What is ‘Schwegmann’s style,’ anyway? Well, it started in 1949 …
By 1949, Schwegmann’s had been around for 80 years already, with the first store to bear the family’s name opening at the corner of Burgundy and Piety streets in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood in 1869. But in 1949, John G. Schwegmann — a son of one of the original Schwegmann brothers — had an idea. What if a grocery store sold more than groceries? And what if people filled their own carts instead of having a grocer fill their order for them? That thought fueled the opening at St. Claude and Elysian Fields avenues of the first Schwegmann Bros. Giant Supermarket, which he opened with his brothers. A sprawling forerunner of today’s big-box stores, it did its best to offer everything a shopper could want — and then some — at affordable prices. The first self-service store in the city, it was a hit, growing to include ever-larger stores on Airline Drive, Old Gentilly Road and other locations throughout the metro area that featured such in-store novelties as pharmacies, bakeries, bars and banks. For the next half-century, New Orleans was, as the chain’s advertising jingle sang, “making groceries Schwegmann-style.”
Like other many beloved New Orleans institutions, it isn’t there anymore, having closed in the late 1990s amid an ambitious expansion effort. The Schwegmann brand remains in the hearts of New Orleans residents, however. The first superstore location on St. Claude has been added to the National Park Service historic registry, and for many in the city the Schwegmann name still stirs memories of childhood trips to make groceries, watching one’s parents pass up other stores that couldn’t beat Schwegmanns’ prices.
- At its peak, the chain consisted of 18 locations with somewhere in the ballpark of 5,000 employees.
- Schwegmann grocery bags are an important part of the store’s history. The bags often featured advertisements for charity events or political candidates, or carried statements from the always-outspoken John G. Schwegmann. When he ran for office, which wasn’t infrequent, his own face graced the sack. Locals also remember re-using them for trick-or-treat bags, as textbook covers and for catching Mardi Gras throws.
- For years, customers could buy Old Piety & Burgundy Whiskey at their neighborhood Schwegmann. A store brand, it got its name from the location of the original Schwegmann store.
- The advent of the supermarket amazed local shoppers after World War II. The fact that one store could sell you all your groceries, as well as shoes and jewelry, contributed to the enormous popularity of Schwegmann stores.
- When it was built, the chain’s Old Gentilly Road location was billed as the largest grocery store in the world.
- “Makin groceries” had long been a part of New Orleans’ lexicon, but Schwegmann capitalized on this term in the 1980s. Many people will never forget the popular jingle: “Saving money, with a smile, Makin’ groceries, Schweggman style.”
- John G. Schwegmann was not only famous for his grocery chain, he was also famous for his litigation work and, later, for serving in the state Legislature. In the courtroom, he challenged the minimum mark-up of liquor pricing and won. He also fought the state agriculture department and the milk commission on the issue of price-fixing in the milk industry. He won again, allowing his store to import cheaper milk from outside the state.
- During an unsuccessful 1971 run for governor, Schwegmann commissioned a country song sung by Curley Langley. The refrain: “When the votes have been counted/and all is said and done/Schwegmann, John Schwegmann, you’ll be the one.”
- The end of Schwegmann era was so significant in New Orleans that it earned a write-up in the New York Times.
Mention the name Schwegmann to a local, and you are sure to hear a story or two. That’s because the long-gone supermarket ranks up there with such fondly remembered New Orleans icons as K&B, McKenzie’s, and Pontchartrain Beach as touchstones to a shared past. As Rick Bragg wrote in The New York Times in 1995, when the sale of the grocery chain was imminent, “To many people in New Orleans, it is as if a brown paper bag holding their very history has suddenly ripped apart. Memories naturally tumble out.”