[Editor’s note: This article originally ran on March 21, 2013 under the Intersections column for KCET Departures. It was the second in a three part series on Southern California’s retail history, parts I and II can be read here and here]
Fifteen years ago, the Coen Brothers’ oddly refracted tale of Los Angeles noir, The Big Lebowski, premiered to mild applause. Over time, the film inspired a rabid cult following that has since manifested itself in countless Lebowski festivals across the U.S.
In the film, the Coen brothers depicted a low-slung 1990s Los Angeles populated by artists, gold diggers, paper millionaires, German porn stars, and bowlers galore — truly the diverse idiosyncratic metropolis admirers gush over and detractors rip. Perhaps then, the fact that our first glimpse of the notorious “Dude” — ne’er-do-well Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) — occurs in another Los Angeles institution, Ralphs, merits our attention.
Indeed, the former political radical (co-author of the original Port Huron Statement, not the “compromised” second version), roadie (the Metallica Speed of Sound Tour), and hippie meanders freely through the expansive supermarket, searching for the elusive $.69 carton of milk (to be paid for by check), as Sam Elliot (“The Stranger” in the credits) intones: “Sometimes there’s a man, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there, and that’s The Dude, in Los Angeles.” One could make a similar argument, far more convincingly mind you, for Ralphs.
With its first store in 1873, Ralphs established its first SoCal foothold in downtown Los Angeles; this year marks the 140 anniversary of its birth. If The Big Lebowski reimagined noir films in ways rarely seen, Ralphs redefined grocery shopping and food distribution while innovating the supermarket scheme for a national audience. Ralphs’ innovations in retail, and by extension supermarkets in general, rippled through the industry and eventually became a catalyst for suburban expansion.
The initial downtown store differed greatly from the egalitarian commerce enjoyed by late twentieth century Jeff Lebowski. In the period between 1873 and 1910, it focused on “carriage trade” (a.k.a. wealthy people), delivering groceries to residences citywide. Its evolution from elite trade to more popular self-service sundries and foodstuffs encapsulates the nation’s own transformation regarding food distribution and consumerism. Like drive-in markets, new technologies — the automobile and refrigerator — served as a central impetus in this transformation, shrinking distances and providing a means to transport and store food for longer periods.
If nineteenth century Americans bought food on a daily basis from a variety of small shops and producers, the twentieth century supermarket consolidated these services under one roof, razing previous beliefs regarding the volume of food consumers would purchase. Now patrons could buy supplies for a week — this proved nothing short of revolutionary.1
Though its downtown location continued to produce healthy returns, Ralphs opened its first branch store in 1911; its success led to eight others over the next decade. Even in this simple act, Ralphs owners demonstrated forward thinking. In the early decades of the twentieth century, many business observers viewed branches as detrimental to their parent stores business.2 However, by the 1930s, a noticeable shift had occurred — branches were now seen as reinforcing the brand, connecting with loyal customers, and increasing downtown patronage. With the ever-expanding metropolitan region providing demand, more and more branch stores appeared in outlying areas. Chain stores, which invested more heavily in branch expansion, grew exponentially.
Between 1920 and 1930, “the number of grocery outlets owned by chains with twenty or more units in Los Angles proper rose from 63 to 418,” according to retail and Los Angeles historian Richard Longstreth. Chains like Ralphs retained greater purchasing power and could advertise in large newspapers; smaller independent business charged higher prices because they could not buy in large volume, and probative costs prevented them from placing ads in city papers.3
Equally important, Ralphs took the growth of their branch stores as a chance to experiment with business structures and design layouts. By consolidating the various services supplied by traditional grocery stores under single ownership, they secured a stronger grasp over those offered and encouraged self service, which individual providers had previously resisted. Management cut costs and increased volume, ended delivery services, imposed a cash and carry policy, and provided ample space for parking.4 This kind of operating efficiencies employed by Ralphs were implemented simultaneously in retail counterparts like Sears, contributing to the further development of chain stores.
Some of the supermarket’s most important innovations tended to be internal. At drive-in markets, purchases had to be made department by department. Besides being less convenient, this dictated movement, a characteristic that Ralphs, and later others, eliminated. Inside the new stores, particularly its 1928 Wilshire Boulevard location, Ralphs carved out a new kind of consumer space: “lofty, imposing, yet non-hierarchical and conducive to perambulation,” notes Longstreth. Customers could traverse the store according to their own preferred path and have direct access to the goods they desired. For middle class Southern Californians, the supermarket symbolized efficiency and economy while providing consumers with a unique destination. Ralphs had created the model for the modern supermarket.
