Roots of Tom Thumb in Dallas (pre-1948)

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Roots of Tom Thumb in Dallas (pre-1948)

Post by Groceteria » 14 Dec 2016 21:41

Most of the published accounts of Tom Thumb's history suggest that it burst forth on to the scene in 1948 when Cullum acquired six Toro Supermarkets. But the 1948 Dallas city directory also lists 52 "Tom Thumb Food Marts" in addition to the "Super Marts", which seem to be small locations, many of which were repurposed older chain stores.

Unfortunately, I don't have access to any additional data between 1934 (when there were none) and 1948, so I can't say when the stores first appeared. Clearly, though, they didn't just appear overnight, so I'm wondering if they were also Cullum-owned stores or maybe a franchise/co-op supplied by Cullum.

Anyone with info or insight?

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Re: Roots of Tom Thumb in Dallas (pre-1948)

Post by pseudo3d » 15 Dec 2016 10:13

Groceteria wrote:Most of the published accounts of Tom Thumb's history suggest that it burst forth on to the scene in 1948 when Cullum acquired six Toro Supermarkets. But the 1948 Dallas city directory also lists 52 "Tom Thumb Food Marts" in addition to the "Super Marts", which seem to be small locations, many of which were repurposed older chain stores.

Unfortunately, I don't have access to any additional data between 1934 (when there were none) and 1948, so I can't say when the stores first appeared. Clearly, though, they didn't just appear overnight, so I'm wondering if they were also Cullum-owned stores or maybe a franchise/co-op supplied by Cullum.

Anyone with info or insight?
I've often wondered about that too. In 2014, Safeway announced it would close the Highland Park Village Tom Thumb store, an outdated 20k square foot store. A newspaper article said that opened in 1939, well before Tom Thumb, so something may be wrong (plus 20k square feet would be massive for a 1939 store, so it must have expanded or moved).

Meanwhile, Tom Thumb also appears to have been in Waco and Austin. Evidence suggests they got in fairly early, they sold a few stores to Albertsons, which allowed them to get in the market (they would sell out in 2007 to H-E-B, which converted a few stores and sold the rest), with the remaining stores being Tom Thumb until around 1994 when they were converted to Randalls (their parent company at the time).

There were a number of Tom Thumb stores in Waco that appear to be of the same chain (and not a similarly-named store) as of 1951, five small stores, in fact. (link). For these, it looks like the buildings are still there but none of them are active as grocery stores today. It appears that these were not built as Tom Thumb stores. (Waco also had a local store that briefly became a Kroger in the 1960s, but other than that has been a black hole in terms of supermarkets...Winn-Dixie and Albertsons left in 2002 and 2006, respectively, and is now wholly an H-E-B town today). The fact that FIVE grocery stores appeared in a market many miles away just three years after a chain's founding is unheard of.

The problem with Tom Thumb is that it had very small stores, and despite being a similar demographic as what Randalls was doing in Houston, it was an incredibly poor fit for the Randalls chain, whereas Randalls was building massive stores in the early 1990s (70k-80k square feet for new stores), Tom Thumb (which had more stores) had a number of sub-20k square feet stores, even well into the Safeway era (it still does today). Tom Thumb only was able to have somewhat larger stores through a drug store they bought, Page Drug Stores, so there's references to "Tom Thumb-Page". After Randalls bought Tom Thumb, the stores were renamed as Tom Thumb Food & Pharmacy and the stand-alone Page stores were sold to Eckerd.

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Re: Roots of Tom Thumb in Dallas (pre-1948)

Post by Groceteria » 15 Dec 2016 14:07

I'm betting the Highland Park store that closed probably opened as a Safeway and came into the Tom Thumb fold in 1987. A Safeway opened there pre-1948; it could have expanded or relocated within the center over the years.

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Re: Roots of Tom Thumb in Dallas (pre-1948)

Post by pseudo3d » 15 Dec 2016 17:38

Groceteria wrote:I'm betting the Highland Park store that closed probably opened as a Safeway and came into the Tom Thumb fold in 1987. A Safeway opened there pre-1948; it could have expanded or relocated within the center over the years.
This post was written as I did research, as a result, it may seem a bit disjointed. Please keep this mind as you read this. Short version: the reason you're finding discrepancies is because the official history is not true.

That's always possible, Safeway's early stores are slippy, as I know that for my town's Safeway stores, one opened in 1950 (or 1951) with a basement then decided to tear down and build a larger store in 1965 (which was 20k square feet, and abandoned in the mid-1980s). A second one opened in the 1950s as part of a new shopping center, then built another store in 1977 a few miles away to replace it, then replaced THAT store in the late 1980s right before the Houston division spun off.

Your theory holds water, though, I have access to Dallas Morning News archives (but only to 1977) and Safeway DID have a store in Highland Park Village as of 1977, with its lease holding for another four years (as of 1977). The article notes that there were rumors that Safeway was to be replaced with a "specialty grocery store" but the owner assured them that Safeway was to ride out their lease and had wanted Safeway to renew their lease. What I think happened is that unless Safeway was dumped for a Tom Thumb in the early 1980s, Safeway did held onto the store up until 1987 when the division was closed down, and this store was picked up by Tom Thumb. Since Randalls bought Tom Thumb about five years later, I would assume that Tom Thumb was doing well at Highland Park Village and Randalls re-signed the lease, but by the time Safeway purchased Randalls, they weren't so keen on smaller stores (they closed the original Turtle Creek Village store in 2001) and decided not to renew, closing it sometime in late 2014 or January 2015.

