During the heyday of his local supermarket empire, John G. Schwegmann was known for clearly distilling his thoughts on any number of topics onto the sides of his store’s brown shopping bags. His writing also turned up in local newspapers, in full-page ads that not only highlighted store specials but also discussed politics, world affairs and whatever else might be on his mind.
Fortunately for students of history, or those too young to have “made groceries at Swagg-man’s” (to borrow from the local dialect), author David Cappello goes a lot further than a brown bag or newspaper ad to chronicle the Schwegmann’s story.
He devotes nearly 400 pages to Schwegmann, his stores and life story, in his recent book, “The People’s Grocer: John G. Schwegmann, New Orleans, and the Making of the Modern Retail World” ($20, Neutral Ground Press, thepeoplesgrocer.com). It is a comprehensive look at a powerful populist — a man who was often controversial and eccentric but ultimately wildly successful.
Since Schwegmann died in 1995 and the store chain (later overseen by his son John F. Schwegmann) collapsed and closed in 1999, Cappello writes that he fears the grocer's legacy as a retail giant is fading. “Almost no one knows his story,” he says.
The book makes a strong case for Schwegmann as a retail genius, ahead of and on par, some would say, with Sam Walton, of Walmart fame, who is said to have met Schwegmann early in his career. His book delves deeply into the life story, successes and failures of the legendary grocer, a high school dropout turned multimillionaire.
A retailing titan and marketing wiz, Schwegmann would become the local king of the large-scale grocery store, known for “low-cost, low-price, high-volume principles” and “everyday low prices,” decades ahead of Walmart.
More than a grocery store
Even those who know little about the man may know a lot about his grocery stores. They’ll recount for you their memories of their neighborhood stores, whether in the city or the suburbs.
Huge in size, the supermarkets’ product selection was mind-boggling, offering hundreds of products, from the everyday to the unusual — for example, a seafood department that included crawfish, frog, turtle and alligator.
At a time when few grocery stores sold beer, there was a 1,500-square-foot liquor department in the original St. Claude store. The 1946 Schwegmann’s also offered 200 brands and varieties of liquor and wine, including several Schwegmann “private-label” lines. Later, bars were incorporated into some stores, which all offered huge spirits sections and liquor at discounted prices.
Schwegmann’s truly was more than a grocery store. There were four nonfood departments in the first store (replicated and expanded in other locations to follow): drugs and cosmetics, hardware and sporting goods, housewares and gifts, and a snack bar.
Later stores added pharmacies (unheard of at the time) as well as banks, gas stations, bakeries, radio and TV appliance shops, shoe repair, barbershops and floral shops, with space leased to outside businesses.
Practically every service or product a person could think of would be easily available at a Schwegmann store, all of which contributed to the local chain’s success.
On Saturday, Aug. 12, to celebrate the book’s publication and what would have been John G. Schwegmann’s 106th birthday, Cappello and friends plan what they call an “All-Day Bywater Birthday Spectacular” with several Schwegmann-themed events. Bywater Bakery, 3624 Dauphine St. (a block away from Schwegmann’s grandparents’ former home), will hold a book signing featuring birthday cake and entertainment from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. To celebrate Schwegmann’s German heritage, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., the party will move to Bratz Y’all! Bistro, Bakery, and Biergarten, 617 Piety St.
In the spirit of Schwegmann’s famous grocery bags, attendees will be provided a brown paper sack and marker to express their own political causes or endorsements. Finally, that evening, the legendary Bud Rip’s Old Ninth Ward Bar, 900 Piety St., will feature a special cocktail to honor old man Schwegmann.
Starting life above the store
Walk a block over and you are right where the Schwegmann life story starts, at the family’s original corner store at Piety and Burgundy in Bywater, above which Schwegmann lived as a child. The story began there but really blossomed in 1946 when Schwegmann went out on his own and opened the original Schwegmann Bros. Giant Supermarket at St. Claude and Elysian Fields avenues.
The building at that site is being returned to commerce as a Robert Fresh Market, after many years of court fights and blighted status.
