In July of 1948 a crowd of thousands gathered in Inwood for a Broadway premier.
The premier did not feature a new hit musical or blockbuster movie screening, in fact, over the course of two sweltering summer days, some 31,000 lined upper Broadway to take a look inside a revolutionary new grocery store; the likes of which most had never seen.
The Grand Union, located on 4776 Broadway, near Dyckman Street, featured the latest in self-serve technology. On that hot summer day, would be shoppers were given the red carpet treatment as proud store managers offered a preview of the “Food-O-Mat,” as well as other advances in supermarket technology.
“Grand Union is proud of this latest addition to its chain and grateful for the praise given it by all those who attended the preview,” an advertisement touting the event proclaimed. “For over 75 years Grand Union has been serving American housewives with quality foods and has progressed from a single store to a nationally known organization with yearly sales of more than One Hundred Million Dollars.”
Billed as “a store of tomorrow,” the advertisement alerted newspaper readers that, “At the Grand Union butchering is done by remote control. So is most of the other customer serving, because the store proudly displays its canned and package commodities, from beauty treatment to baby food in devices that eliminates old-style pyramids, stacks and piles of cans.”
Grand Union also featured a “Meat-eria,” which advertisements claimed was the first self-serve meat and poultry department in all of Manhattan.
For its Hollywood-like premier, the company enlisted celebrities and radio hosts to endorse the modern wonder of upper Broadway.
According to Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald of the popular “Fitzgeralds” radio show: “It’s revolutionary. There’s nothing like it, so far as I know, in the grocery business today. In the first place, it’s immaculately clean. In the second place, there are actually thousands of individual items within your view and within easy reach.”
Patt Barnes of “People and Things,” said of the event: “I’ve opened many a theatre in my time, legitimate theatres and movie theatres and a couple of halls, but this was the first time I ever opened a grocery store…I call it the Grand Union Super Dream Market. Girls, it features the Food-O-Mat…In this store the butcher is a tailor. I mean, he tailors the meat to fit your purse and save all waste. Really, it’s terrific.”
Even radio reporter Peter Roberts gushed about the new addition to the neighborhood, “It may spoil you, but then you can afford to get used to it, for they say it’s the super market of tomorrow, the new Grand Union on Broadway near Dyckman Street in upper Manhattan. Glamorous? Why, it’s had two days of previews in the best Hollywood manner. Comfortable? Aisles eight feet wide, eight checkout registers, two of them reserved for customers with just a couple of items, even drinking fountains.”
The event was considered newsworthy enough that even the New York Times dispatched reporter Jane Nickerson to cover the store opening.
Nickerson agreed that the store was clean, affordable and likely to do booming business. She was also awestruck by the technological innovations on display at the Grand Union.
Like other reporters, Nickerson was captivated by the Food-O-Mat “that dispenses packaged groceries with neat economy from a rack of sloping shelves. The items the Food-O-Mat displays in about 108 feet would require 500 feet of ordinary shelf room.”
There was also the “Spectaculat,” a giant screen that proudly displayed an ever-changing list of store specials reminiscent of the display screens at Grand Central Station.
The Times scribe was especially keen on the concept of a self-serve butcher. “It is the Meateria that is this department store’s most interesting department. Seventy-eight feet of reach-in refrigerated counters hold every kind of fresh and smoked meat and poultry, all pre-trimmed and cellophane-wrapped in a behind-the-scenes shop, where they also are labeled as to price a pound, total price, and type of cut.” Nickerson continued, “Select anything that suits the palate and purse—a cut-up fowl, half a leg of lamb, eight-ounce steak. And if you don’t see what you want, you’re invited to ask one of the ‘hostesses’ to fetch it for you.”
A grocery store hostess. Those were the days.
If you have any Grand Union memories you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you.