While I was writing this post, this blog post says that it indeed opened as a Safeway in 1935, though I'm not sure if it moved or expanded.

BUT, I did some searching in the same archives for pre-1948 references to "Tom Thumb" and after a lot of false positives ("Tom Thumb weddings"), I found a March 6, 1947 article (one year before the "official" founding) that said that it was a grocery co-operative owned by one J.R. Bost. I've uploaded the article to my Dropbox. Another 1947 reference (an advertisement) even has the same familiar Tom Thumb mascot, with by this time 46 stores in the cooperative. All of these stores had different owners. Several ads refer to [Name]'s new Tom Thumb store. In April 1948, Bost and Cullum bought the Toro stores. Previously, the Cullum brothers had only been involved in wholesaling.

From there, I don't know what happened to the remaining Tom Thumb stores that they DIDN'T own, but the real story is quite telling. In the "official" story Tom Thumb's beginnings come with the Cullums' purchase of Toro stores, and J.R. Bost, the actual founder of Tom Thumb is relegated to a business partner, and they started to get all these stores because their stores were a huge success.

This is amazing. Not only is this probably the first time that anyone in the Internet age has told the full story to what really happened but the Cullums stole the credit for the company and have peddling a distorted version of the truth for years. Something nasty must have happened between Bost and Cullum because this distorted truth has been going on for years.

I found another 1975 article (by this time Tom Thumb was going strong with the Cullums in control) where Bob Cullum claims to have come up with the name and that they hired Bost from Safeway because they had no experience running grocery stores. Bull! Bost was already in charge with the stores they claimed to have founded!

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Re: Roots of Tom Thumb in Dallas (pre-1948)

Post by Groceteria » 15 Dec 2016 21:31

Wow. Great story!

It's sort of reminiscent of how McDonald's used to gloss over most of the McDonald Brothers' franchising that occurred before Ray Kroc came on the scene.

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Re: Roots of Tom Thumb in Dallas (pre-1948)

Post by pseudo3d » 15 Dec 2016 23:08

Groceteria wrote:Wow. Great story!

It's sort of reminiscent of how McDonald's used to gloss over most of the McDonald Brothers' franchising that occurred before Ray Kroc came on the scene.
A better example would be Ray Kroc's business partner Harry Sonneborn, the brains behind the real estate operation and what made it great in the process. Sonneborn and Kroc had a falling out, Sonneborn sold his shares in the company that would've made him filthy rich if he had held onto them, and the general animosity between Sonneborn and Kroc was so great that Kroc's successor Fred Turner had commissioned a portrait of Sonneborn for the company's lobby, but never put it up until after Kroc's death.

Either way, while McDonald's glosses over important parts of its own history, it doesn't fabricate them.

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Re: Roots of Tom Thumb in Dallas (pre-1948)

Post by Groceteria » 15 Dec 2016 23:14

As of 1953, there were a total of 34 locations listed:

- 11 co-branded stores (e.g. "Deckard's Tom Thumb")
- 8 "Food Marts"
- 15 "Super Marts"

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Re: Roots of Tom Thumb in Dallas (pre-1948)

Post by pseudo3d » 16 Dec 2016 14:45

Groceteria wrote:As of 1953, there were a total of 34 locations listed:

- 11 co-branded stores (e.g. "Deckard's Tom Thumb")
- 8 "Food Marts"
- 15 "Super Marts"
Given that there were about five in Waco during this time, I would guess that the actual "chain" had far more stores (at least 40+) that just weren't listed in the Dallas (proper) directory. What I don't know is when the Cullum Cos. started to buy out the "other" Tom Thumb stores or revoke the name.

In 1953, Tom Thumb Stores Inc. advertised in the paper, instructing potential employees to see "Mr. Bost". This was located at 2533 Hawes Road in the A.W. Cullum Building. No references to Bost and Cullum appear together prior to 1948 when the Cullums bought Toro and rebranded them as Tom Thumb. An article from 1951 entitled "Brothers-Sister Team Expands Food Business" that explains that Bost was like a brother to the Cullum team "personally and in business relations", and that there were 91 affiliate independent Tom Thumb stores. It also mentions that Bost had sold his first Tom Thumb store to the Cullums. The 1951 article also mentions that it was the Cullums who came up with the mascot (though notably not the name), so it's possible (likely?) that the Cullums (being grocery wholesalers) were tangentially involved in the early years of Tom Thumb. Knowing we do now, it would seem like what happened between the Cullums and Bost was very bad.

