What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

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BatteryMill
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What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

Post by BatteryMill »

Whatever happened to this once-ubiquitous facet of the drugstore industry? I have tried looking online for when they were phased out and why, but instead I largely see documentation of their heyday or historical significance.

Does anyone also think these can make a comeback in the present age of standalone CVS and Walgreens buildings?
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Re: What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

Post by Groceteria »

It's probably an oversimplification to blame fast food and suburbanization (and less time in general spent on big shopping trips), but that's probably most of it. In many cases, but not all, the counters were not really expected to be a major profit center but to drive traffic and--especially in department stores-- to keep people in the store longer.

Clearly they would work better in an urban "downtown" or other area where there were a lot of workers looking for a quick, cheap lunch, but they proliferated in drugstores and "dime stores" in suburban shopping centers until maybe the late 1960s/early 1970s as well. The last one I experienced live and in person at a chain was at a Rite-Aid (originally Eckerd) at a shopping center in Asheville NC. It closed about five years ago. There still may be some floating around at some independent stores.

Article on the closing in Asheville. Unfortunately the images seem to be dead links.
BatteryMill
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Re: What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

Post by BatteryMill »

Interesting to see a counter stick around in a large drug store chain! Then again Rite Aid has also gone experimental at times with things such as the Thrifty ice cream stands. Still strange to see they stuck around with the initial suburban drugstore wave though.
pseudo3d
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Re: What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

Post by pseudo3d »

BatteryMill wrote: 15 Jan 2024 17:12 Whatever happened to this once-ubiquitous facet of the drugstore industry? I have tried looking online for when they were phased out and why, but instead I largely see documentation of their heyday or historical significance.
As I understand it, some of these drugstores did not have actual pharmacies, and the lunch counters were replaced by pharmacies. (There are some CVS stores that don't have pharmacies, though mostly in tourist locations).
Does anyone also think these can make a comeback in the present age of standalone CVS and Walgreens buildings?
Probably not. The modern CVS and Walgreens buildings aren't big enough for a full operation beyond a coffee bar at best, and refitting an existing space to hold a restaurant is hideously expensive, basically completely rebuilding with hot water, grease traps, etc.
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Re: What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

Post by wnetmacman »

pseudo3d wrote: 19 Jan 2024 12:24 As I understand it, some of these drugstores did not have actual pharmacies, and the lunch counters were replaced by pharmacies. (There are some CVS stores that don't have pharmacies, though mostly in tourist locations).
Walgreens does this too; I went to a store in Orlando near Disney last summer and was VERY surprised to find no Pharmacy - with a nice Publix across the street that did have one.
pseudo3d wrote: 19 Jan 2024 12:24 Probably not. The modern CVS and Walgreens buildings aren't big enough for a full operation beyond a coffee bar at best, and refitting an existing space to hold a restaurant is hideously expensive, basically completely rebuilding with hot water, grease traps, etc.
The average downtown pharmacies that had them were less than 5,000 square feet. The average Walgreens is about 13,000 or so. They have room, but they would have to cut down on the front store items to make it work. Maybe take out the $20 4GB memory cards and the overpriced office supplies. But I digress.
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Re: What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

Post by BillyGr »

wnetmacman wrote: 19 Jan 2024 13:11
pseudo3d wrote: 19 Jan 2024 12:24 As I understand it, some of these drugstores did not have actual pharmacies, and the lunch counters were replaced by pharmacies. (There are some CVS stores that don't have pharmacies, though mostly in tourist locations).
Walgreens does this too; I went to a store in Orlando near Disney last summer and was VERY surprised to find no Pharmacy - with a nice Publix across the street that did have one.
pseudo3d wrote: 19 Jan 2024 12:24 Probably not. The modern CVS and Walgreens buildings aren't big enough for a full operation beyond a coffee bar at best, and refitting an existing space to hold a restaurant is hideously expensive, basically completely rebuilding with hot water, grease traps, etc.
The average downtown pharmacies that had them were less than 5,000 square feet. The average Walgreens is about 13,000 or so. They have room, but they would have to cut down on the front store items to make it work. Maybe take out the $20 4GB memory cards and the overpriced office supplies. But I digress.
CVS had quite a few stores without pharmacies in this area of NY, generally ones within shopping malls (likely due to thinking that many customers didn't want to deal with mall traffic just to get a prescription). Although they did put a couple in malls that DID have pharmacies as well (though those particular ones had an easy access from the exterior).

