By Katherine Hon
Newspapers have been full of stories about the collapse of Haggen’s grocery store chain. The pundits who predicted Haggen’s abject failure at expansion are probably patting themselves on the back for being so accurate. But in the early 1900s, those who predicted the failure of an even bigger change in grocery store operations across the U.S. turned out to be totally wrong, and North Park was a big part of that story.
In a typical grocery store in the early 1900s, a customer would come to the store counter and give an order to a clerk, who would then gather and package the items and hand them to the customer or deliver them to the customer’s home. A bill was sent after the purchase or put on a monthly account. The variety of products was limited, service took time and debts could accumulate.
In 1916, Clarence Saunders of Memphis, Tennessee had a novel idea to eliminate the inefficiencies and cut store costs. He opened a store where he provided baskets to customers as they entered the store and passed through a turnstile, let them stroll the aisles where articles were conveniently placed on shelves, had customers pick their own items, and then had the customer pay for purchases in cash when they left. He named his store Piggly Wiggly, reputedly because people strolling through the winding aisles reminded him of little piggies wiggling through fences in search of food. The experts said the concept would never work.
But the new store concept was instantly popular, and by 1922 there were thousands of Piggly Wiggly stores in 340 cities across the U.S. Saunders issued franchises to hundreds of grocery retailers, who continued to successfully operate the stores even when he ceased to be involved in the company in the early 1920s. The Piggly Wiggly concept of self-service grocery shopping revolutionized the grocery industry. Among many modern conveniences, the store was the first to provide checkout stands, price mark every item in the store, and use refrigerated cases for produce.
The first Piggly Wiggly in San Diego opened in October 1922 at 1040 Seventh St. For their second store, which opened in December 1922, the company chose North Park. The store was located at 3837 30th St. in the building near University Avenue that now houses George’s Camera.
In 1926, Jack Hartley had a new facility for Piggly Wiggly built by William Gibb at 3829 30th St. (current home of Bar Pink and Overload). Multiple stores followed, including Piggly Wigglys on Park Boulevard, Adams Avenue and Juniper Street.
In 1939, a Streamline Moderne architectural style building was constructed at 3015 Wightman (now North Park Way) to house a Piggly Wiggly. This store, currently the home of the Bargain Center, incorporated another novelty, an automobile parking lot.
On Dec. 8, 1922 a San Diego Union article announcing the first 30th Street store opening in North Park noted that this location “was chosen because of repeated solicitations from that neighborhood that we establish a PIGGLY WIGGLY store in that part of San Diego.”
A 1925 news article about the fifth Piggly Wiggly store opening at Fifth and A streets Downtown praised the North Park resident who was behind the San Diego operations, Dudley D. Williams, for investing in San Diego. Williams lived with his wife Elma in North Park at 3675 31st St. In 1926, he commissioned a house at 3594 28th St. from well-known North Park builder Joseph Kelley. This was Dudley Williams’ home for the final 20 years of his life, at which time he was the proprietor of 24 markets. He was quoted in a 1922 San Diego Union article as saying, “It has been my good fortune to visit every city in the United States of more than 10,000 population and things look right to me in San Diego.” Apparently, things looked best to him in North Park.
To learn more about the history of Piggly Wiggly, which no longer serves San Diego but operates in 17 states outside of California, visit bit.ly/1GnifaX.
—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.