City once had ‘drive-in’ grocery

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 4, 1999

For two decades Albert Lea had one of the most unusual grocery stores to be found anywhere in the nation.

Sunday, April 4, 1999

For two decades Albert Lea had one of the most unusual grocery stores to be found anywhere in the nation. This was the distinctive &uot;drive-in&uot; food emporium on South Newton Avenue.

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To fully appreciate just what was involved with the novel concept of a drive-in grocery store, just consider this scenario on a really rainy spring day.

The purchaser of the family’s groceries for the week would usually defer making the shopping trip because of the rainstorm. However, at this particular store the patron could drive the vehicle into a passageway between two buildings and park in a large, fully enclosed area at the rear of the store. Then it was a matter of getting out of the car, going into the store to make the food purchases, taking the items back to the car, and exiting the drive-in grocery’s large building site.

Up to this time going to a grocery store involved a &uot;walk-to&uot; or &uot;drive-up and park&uot; proposition. (The more recent &uot;drive-through&uot; concept seems to have been assumed by the fast food restaurants and some banks.)

Albert Lea’s version of a drive-in grocery evolved in 1939 when the management of the C. Thomas Store, 106 W. Clark St., decided to move to another building on South Newton Avenue.

This new site, 229 S. Newton Ave., had been part of the Midway Motor Co., located just to the north at the East William street corner. A Tribune article said this store would have a frontage of 100 feet on Newton Avenue, and have a depth of 122 feet (which included the indoor parking area.) The alleyway at the rear was 20 foot wide.

A spokesman for C. Thomas Stores of the Twin Cities said there was only one other store of this type in Minnesota. The state’s first drive-in grocery was already operating in Duluth.

A Tribune article in late 1939 said, &uot;Those visiting the store will drive in from the Newton Avenue entrance where their car will be parked by an employee of the store. After merchandise has been purchased by a customer it will be placed in his or her car and exit will be made through the rear into the alleyway.&uot;

This indicated there would be a combination of valet parking and carry-out service.

Albert Lea’s version of a drive-in grocery store opened in January 1940 with a three-day observance. The new store started off with &uot;Farmer’s Day.&uot; The second was &uot;Children’s Day.&uot; This was followed by &uot;Albert Lea Day.&uot;

The C. Thomas firm stressed dairy foods, baked goods, pastries, meats, salt and &uot;farmers’ supplies&uot; in their stores. And for the Albert Lea store special emphasis was placed on having &uot;a clean and accessible restroom for the lady customers.&uot;

A store spokesman commented, &uot;This store is not the usual type self-service store. It is known as the semi-self-service, in that only staple groceries are selected by the customers. Handy carts are provided each customer.&uot;

This may indicate that the C. Thomas Store was one of the first establishments in the city to have shopping carts.

Sometime in the early 1940s, National Tea Co. took over Albert Lea’s C. Thomas Store. The new owners continued to operate with the drive-in feature. However, the valet parking gimmick was phased out.

By 1959 this establishment was listed as the National Food Store with Allen J. Rudolph as manager. Then, within a year or two, National moved to 416 Bridge Ave., where all the vehicle parking was on an outdoor parking lot.

There may have been an attempt to have a drive-in furniture store at the Newton Avenue location for a few months.

City records show that the former garage building, converted to a drive-in food store for two decades, was torn down in 1962. This site became the location for the new Peoples Savings and Loan Association building. Now, with even more revisions, Americana National Bank has replaced the drive-in concept with its own drive-through services.