None ever had lunch counters, though (which may be just due to being later additions, since many of the malls they were in started without a food court type setup, but then again at least a couple had a Woolworths close by with a lunch option, one or two even with a separated eating area vs. just a counter).
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Re: What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

Post by rich »

BillyGr wrote: 19 Jan 2024 15:43
wnetmacman wrote: 19 Jan 2024 13:11
pseudo3d wrote: 19 Jan 2024 12:24 As I understand it, some of these drugstores did not have actual pharmacies, and the lunch counters were replaced by pharmacies. (There are some CVS stores that don't have pharmacies, though mostly in tourist locations).
Walgreens does this too; I went to a store in Orlando near Disney last summer and was VERY surprised to find no Pharmacy - with a nice Publix across the street that did have one.
pseudo3d wrote: 19 Jan 2024 12:24 Probably not. The modern CVS and Walgreens buildings aren't big enough for a full operation beyond a coffee bar at best, and refitting an existing space to hold a restaurant is hideously expensive, basically completely rebuilding with hot water, grease traps, etc.
The average downtown pharmacies that had them were less than 5,000 square feet. The average Walgreens is about 13,000 or so. They have room, but they would have to cut down on the front store items to make it work. Maybe take out the $20 4GB memory cards and the overpriced office supplies. But I digress.
CVS had quite a few stores without pharmacies in this area of NY, generally ones within shopping malls (likely due to thinking that many customers didn't want to deal with mall traffic just to get a prescription). Although they did put a couple in malls that DID have pharmacies as well (though those particular ones had an easy access from the exterior).

None ever had lunch counters, though (which may be just due to being later additions, since many of the malls they were in started without a food court type setup, but then again at least a couple had a Woolworths close by with a lunch option, one or two even with a separated eating area vs. just a counter).
CVS started out as sundry stores--those are what they put into malls in the 70s. They were owned by Melville which owned Thom McAn, Chess King and other typical mall stores which gave them leverage with mall developers. This also was around the time that variety stores no longer went into malls, so there was a niche for these kinds of stores that sold odds and ends you wouldn't find in other mall stores. Woolworth shrank some mall stores to be similar "Woolworth express" operations and used the remaining space for their various specialty stores, although this could only be done where it was easy to reconfigure space. The pharmacies came later to CVS which is why CVS stores were signed as CVS/pharmacy.

Suburbanization did not hurt lunch counters, fast food did, as did the rise of discount drug stores. In large cities, suburban shopping centers, sometimes in conjunction with satellite downtown-type development began before WWII and drug stores were part of these developments. Things really took off after WWII, esp. during the 50s and then malls started to be built in the early 60s. All this predated the rise of fast food which happened gradually through the 60s and early 70s. Fast food places did not go into strips or malls until quite a bit later. Tangent: Chik-Fil-A went into malls before the burger chains as a strategy to expand geographically. It didn't last long--those were inline units and fastfood had not yet become common in malls, which usually had sit down restaurants, ice cream stands, Orange Julius, and more limited offerings.

The first generation of suburban shopping center drug stores usually had lunch counters and some were quite large with dozens of seats. Ditto the earliest malls. They shared business with variety store luncheonettes (which lasted longer because the variety chains put nothing into updating these stores) and usually one or more coffee shop or deli-type restaurants. This was the same kind of competition they had had downtown and in even more so in neighborhood shopping areas. The downtown drug stores often were quite large and there were chains like Katz that sold clothing, household items, etc. ages ago in downtown and even neighborhood locations. Because chain ownership was localized, the downtown stores sometimes served as flagships. The neighborhood stores or secondary downtown locations usually were smaller.

Discount drug chains started in the late 50s and basically eliminated slow turnover merchandise and anything that needed special service or equipment--no service cosmetic departments, very small newsstands, no small appliances or household items and no lunch counters. Some like Revco were very successful, while others couldn't build sufficient volumes to cover the lower prices, especially the attempts at sub-chains like Cunningham's Dot Drugs which were used to convert poor performing locations. Shortly after, supermarket chains started opening drug stores, too. They didn't emulate the discounters which had had mixed results, but they learned from them and didn't necessarily include all the departments that older chains had. The ones I remember like SuperX, Kare Drug and MediMart didn't have lunch counters and I don't think Osco had them either.

Lunch counters or soda fountains had been around since the beginning of the 20th century--they were promoted as a "wholesome" alternative to drinking in bars before Prohibition. Drug stores were early adopters of mechanical refrigeration (as opposed to ice boxes) because it used to be common for some liquid medicines to be refrigerated, so they made use of what they knew about refrigeration to expand what they offered for food and drink, and often developed ice cream as a sideline. Drug stores often were the only retail businesses open on Sunday (Blue Law exemptions because they sold necessities like medicine) or open late every night (even early shopping centers only had late hours 2-3 nights a week), so their lunch counters were open when other businesses weren't and were a cheap alternative to sit-down restaurants or family owned places that only did a breakfast & lunch or dinner trade. Diners were never so numerous as to capture the kind of trade drug stores had and the kind of neighborhood lunch counters common in cities did not pop-up in the suburbs. Once there was more competition for this quick service, limited menu trade, drug stores got less and less business and made less and less sense--equipment, health inspections, staffing all create costs and keeping the counter open in the evening would have been an expense, although all night drug stores often had a monopoly on food service ntil the rise of places like Denny's.

