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Supermartifacts / The Artifacts of Safeway

[Safeway in Thunder Bay]

The First 90 Years

Part 1 - Part 2

Safeway #9: 70 Court Street North, Port Arthur

[Safeway store]

14 June 1962 (News-Chronicle).

Ten years after the 1952 opening of the replacement for Safeway's original downtown Port Arthur store, change was in the air yet again. On 14 June 1962, Safeway cut the ribbons to a new store on Court Street North...and what a store it was! Far removed from the shoebox-like buildings that Safeway was constructing just three years earlier, the new store was a modernist marvel: A curved roof with wings on either end, arching gracefully over a completely glass facade and a wide-spaced panel bearing the company name. The sublime aesthetics carried over to the interior of the store, where the soaring roofline was repeated in an arched ceiling supported by visible structural beams of laminated wood. The store was built on the site of the Port Arthur Arena, a long-standing sports venue that closed in 1959 and had been demolished the following year.

This was Safeway's "Marina" style of architecture, named after Marina Boulevard in San Francisco where the premiere store of this style opened in 1959...and as with Safeway's previous store designs, the new design would be deployed and repeated many times over throughout the company's Canadian and U.S. trade areas over the following years. In any case, the reception to the store bordered on pandemonium: Police were recruited to assist the flow of traffic in and out on opening day, and both of the parking lots that flanked the property were full by 10 am.

[Safeway store] [Safeway store]

2019 (photos by the author).

"Longevity" is the theme for this store. By the dawn of the 1990s, 70 Court Street was the oldest Safeway supermarket in Thunder Bay still housed in its original building. It remains in business today, more than 58 years after it opened. As with the Frederica Street East store, however, the years have not been kind to the survival of the store's mid-century modern architectural elements. Today the natural curvature of the roof is obscured by a massive false front, with corners demarcated by aesthetically-dubious towers and nothing more than a narrow band of windows filling the gaping space between. Fence-like lattices partially obscure the view of the roof from the side. Not even on the interior does the curvature survive intact, as a drop ceiling has been installed.

[Safeway store]

2022 (photo by the author).

In early 2021, chain owner Sobeys announced that the Court Street store would undergo a conversion to the company's Fresh Co. discount format. Service departments were removed, beige walls were slathered over in neon green, and the store reopened under its new name on 28 October 2021.

Safeway #10: 146 Centennial Square, Fort William

[Safeway store]

Jan. 1966 (Daily Times-Journal).

As Port Arthur goes, Fort William follows...and on 25 January 1966, the replacement store for Safeway's original downtown Fort William location was itself replaced by a new and thoroughly contemporary supermarket. The new store was part of Centennial Square, a small open-air shopping centre occupying an entire block and named in deference to the Confederation Centennial happening the following year.

Due to the reduced store frontage caused by the L-shaped layout of the shopping centre, Safeway's Marina architecture was evidently dismissed as impractical for the site. As an aesthetically-expressive alternative, Safeway instead commissioned a flat-roofed store design fronted by a series of six vaguely-Moorish arches with the "red S" trademark nested on each end.

[Safeway store]

18 June 1988 (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal).

[Safeway store]

2019 (photo by the author).

Centennial Square was the last Safeway store that opened in Fort William prior to amalgamation. It also enjoyed more than two decades of continual operation until being closed in a round of corporate store-culling in 1988. A local grocer by the name of Quality Market promptly opened up shop, doing little in the way of alterations apart from changing the name on the sign. After Quality closed in 2012, Renco Foods moved in, ensuring the survival of the premises. Although the arches overlooking the entrance have recently been filled in order to impart a more unified look to the facade, this store remains a blast from the past and 1960s Safeway wall signage still survives inside to this day.

[Safeway store] [Safeway store]

2019 (photos by the author).

A repetition of the original arched facade is still visible on the back of the store. Meanwhile, round blanking plates on the south and east faces of the building cover over the recesses that once held the Safeway logo.

Safeway #11: 820 Red River Road, Port Arthur

[Safeway store]

1967 (Thunder Bay Museum acc. no. 984.80.1251).