The explosion of chain stores in the 1920s also carried with it the potential to increase property values. By the end of the decade, the presence of Ralphs, Sears, and others in an outlying community meant that area was ripe for retail. The tendency of chain store companies to locate near competitors only increased such perceptions, and made chain stores an important piece in the economic development of recognized communities and emerging new ones.
A great deal of research went into selecting new sites for business. Supermarket developers studied streetcar patronage and automobile traffic, while gathering information regarding building permits, utilities, and local newspaper circulation. First-person accounts of local residential development also proved important in gathering data for new store locations.
In the retail industry, the supermarket’s influence spread far and wide. It demonstrated the soundness of selling in volume at lower prices, and creating expansive fluid spaces that encouraged customers to circulate throughout stores. Opening in 1947, the Broadway Crenshaw Center based its entire existence on the high volume sales upon which supermarkets like Ralphs and chain stores like Sears thrived.
Furthermore, department stores began establishing branches to keep up with the chain store expansion, and shifted not only to self service but also “self selection” — an approach thought “unthinkable” in earlier periods. After adopting the mass merchandising techniques of Ralphs and others, new Los Angeles department branches emerged in outlying areas in the late 1920s and 1930s. This development made Los Angeles a national leader in retail ambition and innovation.
Unfortunately, the success of Ralphs’ branches undermined that of its original store. In 1937, Ralphs closed its original downtown location. Consumers no longer demanded the decadence of full service; rather they had come to prefer the self service, automobile influenced, decentralized branches that Ralphs played an integral role in creating. This too signaled larger economic shifts, for more than just Southern California’s most important supermarket chain — the closing of Ralphs first store symbolized downtown L.A.’s existential retail crisis.
In a 1933 New Years editorial, the Los Angeles Times assured downtown retailers that new expansive days lay ahead. “The history of real estate here through seven depressions is that from every low level it climbs to new peaks,” the editors noted. “Just as prices were once absurdly inflated, they are now absurdly deflated. Hold On!”5
Yet, downtown never would fully recover. From 1930 to 1950, very little new construction occurred. The Depression did not help, as it accelerated processes that had begun a decade earlier when downtown L.A. had a vice grip over metropolitan retail. “‘Hold on’ became a watchword not for promise ahead but for preventing further deterioration,” reflects Longstreth.
Indeed, looking at regional development highlights the impossibility of downtown L.A.’s struggle. As Long Beach and Orange County expanded, the population density changed. In 1930, Los Angeles’ population growth exceeded that of the county by 300,000; in 1950 this ratio reversed itself. By the 1960s, Los Angeles residents accounted for only one third of the entire county.6 With new regional demographics and the popularity of chain stores, downtown L.A.’s future looked grim.
Obviously in recent years, with the addition of L.A. Live and the Staples Center, not to mention the return of Ralphs to city center (its opening in 2007 marked the first new supermarket in the area in 50 years), downtown has experienced a bit of a renaissance; but this came decades after its fall from retail grace.
Some historians have described the supermarket as the “penultimate” expression of commercial architecture before the rise of the shopping center and regional mall. Likewise, Ralphs emerges again in The Big Lebowski‘s penultimate scene. When confronted with what Lebowski and Vietnam obsessed sidekick Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) deem an excessive fee for the urn containing the ashes of their recently deceased bowling partner Donnie (Steve Buscemi), the two men haggle unsuccessfully with the funeral home for a more economical solution. Stymied, Sobchack asks simply, “Is there a Ralph’s around here?” Yes, yes there is.
Indeed, the coffee can purchased from said proprietor enabled the two men to spread the ashes, semi successfully, over the beaches of Southern California. If Donny surfed the beaches from La Jolla to Leo Carrillo up to Pismo, Ralphs plied its wares along the same corridor. Without Ralphs, perhaps Donnie never would never find eternal peace spiritually surfing along the SoCal coast.
“Donny, who loved, bowling,” may have left us, but Ralphs remains.
1 Richard Longstreth, The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941, (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 2000), pgs. 77-128.
3 Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950, (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1997), pgs 72 – 74.
4 Richard Longstreth, The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, pgs. 77-128.
5 Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall, 199.
6 Ibid, 225.