In praise of 'Rotten Old Supermarkets'

As Wallingford's signature neon sign rises anew at QFC, a short reflection on the glory days of post-war grocery shopping.
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Changing of the guard at Wallingford's signature supermarket

As Wallingford's signature neon sign rises anew at QFC, a short reflection on the glory days of post-war grocery shopping.

The QFC in Wallingford is undergoing a major remodeling, with nearly every element of the original Food Giant building now superseded by new construction. Except for a few brick walls here and there, this is not your father'ꀙs (or, probably, your) old store. Though the store is new, the massive neon 'ꀜWALLINGFORD'ꀝ sign, refashioned in 1996 mostly from old 'ꀜFOOD GIANT'ꀝ letters, has just returned to the store'ꀙs south side.

Watching the bones of the old Food Giant disappear got me thinking about how much the look and feel of the retail food business has changed in the 35 years or so that I'ꀙve been paying attention.

In the boom times after World War II, a new architectural and cultural wonder began to appear in the American landscape: the supermarket. With massive footprints and tarmac-like parking lots, the supermarket brought the dry goods merchant, the grocer, the greengrocer and the butcher under one enormous roof.

Growing up in the 1970s on the Eastside, I was witness to the last glory years of the original American supermarket, as the hangar-like structures and grocery fixtures within began to tire and fade, and new and even bigger commercial developments with buffets and banks and eventually video rental departments began to displace their elders in the suburbs and exurbs.

I began to think of the dilapidated examples that did survive the 1970s as, affectionately, 'ꀜrotten old supermarkets,'ꀝ from a sincere fondness for their tenacity, for their long-serving staff and for the, literally, shopworn quality of the buildings, signage and wildly inefficient old Hussman freezer cases, Sweda mechanical cash registers, Hobart meat cutters, Chatillion produce scales and Reznor overhead heaters. It was a paradise of 20th century American-made know-how, a canvas upon which to depict the bounty of produce, frozen foods and canned goods so readily available in every community fortunate enough to attract a supermarket back in their salad (the kind you make at home — not the kind from a salad bar) days.

Rotten Old Supermarkets were all over the Eastside well into the 1980s, including the V&B in Redmond; Art'ꀙs on Rose Hill (which turned into a Tradewell for awhile, but nobody was fooled — they still had the old blue neon windmill Van de Kamp'ꀙs bakery sign on the side of the building); the Lucky in Juanita; and Grocery Boys near Crossroads. And Seattle had its great places, too: especially the old Shop Rites on Capitol Hill and First Hill; the Stone Way Safeway in Wallingford; and the Tradewell in West Seattle.

The Food Giant in Wallingford was Seattle'ꀙs flagship Rotten Old Supermarket — the Santa Maria of the fleet — until QFC'ꀙs take over just 13 years ago. They did a fairly extensive remodel then, but mostly within the confines of the original building. Those irritating QFC cards came soon after, and then the self-service checkout stations, clearly heralding sunset on the glory days of the American supermarket.

The new remodel project appears to be excising any and all reminders of the old store and that glorious Rotten Old Supermarket era, no matter what the neon letters may spell out up on the roof.


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