Before Downtown Los Angeles's luxurious Whole Foods opened last week, there was the Ralphs on Ninth Street. And before that, there was a long lull in grocery offerings in DTLA—there hadn't been a single full-on supermarket in more than 50 years. But Downtown was once an important neighborhood for two stores that went on to become massive chains: Vons and Ralphs, whose first grocery opened in 1873 at Sixth Street and Spring. The first Ralphs focused on "carriage trade" customers (read: rich people) and delivered groceries to customers' homes, says KCET.
The founder of the chain, George A. Ralphs, might not have ever taken up the grocery business if not for an unfortunate accident that took away part of one of his arms, curtailing his ability to work as a bricklayer (his first profession). He took up grocery clerking, and then started his Downtown store with a partner, who later got bought out by Ralphs and his brother, an episode of KCRW's Good Food explains.
Coming on the scene a little later, Vons (originally, Von's) also got its start Downtown, opening its first store at Seventh Street and Figueroa in 1906. Founder Charles Von der Ahe, an immigrant from Denmark, "pioneered 'cash and carry' as an alternative to 'charge and delivery,'" says an official chain history. The first store was called Von's Groceteria. By 1928, the Vons empire included 87 stores and Von der Ahe sold the chain, luckily for him, right before the stock market crash of 1929. Not out of grocering yet, in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, he helped his sons revive the family business, but as the Vons Grocery Company. (It's not clear where along the line the apostrophe got dropped.)
Among the chains have always been smaller grocery stores too, many of which don't exist anymore, like the ones that used to sit atop Bunker Hill. Here are views of some of DTLA's old grocery stores to transport you to the pre-Whole Foods days in Downtown.
· Here It Is: Downtown LA's Insanely Fancy New Whole Foods [Curbed LA]
· Retail California: Ralphs, the Big Lebowski, and Shaping the American Shopping Experience [KCET]
· Gideon Brower: How Ralphs, TJ's and Smart & Final Got Their Names [KCRW]