A 1954 article mentions that there were two companies, Tom Thumb Stores Inc. and A.W. Cullum Co. Inc. (Cullum controlled both, but Bost was vice president and general manager of the Tom Thumb stores); at this point there were 14 Cullum-owned stores and 75 franchise stores. Only Dallas, Cleburne, and Gainesville had actual Cullum owned stores. The official Tom Thumb site mentions that there were 20 stores in the chain, that appears to be accurate from the "owned" end, as a 1955 article mentions that Cullum bought McCullars of Tyler (4 stores).

A February 1956 article says that there were 19 supermarkets (14 in Dallas, 4 in Tyler, and one in Cleburne, I guess Gainesville had closed) owned by Cullum and 66 independent stores (dropping). The article correctly says that the first Tom Thumb was opened on Preston Road by Bost in 1945. The same article mentioned that Tom Thumb would open six stores in 1956 (no more than 20k square feet each). Bost was still working his position in the late 1950s, and in 1965 article talks about how Tom Thumb started in 1945 by Bost. (Advertisements mentioning Bost appeared in 1960)

In 1968, Bost was listed with other Tom Thumb execs for a "20th Anniversary Celebration" (of the Cullum stores, not the original Tom Thumb). The narrative already seemed to be changing.

In 1970, Bost retired and the company had a "J.R. Bost Award" for the best employees, but the narrative was already changing, an article mentions a meatcutter who worked since the "very beginning" in 1948--the founding of the Cullum-owned Tom Thumb chain but not the first Tom Thumb. But continuing forward to 1975, they talk about creating the Tom Thumb name and logo, and hiring Bost from Safeway...notably not what happened in reality. The 1975 article does mention that the change to the Cullum Companies was in 1969, presumably merging the wholesale business with Tom Thumb. This is probably when Bost retired. Their entry to Austin in 1972 was through a chain called Rylander.

I can't find anywhere regarding Bost's death but I find it suspicious how quickly Bost was written out of the narrative, despite the fact that they did have an award in his honor. I also can't find when the last of the franchisee Tom Thumb stores disappeared, probably in the 1960s when Cullum bought Page Drug Stores and Simon David.

In 1977, the archives I have to access to in Dallas Morning News ends. I don't know what happened next to Tom Thumb. Rumors of it merging with Randall's Food Markets of Houston happened early as 1983, and Tom Thumb sold eight stores to Albertsons in 1989, six of those were in Austin. Since Tom Thumb remained in Austin until the mid-1990s, I have no idea why they would give that "in" to a competitor. It also had partnered with Wal-Mart for the first Hypermart USA store and had purchased a number of former Safeway stores when the Dallas division closed in 1987.

I also have no idea why the Cullums chose to sell out in 1992 to Randall's. Randall's was actually far smaller in store count, so the number of stores Randall's owned more than doubled (46 to 125), and a result it was saddled in debt. Randall's did open a number of newer, larger stores but also did a lot of damage to the company. Cullum's management was bottoms-up to Randalls top-down and that caused a lot of chaos and the loss of management. From the get-go, Randall's had eliminated about 75% of Tom Thumb's upper management and outsourced the distribution (Cullum had originally been a wholesaler and self-distributed, Randall's outsourced it to Fleming).

Randall's never did recover from their debt, and their net store growth ground to a halt. A buyout from KKR infused the company with cash in 1997 but at the cost of majority control, and by 1999 when Safeway approached Randalls, the Onsteads (which owned Randalls) only owned 20% of the company. This happened at around the same time Tom Thumb returned to self-distribution, as Randalls had purchased a huge distribution center that Food Lion had built in the early 1990s what they had thought would be the home to a massive division.

Despite Safeway cutting a lot of labor and niceties out of Tom Thumb, Tom Thumb did not suffer a similar fate to Randalls, as Tom Thumb's base was located in stable, upper-class areas fairly close to the city, whereas Randalls stores were located in suburban areas, many of which were declining at about the time Safeway took over. Still, the market share had declined to 15% by 2004 (not sure what it was before) behind Albertsons and Walmart, and that was before a round of closures by Safeway in 2005 that closed nine stores. With the brutalizing of Albertsons starting in 2006, only by the combined forces of Tom Thumb, Albertsons, and Market Street were they able to get a market share that edges out Kroger. That's how bad it got.

By the way, ask me (you should have my email) if you want any other of the articles I found while researching it.

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Re: Roots of Tom Thumb in Dallas (pre-1948)

Post by Groceteria » 17 Dec 2016 00:06

By the 1961 city directory, which I parsed tonight, the co-branded stores were no longer listed. Several were still operating under their owners' names without the Tom Thumb branding.

Just doing a quick, random look at locations in Google Street View, I see that there are still a number of relatively small Tom Thumb stores operating in old Safeway buildings that seem to date from the late 1950s. I'm kind of curious to see what these stores have morphed into.

I''l get in touch off-board about articles; I would like to see what you have.

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Re: Roots of Tom Thumb in Dallas (pre-1948)

Post by Groceteria » 17 Dec 2016 00:08

BTW, I hope to maybe get the Dallas location list online this weekend sometime, but feel free to preview here while I work on it:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/ ... sp=sharing

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Re: Roots of Tom Thumb in Dallas (pre-1948)

Post by Groceteria » 18 Dec 2016 18:38


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