Some drug store chains eliminated lunch counters gradually---Gray Drug in Ohio was like this. They began eliminating them in the 60s but a few of theirs held on into the 80s. I wouldn't be surprised if they were contracted out at that point, but there were other chains got rid of them all at once. Cunningham's did this in the early 70s, and they converted the space to general merchandise, which turned out to be very slow moving and the beginning of the end for them. They couldn't compete on price with discount chains which were then rapidly expanding. Independent drug stores seemed to get rid of them even before the chains and many never had them--probably because they were costly and those stores were usually small. Our neighbors who had a drug store never bothered with food service and the little soda fountain at our neighborhood indie was gone long before my time, although you could see here it had been
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Re: What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

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GREAT POST!!!!

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BatteryMill
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Re: What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

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Agreed. Do wish Groceteria had a "thanks" button much like Retail Watchers does.
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Re: What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

Post by jleyerle »

Growing up in suburban St. Louis, the Walgreens at Crestwood Plaza (built roughly 1958) had a lunch counter until the mall was fully enclosed (it was built as an open air mall with Kroger at one end, Sears and Woolworth mid and Vandervoort's (department store) at the far end. Mid 60s an enclosed addition was built, then early 80s the open air area was enclosed. Walgreens closed at that point.

Katz in Webster Groves and Kirkwood both had lunch counters until the very early 80s when Walgreens remodeled them beyond recognition.

Don't think Gasen/SuperX ever did.

Kirkwood Rexall (independent on the main street of a old railroad suburb) had a soda fountain until roughly 1980 (I recall they had a fire and remodeled fully).
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Re: What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

Post by rich »

jleyerle wrote: 01 Feb 2024 00:52 Growing up in suburban St. Louis, the Walgreens at Crestwood Plaza (built roughly 1958) had a lunch counter until the mall was fully enclosed (it was built as an open air mall with Kroger at one end, Sears and Woolworth mid and Vandervoort's (department store) at the far end. Mid 60s an enclosed addition was built, then early 80s the open air area was enclosed. Walgreens closed at that point.

Katz in Webster Groves and Kirkwood both had lunch counters until the very early 80s when Walgreens remodeled them beyond recognition.

Don't think Gasen/SuperX ever did.

Kirkwood Rexall (independent on the main street of a old railroad suburb) had a soda fountain until roughly 1980 (I recall they had a fire and remodeled fully).
Did Walgreen exit the St Louis area altogether at that time? They went beyond established markets for them like Chicago and Cincinnati during the 40s and 50s and were in a variety of places they exited mostly during the 60s: Atlanta and other cities like Columbus in Georgia; Cleveland; and New York City.
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Re: What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

Post by Groceteria »

rich wrote: 01 Feb 2024 18:06 They went beyond established markets for them like Chicago and Cincinnati during the 40s and 50s and were in a variety of places they exited mostly during the 60s: Atlanta and other cities like Columbus in Georgia; Cleveland; and New York City.
Ditto Greensboro NC. They took over an old Woolworth space in the early 1940s (so it probably came with a lunch counter already) and stayed there until offloading it to White Cross in the mid 1960s. The Walgreens/White Cross burned down in 1968. The Woolworth store moved a block north in 1939, where its new lunch counter became the most famous one on the country on 1 February 1960.
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Re: What happened to drugstore lunch counters?

Post by jleyerle »

rich wrote: 01 Feb 2024 18:06
jleyerle wrote: 01 Feb 2024 00:52 Growing up in suburban St. Louis, the Walgreens at Crestwood Plaza (built roughly 1958) had a lunch counter until the mall was fully enclosed (it was built as an open air mall with Kroger at one end, Sears and Woolworth mid and Vandervoort's (department store) at the far end. Mid 60s an enclosed addition was built, then early 80s the open air area was enclosed. Walgreens closed at that point.

Katz in Webster Groves and Kirkwood both had lunch counters until the very early 80s when Walgreens remodeled them beyond recognition.

Don't think Gasen/SuperX ever did.

Kirkwood Rexall (independent on the main street of a old railroad suburb) had a soda fountain until roughly 1980 (I recall they had a fire and remodeled fully).
Did Walgreen exit the St Louis area altogether at that time? They went beyond established markets for them like Chicago and Cincinnati during the 40s and 50s and were in a variety of places they exited mostly during the 60s: Atlanta and other cities like Columbus in Georgia; Cleveland; and New York City.
Oh no, Walgreens was always there (and pretty much had a monopoly for standalone drugstores). Schnucks and National both had significant pharmacy footprints; Dierberg's not so much. Both Venture and Target included pharmacies in their locations.

Walgreens absorbed everyone (Medicine Shoppe was HQ in St. Louis, so there were always those around) until CVS started opening a few stores in the mid '00s. CVS, though, needed to get bigger (even with Target) to be relevant as a provider (so acquired Schnucks' pharmacies).
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