Schwegmann’s Grocery has burned to the ground

The building that housed Schwegmann’s Grocery has burned to the ground.

Originally opened in 1869, it served as a launching pad for the birth of the modern supermarket in USA. John Gerald Schwegmann was born on Aug. 14, 1911 in the apartments above the old store that his grandfather, a German émigré had founded nearly a half century prior.

He wore a number of hats (postman, margarine salesman) before, at the age of 28, settling into the role of grocer along with his brothers Anthony and Paul. Together they opened the first Schwegmann Brothers Giant Supermarket on Aug. 23, 1946 at the corner of Elysian Fields and St Claude Avenue.

At it’s height, the business had 18 locations, over 5,000 workers, and in an homage to his granddad, a whiskey called Old Piety and Burgundy.

Schwegmann’s Grocery at the corner of Piety and Burgundy in New Orleans 9th Ward

Long before Trader Joe’s, Schwegmann’s introduced ‘house’ brands; products that carried the Schwegmann’s name but were not produced by the company.

Readers of a certain age may recall that in the olden days of New Orleans grocery shopping you proffered a list to a worker and that person did the shopping for you.

The Schwegmann clan put an end to that when they offered a 10 percent discount if you were willing to brave the aisles and place your items in your own basket.

It may sound quaint now but it was radical in those days.

Recognizing that regular working class folks needed a bank just like the swells who lived uptown, Schwegmann Bank & Trust Co was founded and placed inside the markets.

The lone remaining building adjacent to the historic Schwegmann’s Grocery in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans

To allow the womenfolk more time for unhurried shopping, the Schwegmann brothers put bars inside their stores. The husbands would congregate and put fire to their Lucky Strikes while hoisting a few pints of Jax or Dixie with their comrades.

Can you imagine walking into a Rouse’s Market these days to a thick cloud of cigarette smoke and a coterie of men kicked back drinking beers, and swapping tall tales? God what I wouldn’t give!

In a then radical move, Schwegmann’s accepted payments for local utilities. Thrifty shoppers could save three cents they would’ve spent on a stamp (not to mention the half-penny an envelope cost) by paying for their gas and electric right there at the grocer.

With all the good will John Gerald Schwegmann engendered from the community the grocer turned politico. He spent 12 years in the Legislature and even made a failed bid for governor. While in the lege his bills often foundered but ever the populist, the wily businessman declared “I came out fighting and at least I was loyal to the people”

The old lion of commerce was struck by a series of strokes in 1977 and stepped away from the political life.

A peek inside the former Schwegmann’s Grocery store. Photo taken in 2014

Kohlberg & Co. of Mount Kisco, New York acquired Schwegmann Grocers in February 1997 ending 128 years of family ownership of the old New Orleans chain.

John Gerald Schwegmann passed away March 6, 1995 at the age of 83 at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans.

You know there was one hell of a second line.

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