Branching out from the city, Schwegmann opened his second supermarket on Airline Highway near Labarre Road in Metairie. Dubbed the world’s first supercenter, it opened in 1951 and was 84,000 square feet, “more than triple, almost quadruple, the size considered at the far edge of optimal (25,000 square feet) by conventional retail wisdom in 1950,” according to Cappello.
The store featured a mammoth parking lot, which could accommodate some 2,000 cars. Schwegmann and his team introduced a new method of climate control to cool the cavernous building — spraying a constant stream of water on the roof, supplied from two wells dug on the property.
There also was air conditioning in the building, though Cappello says it was used only in two areas: upstairs (in offices and a pharmacy storage space) and to cool the store’s bar.
If the Airline store was big, Schwegmann’s third store, on Old Gentilly Road near Chef Menteur Highway, was truly giant — a 300,000-square-foot behemoth. It became a "destination" store, drawing shoppers throughout the region. In a fascinating chapter, Schwegmann sold bonds to customers to help finance its construction. Ten thousand bonds were issued at $100 each and snapped up by customers who now owned a stake in their store.
A populist streak
Besides his grocery stores, many pages in the book are devoted to the stories of John Schwegmann, the public figure. Those chapters point to Schwegmann’s populist streak and his fight against “fair trade laws,” or price-fixing in general, as well as in the pharmaceutical, liquor and dairy industries.
Although hard to believe now, there was a time when discounting was “flat-out illegal,” Cappello writes, under agreements reached or allowed between manufacturers and government. Several of Schwegmann’s legal fights to change the practice (presumably for both his own financial benefit and for the “little guy” he claimed to always represent) went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Schwegmann used his newspaper ads to offer blunt and pointed commentary on the price-fixing wars and many other issues. One 1963 ad featured Schwegmann’s supposed family coat of arms and the origin of their name, which he said came from “schweg,” a Germanic term for ax.
Thus, a schwegman was an axman, soldier or knight. “We at Schwegmann’s are still carrying out the old tradition — protecting the people’s pocketbook, slashing prices, and waging war on the price fixers,” the ad claimed.
Schwegmann’s political fights also are chronicled in the book, including his 1970s campaign against the Louisiana Superdome — a fight in which he found few supporters but made waves nonetheless. He also ran unsuccessfully for governor and Jefferson Parish president. He did win election to both the state Legislature and Public Service Commission. He held the commission post for five years and was followed by his son, John F. Schwegmann, who served on the commission for 15 years.
His wife, Melinda, is remembered as the first female lieutenant governor of Louisiana. The visages of all three (and many other political candidates over the years) were featured prominently on Schwegmann’s brown paper shopping bags.
Cappello dives into his subject’s life story with skills honed during his years as a business analyst who once authored market research studies. In the book, there are lengthy, though worthwhile, discussions of the coming of age of supermarkets, as well as histories of price-fixing and fair trade laws.
Still some surprises
But Cappello also aims to paint a personal portrait of the man and his family, which includes his children — two of whom granted interviews and archival photos — as well as two divorces and love affairs later in life. Not even pets are forgotten, some of them featured in ads.
Even for those who may know some of his life story, the book does bring surprises. Though he had “genealogical roots in the grocery store business,” beginning with relatives who established the first proper grocery store in New Orleans in the 1860s, a young Schwegmann was urged to find another career.
His uncle explained to the young man that it would be in his best interest to get a job somewhere else to learn different ways of doing business. Before choosing real estate as his first career, young Schwegmann attended Soule Business School, worked for a bank and in sales for a margarine company.
He also went to Moler Barber College, following the advice of his aunt who said because “hair always grows,” he would never be out of a job. He never was, but it wasn’t as a barber.
After reading "The People’s Grocer," it’s hard to imagine Schwegmann as anything other than a supermarket superstar. But you might not know the whole story of the man behind the name. Cappello’s book aims to change that.
In addition to the Aug. 12 events, Cappello also will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Aug. 31 at the Jefferson Parish East Bank Regional Library, 4747 W. Napoleon Ave., Metairie.
All-Day Bywater Birthday Spectacular
Celebrating John G. Schwegmann
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12
WHERE: Bywater Bakery
3624 Dauphine St.
WHEN: 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12
WHERE: Bratz Y'all
617 Piety St.