COMPTON, Calif. -- The 125-year history of Ralphs Grocery Co. here began by accident -- a hunting accident that shattered the left arm of George Albert Ralphs.
y clerk at a market in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. In 1873 Ralphs bought out the store's owner for $2,000, took his two brothers as partners and renamed the 7,300-square-foot store Ralphs Bros. Grocers.
The founder pursued a basic principle in developing his business: "If we don't want it on our tables, we don't want it in our stores," he said.
Always known as an innovator, Ralphs opted early on to offer customers fresher produce at lower prices by providing lodging for farmers and stable facilities for their horses when they traveled to the city to sell their crops. According to a company history, this policy attracted so many enthusiastic sellers that Ralphs was able to buy entire crops at one time at volume savings, and so offer fresher items to its customers while passing the savings along.
Ralphs Bros. Grocers stressed low prices from the beginning, using the slogan, "Geo. A. Ralphs Sell for Less," in a 1907 catalog. While food remained the stores' mainstay, the catalog also listed such nonfood items as oil stoves, ice boxes, alarm clocks, chimney lamps and "every kitchen utensil an up-to-date person could dream of."
The company was incorporated as Ralphs Grocery Co. in 1909, and after operating four stores in the downtown area, the growing chain opened its first store in "the country" a couple of miles west of downtown.
In 1926 Ralphs opened its own bakery -- its first venture into manufacturing -- to keep bread prices down, followed in 1932 by the opening of its own creamery. Products from both facilities featured the Ralphs name on them, marking one of the earliest uses of private labels.
By 1928, when it had 17 stores, Ralphs abandoned home delivery in favor of self-service and front-end checkstands, with ample free parking at each location -- a major innovation at the time.
Ralphs opened a frozen-food warehouse in 1949; a grocery warehouse in 1953 -- a facility designed for distribution more than storage that used a computerized store-billing system; a produce warehouse and delicatessen kitchen in 1959; and a meat-distribution center in 1961 -- a prefabricating facility that helped pioneer the move from hanging beef to block-ready boxed beef.
The company became totally self-supplying in 1977, when it received its last order from a wholesaler.
Ralphs was among the first supermarkets to introduce voluntary fish inspection by the Department of the Interior (1968); price-per-measure on shelf tags and open dating on fluid milk products (1970); a complete in-store floral program (1972); and a no-frills generic line, called Plain Wrap (1974). Ralphs was the first supermarket chain West of the Mississippi to use laser-scanning checkouts in 1974, converting all stores to full scanning by 1980.
Looking back on his early years with Ralphs, Byron Allumbaugh, who retired last year as the company's chairman and chief executive officer, recalled the anxieties caused by rapid expansion in the 1950s.
"The Ralphs family had always owned its own real estate, and it didn't believe in leasing stores," Allumbaugh told SN, "so when we opened our first leased store in the early 1950s, it was a major moment."
So was the first time the company had to borrow money for expansion, Allumbaugh recalled. "The family had never had any debt. Ralphs was a $100 million business with 34 stores, and when the family had to go out and borrow $1 million to build a new store, it was a very big deal.
"There was a great deal of debate within the family whether they should take on a debt of that size."
In 1968 the Ralphs family sold its stock to Federated Department Stores, Cincinnati. Richard Ralphs, grandson of the founder, retained the title of chairman and chief executive officer until he retired in 1973, when Eugene B. Walsh succeeded him to become the first non-family member to head the company.
When Walsh took another position with Federated in 1976, Allumbaugh succeeded him and held the title of chairman and CEO for the next 21 years.
The 1968 sale to Federated provided an influx of capital to fund expansion, which included the purchase in 1972 of a 23-store chain in Sacramento -- an operation that lasted until 1980. At that time Ralphs decided to leave northern California to concentrate on a market closer to home -- San Diego, 120 miles south of Los Angeles. In 1980 Ralphs opened its first San Diego store in a shopping center near the campus of the University of California at San Diego. The center included student apartments on top of the stores.
Under Federated's 20-year ownership, Ralphs grew from 52 stores to 129.
Federated was sold to Canada-based Campeau Corp. in 1988, which ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 1992, after which Ralphs ownership passed to Campeau's major shareholder, Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., Toledo, Ohio.
Three years later Ralphs was acquired by Yucaipa Cos., a Los Angeles-based investment company that owned Food 4 Less Supermarkets, operator of Food 4 Less warehouse stores, Alpha Beta Co. and Boys Markets, along with a group of northern California retail chains and Falley's, Topeka, Kans., operator of stores in Kansas and Missouri.
Yucaipa subsequently acquired Smitty's Supermarkets, Phoenix, and a major stake in Smith's Food & Drug Centers, Salt Lake City, then merged Smitty's into Smith's. After Smith's was sold in 1997 to Fred Meyer Inc., Portland, Ore., Yucaipa agreed late last year to a merger that combined Ralphs and Quality Food Centers (the Bellevue, Wash.-based chain that had previously acquired Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif.) under the aegis of Fred Meyer.