with a small Red Owl logo on them.
“They’re selling the same tie for $189 on eBay,” he said. “I know a guy who has a grocery store set up in his barn. I’m hoping he’ll sell me an enameled sign but he says nothing’s for sale.”
Tracy Luther of Luther Auctions in North St. Paul, said Red Owl items are still very much in demand. “It’s one of those collectible brands that people still want to collect,” he said. “That owl is an iconic logo.”
Steven Wehrenberg, an advertising professor at the University of Minnesota and former CEO of Campbell Mithun, said it’s not surprising when dead brands maintain popularity, especially with nostalgia-loving baby boomers.
“Sometimes brands land on something with a slogan or a weird thing and it sticks,” he said. “Red Owl had the red owl, Northwestern Bank had the weather ball, and now Bud Light has ‘Dilly Dilly.’ But none of them has anything to do with groceries, banking or beer. It’s called ‘meaningless distinctiveness.’ ”
At 44, Jason Towley of Farmington isn’t old enough to remember shopping at Red Owl, but a Red Owl T-shirt he saw at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis prompted him to contact Supervalu six years ago to get licensing rights to print the official logo on clothing, hats and reusable shopping bags. Since then, he’s sold about 500 items on www.zazzle.com/towle008.
“I can’t retire on it, but it is so interesting to me that a grocery store prompts such an emotional response,” Towley said.
He frequently wears one of his Red Owl T-shirts to events with large crowds. Last year, he wore it to the Minnesota State Fair and more than 20 people stopped him. “They tell me their parents owned one or they worked at one,” he said.
Gaytko has an “XRedOwl” vanity license plate that has sparked conversations with strangers who say they got their career start at Red Owl.
“More and more people don’t remember Red Owl anymore, but former employees still have a lot of respect and even love for it,” he said. “It’s unusual in today’s marketplace to say you love your employer, but we did. There was love there.”