On 28 February 1967, Safeway continued its mid-century expansion tear with the unveiling of its third Port Arthur store on Red River Road. The construction of the store coincided closely with the construction of the nearby Lakehead Expressway and established Safeway's presence in an area that was quickly becoming a conduit of retail development, epitomized by the opening of County Fair Plaza at the decade's end.

Like Port Arthur's Court Street North store, the new Safeway on Red River Road was built to the blueprint of the attractive, modernist Marina design that the company employed throughout its trade areas in the 1960s. If anything, the profile of the Red River Road store was even more attractive, with the convex curvature of the roof segueing seamlessly into up-turned concave wings at either end. A "red S" sign was mounted outside each entrance portal, flanking both ends of the frontage.

[Safeway store]

6 Nov. 1990 (Chronicle-Journal).

[Safeway store]

2019 (photo by the author).

By the early 1980s Safeway had given the store an aesthetically-dubious makeover, adding a new square-rigged facade that completely obscured the curved roofline. In December 1995, 820 Red River succumbed to replacement by a brand-new store one kilometre north on Dawson Road. The building was subsequently subdivided into multiple retail tenants, but has been altered little from its late Safeway-era appearance.

This was the last Safeway store that opened in Port Arthur prior to amalgamation.

Safeway #12: 115 Arthur Street West replacement store (Green Acres Plaza), Thunder Bay

In 1970, the communities hitherto known as Port Arthur and Fort William merged into the modern city of Thunder Bay. Safeway's retail presence there consisted of six stores...three in the former Port Arthur, three in the former Fort William. New store construction was pared from a rush to a trickle. Instead of boldly going into places where no grocers had gone before, Safeway's development instead became focused on renovations, replacements, and acquisitions. As with Thunder Bay itself, the chain had come of age.

In the 1950s and 1960s, grocery chains had routinely vacated old stores and built new ones with rapid abandon. In the new decade, however, this tactic ceased to be as practical. Upsized stores meant that chains needed to buy or lease upsized parcels of land, which were harder to come by in convenient and high-traffic locations. Brand-new stores also meant that cities became littered with the vacant, difficult-to-repurpose hulks of old ones...and with this, grocers ran into community opposition.

It's probable that all of these issues were in play when the time came to commission a replacement for Safeway's 1959-vintage store at Green Acres Plaza. Instead of vacating the premises and building a replacement elsewhere, the company instead elected to demolish the original building and rebuild on the same site.

[Safeway store]

7 Oct. 1977 (Chronicle-Journal).

Pre-opening photo of the second Safeway store at Green Acres Plaza, taken before the signs went up on the building.

The new store was architecturally subdued compared to its immediate predecessors, with fieldstone accents and a sloping pitch topping the frontal facade. Earth-keyed colours contrasted with the mid-century teal and red trim that had adorned the accents of the prior store. It opened for business on 24 October 1977, with Yuri Stezenko as manager.

The "new" Green Acres Plaza store lasted for less than fourteen years. In 1991, history repeated itself as the wrecking ball brought to this store the same fate that it in turn had brought to its predecessor...and Safeway erected and opened the third consecutive store on the site.

Safeway #13: 1020 Dawson Road (County Fair Plaza), Thunder Bay

Safeway #14: 425 Edward Street North (500 Northwood Park Plaza), Thunder Bay

[Dominion store]

Northwood Park Plaza, 1972
(Thunder Bay Museum acc. no. 994.115.10).

In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Safeway in Thunder Bay faced upstart competition by a number of large and inter-regional competitors seeking a toehold in the region. The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P) opened its first Lakehead store in March 1956, followed weeks later by Toronto-based Loblaws opening a supermarket at the newly-built Intercity Plaza.

With two of the three biggest players in the southern Ontario grocery industry making a play for Fort William and Port Arthur, it was only a matter of time before Loblaws' and A&P's arch-rival, Dominion Stores, joined them. Dominion had blanketed the cities of southern Ontario with neighbourhood stores in the early 1920s, but the company was late to expand into northern and western Canada. By the time they finally opened up shop in Port Arthur in 1969, the company was frantically playing catch-up to competitors who had operated in the Twin Cities for years.

