The People’s Grocer-Review

It is my opinion that New Orleanians are either fascinated by the Schwegmann Brothers Giant Super Markets saga, recounting their own connections to the stores at the drop of a hat, or if they have no shopping history there, are completely bored by the attachment that others have to it.

My family is in the later camp and so never has been heard wailing over its loss or spending any energy preserving any of Schwegmann’s famous printed shopping bags or any of the political buttons within my late grandmother’s massive collection of New Orleans menus, World’s Fair, Superdome souvenir items and Carnival clutter.

My own experience with the chain was also slight- In the 1980s, I did regularly go to the Schwegmann’s out on Airline, but more as a visitor to a strange land than as a shopper. I went with my pal Roger who sold fancy kitchenware to department stores and high-end shops, where I would help him set up displays and tag along as he talked to the buyers. Since he was constantly assessing retail and observing cultural connections in his beloved adopted city,  Schwegmann’s appealed to him as something uniquely New Orleans and yet with industry-leading ideas like the bank and the pharmacy within its massive footprint. He loved the food counter and the bar. I learned to love retail analysis in those days while at the Airline and the West Bank stores, listening to Roger explain why John was brilliant in his design and product choices. He would have loved meeting John. He would have loved this book too.

Yet, the list of who will enjoy this book is not just those with a personal fascination for the deep local culture that begat this chain, or those with Roger and my obsession for retail histories. Really, anyone who wants to learn more about 19th century German immigration to the area, or the layout of corner stores before supermarkets, or of pricing strategies in the pharmaceutical or dairy industries, or of how early 20th century “fair trade” laws stymied discount pricing, or of the history of the Bywater area of New Orleans, or of the political arena of the latter part of 20th century Louisiana, or of later generations of family businesses who can quickly and shockingly kill the goose that lays the golden egg, will also find this book a keeper.

It is important to note that this is a biography of John Schwegmann and not only a history of the supermarkets that he founded and made into a chain of 18 beloved stores. The family’s history is front and center especially in the beginning of the book and may delve more deeply than those without local connections care to know but I suggest readers stick with it even if the family history is not the reason for reading this book. That history offers important detail in the shaping of this supermarket innovator, likely responsible for making him into the type of businessman and later politician who relied on his own intuition, his deep allegiance to his city and a small group of loyalists for advice or support. His folksy marketing and personal touch were certainly similar to other successful New Orleanians and probably true of a great many corporate founders of that golden age of family businesses in America with names like Kellogg, Ford, and Woolworth amid hundreds of others. It also shows how deeply the grocery business runs in the Schwegmann family, and yet how often family turmoil existed among struggling immigrant families even back in those hazy and halcyon days which are often used as an unfair measuring stick for our uncertain times.

This bio also offers many anecdotes from those who were there to show how John was a force of mostly good in the high-stakes world of grocery and drug sales, fighting for principles that most corporate leaders would not spend time or money to fix, all shaped by the place and people of his city. His home life may  be viewed at times as calculating in terms of his handling of wives and mistresses but author Capello rightly doesn’t linger too long on modern interpretations of John’s morals and reminds us that the businessman maintained warm relationships with the mothers of his children even after the marriages ended.

The book spends more time on Schwegmann’s world travels and later political life, which was not as impressive as his business career. That career in Baton Rouge was derailed by his opposition to Hale Boggs and almost everyone else, leading to constant no votes and also not helped by some of his political stunts like having a goat milked while testifying against the milk commission. Those responsible for the building of the Superdome were also targets of his wrath, forecasting many other fights a generation later around the U.S. by communities questioning the logic of taxpayer-sponsored sports arenas.

The research behind the book is impressive, especially when so many other writers of New Orleans history use cliches and oft-told stories that may or may not be true rather than doing the work to find primary and accurate details. Capello’s background in writing technical papers lends itself to detailed analysis of the retail industry and of the trends in pricing, product development and store design that Schwegmann pioneered. The timeline of the collapse of the chain is shared in unsentimental fashion and should allow New Orleanians to finally understand exactly how son John F. allowed this shocking collapse to happen in such a short amount of time. The author’s obvious unlimited approval of the free market system as defined by Schwegmann and others rings loud and clear throughout this book even if a few might quibble with some of the broader denunciations of the old public market system (which supported the port, small family businesses and farms by offering regulated food sales in every part of the city for 250 years) or, of John having an entirely altruistic nature in fighting for some of the price discounting that benefited his stores so clearly in a city that had no other supermarket chain to compete with his for decades.
I’d love to see Capello add to his research on this family and this sector with later papers on the superstore sector’s (meaning post Schwegmanns) complete lifespan in New Orleans and others across the U.S. with more attention paid to how the makers of things were ultimately priced out of their small production work because of this discount pricing strategy. It would also be interesting to see the author detail how the concept built and consolidated multi-generational family fortunes for discounters like this one and the Arkansas-based Waltons among others, and what those families have done with their newfound power. The destruction of Main Street might also be examined in terms of the formation of the superstore era, an era that now seems to be slowing with the latest retail category killer- the internet – and the Millennial generation’s expectations of impersonal speed and 24 hour convenience of online shopping over local retail culture and family shopping trips.
Still, there is no doubt those low prices and huge new stores meant that the mostly poor residents of this old city in those days felt attended to if they were lucky enough to have a Schwegmann (Brothers) Giant Super Market within distance of home. And with an air-conditioned bar with the cheapest liquor in town to drown their sorrows at for good measure.
I expect that this book will be used in university courses on retail and marketing, as well as in any history course devoted to the people who made New Orleans great. John Schwegmann’s story, as written in The People’s Grocer, certainly deserves that.

The People’s Grocer can be ordered here.

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About DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist.

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