Before Publix: The lost, forgotten history of local grocery stores

A&P, Pantry Pride, Food Fair, Food Lion, Piggly Wiggly, Kwik Chek, Albertson’s, Grand Union.

Over the decades, many chain grocery stores have arrived with fanfare in Palm Beach County and slowly dwindled away.

Is Winn-Dixie  next?

The chain with roots in South Florida recently announced that it may be closing a third of its stores nationwide because of financial troubles.

While it may be hard for newcomers to believe, there were grocery stores here before Publix, which debuted in Palm Beach County 58 years ago.

RELATED: How did Publix get its name?

Let’s grab a shopping cart and explore the history aisle:

Henry Flagler’s house used to be a grocery store?

Not quite. But the site of the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, on what was known as Brelsford’s Point, was the original location of the Lake Worth Grocery Company in the late 1800’s. Brothers Henry and Louis Burkhardt ran it until baron Flagler decided that he didn’t want riff-raff businesses cluttering the view of guests at his Royal Poinciana Hotel. According to the website of the Lake Worth Pioneers Association, the Burkhardt’s put their store on a barge and shipped it across the lake, where it became the first grocery store in the new burg of West Palm Beach on Feb. 1, 1893. Renamed Pioneer Grocery, it was at 207 Clematis Street, about where the Lynora’s Italian restaurant is now.

RELATED: Remember Ingram’s? It was once largest grocery store in the county

What was the first chain grocery?

Piggly Wiggly, the iconic Southern brand with the Porky Pig-like mascot. It was a big deal when Piggly Wiggly opened in November 1920 at 220 Clematis Street. Do-it-yourself stores weren’t new, but people hadn’t seen anything of Piggly Wiggly’s scale before: “The Piggly Wiggly stores seem to be operated on the cafeteria or self serve style, a feature being the absence of clerks and the arrangement of stock in such manner that customers can make their own selections,” The Palm Beach Post reported.

Opening day on Nov. 13 drew a crush of people, and customers had to be instructed to leave stuff they bought at other stores by an outside railing so as not to confuse them with Piggly Wiggly items. Patrons learned to pass through turnstiles and use a “checker” to purchase goods. A free flower was bestowed upon each visitor. Deals abounded: Ham cost 44 cents a pound, and a large can of Carnation milk went for 13 cents. “Buyers enjoyed the novelty of making their own selections, even to the point of opening the refrigerator and getting the quantity of butter they wanted,” the paper said. Piggly Wiggly stores flourished off-and-on for decades in South Florida, but disappeared by the 1990s.

Are grocery store price and service wars relatively new?

Nope. They’ve been going on since the turn of the century — the 20th century. In 1920, one West Palm store labeled itself the “Cut-Rate Grocery.” Another, the Knox Grocery on South Dixie Highway, prided itself on being the “personal service” store: “If you don’t care to buy, we will smile just the same,” said a 1927 ad.

In 1920, local grocer A.B. Cox gave himself a nickname: The Price Cutter. “I have put dollars and cents into many a man’s pockets,” he proclaimed in an ad. Cox had also opened a DIY store, The Economy Grocery, two years earlier. “My store is not a ‘fine place,’” he advertised, “but it is new and neat and clean.” Cleanliness was not to be underestimated in those days: One West Palm store was called the Sanitary Grocery, just in case you thought otherwise.

And some grocers weren’t afraid to conflate world events with retail shopping. “WAR DECLARED on all food prices,” a 1940 ad, or “communique from the Piggly Wiggly high command,” proclaimed, adding that its “Allied Food War Machine” was going to “slash, cut and otherwise shoot food prices down to levels that the enemy will be forced to give ground on the local food front.”

Who was the mystery girl behind the grocery chain?

In 1939, the Margaret Ann New Era Market opened on South Dixie Highway. Margaret Ann was supposedly a wife and homemaker who was tired of prices in other grocery stores and was determined to operate leaner and meaner. “Margaret Ann is not this woman’s name,” the Post reported. “For the time being, she prefers to remain anonymous, so that she can mingle with shoppers in the store.” But according to an article on, the whole thing was a ruse. Miami accountant Robert Pentland started the chain and named it after his young daughter, not his wife. The chain, which once had about 49 stores, was eventually bought out by the Winn-Lovett chain, a precursor of Winn-Dixie.

Did you know the cool warehouse district has a grocery store connection?

The new, hip Grandview Public Market isn’t the first food joint in the Elizabeth Avenue warehouse district in West Palm Beach. Long before it became trendy, Elizabeth Ave. was the home of Chalhub’s Grocery, which opened there in 1926, about a block from where the Grandview is now. It was run by the three Chalhub brothers — Elias, George and Leon. If they had stayed in the grocery business, they might have been forgotten. But in 1939, they bought a coin laundry and ice cream parlor at the corner of Dixie Highway and Flamingo Drive and turned it into the Carefree Bowl-Away, with wooden pins and 10 lanes that were the largest in the state at the time.

In 1948, it expanded into the beloved Carefree Theater, which Elias Chalhub owned until the early ’80s. It carried on as a theater and concert hall until the building’s roof collapsed in 2005. (Elias Chalhub, who was the face of the Carefree in its early years, was a fascinating character in his own right — a Lebanese-born immigrant who attended Harvard at age 16, owned movie theaters and drive-ins throughout the state, started as a worldwide journalist for United Press International and later became publisher of the Palm Beach Sun, which he ran from the Carefree. He was even the victim of attempted murder in 1940 when a disgruntled bowling alley employee knifed him and his brother Leon.)

So where was the first Publix in Palm Beach County, anyway?

The first Publix opened in 1959 on Osborne Road, now Lantana Road, and is still in the same location, though expanded and modernized. The second Publix opened on Southern Boulevard in West Palm Beach (still there, too) and by the end of 1959 it had five locations in the county. Today, it has 75.

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