The 1970s were not a particularly good decade for the grocery industry in Canada. Dominion was affected more adversely than most, with falling earnings, late reactions to retail trends, and strained relationships with suppliers. By the early 1980s the situation had devolved beyond the point of return, and the company's assets were for sale. Safeway took advantage of the situation, and purchased the bulk of Dominion's western stores.

[Safeway store]

County Fair Plaza, 5 May 1994 (Chronicle-Journal).

Included in the deal were two Thunder Bay supermarkets: One at County Fair Plaza in the former Port Arthur, and one at Northwood Park Plaza in the former Fort William. In 1983 both of these became Safeway locations, briefly swelling the company's Thunder Bay store count to an all-time high of seven.

Although the former Dominion properties helped Safeway maintain volumes and market share, the small size and older age of the stores made them liabilities as the company seeked to cut costs and modernize. Thus, neither lasted very long. The County Fair store closed upon the expiration of its lease on 15 April 1995; the Northwood Park store followed two weeks later. A Chronicle-Journal account from the period cited "poor site location," proximity to other stores, and a lack of expansion and renovation options as the official rationale for the closures. County Fair later reopened as a Quality Market; Northwood Park as Northwood Foods. Both were converted to No Frills franchises in the 2010s.

Safeway #15: 115 Arthur Street West second replacement store (Green Acres Plaza), Thunder Bay

[Safeway store]

2019 (photo by the author).

[Safeway store]

2019 (photo by the author).

Safeway's first Thunder Bay store of the 1990s was the company's first brand-new store in the city since 1977...and in a grim twist of coincidence, it was built on the exact same site as its predecessor, and the predecessor of its predecessor! The "new new" Green Acres Plaza store opened for business in December 1991, and boasted a footprint of 57,000 square feet (5295 mē)...68% larger than the 1977-vintage store it replaced, and most likely three or four times larger than the 1959 store that originally stood on the site.

This supermarket was remodelled in the 2000s, and it remains open today. A modification of the signframe from the store's 1959-era predecessor continues to stand in front, lending aesthetic and historical interest to the site.

Safeway #16: 1015 Dawson Road, Thunder Bay

[Safeway store]

2019 (photo by the author).

[Safeway store]

2020 (ditto).

Safeway's second store of the 1990s was nearly identical in size and footprint to its first...and like the first, it was built as a massive replacement for a pre-existing location. The Dawson Road store replaced the 1967 Marina-style store on Red River Road, less than a kilometre away. It also functioned as a de facto replacement for the County Fair Plaza store that Safeway had inherited from Dominion and closed in April 1995.

1015 Dawson Road had a prolonged and complicated gestation, with the store's construction being delayed for years due to issues zoning the property for commercial development. By 1994 the zoning issues had been overcome, and construction was due to commence for a November opening...when the store was delayed yet again due to the company putting a freeze on Canadian capital expenditures. By the following May the store had finally been given a go-ahead, and the walls went up. Employees laid off from the County Fair and Northwood Park locations were given first crack at jobs, and the new store opened for business in December 1995.

Twenty-four years later, this remains Safeway's newest operational store in Thunder Bay. Similar stories play out throughout Safeway's western Canada trade area, as the company in recent decades has strove for stability, not expansion.

[Sobeys store]

A Sobeys in London, Ontario, 2017 (photo by the author).

Safeway was an independent and multinational company until 2013, when the company began to fracture apart. In June of that year, Safeway announced that it would sell its entire Canadian division of 213 stores, 4 distribution centres and 12 manufacturing facilities to Sobeys Inc. of Nova Scotia. The deal closed on 4 November. The remaining American rump of the company was then sold to Cerberus Capital Management and merged with the Albertsons chain, ending Safeway's 88-plus year run as an independent company.

Sobeys is strong in eastern Canada; Safeway is strong in western Canada, and the pairing made a certain amount of strategic sense. The company has adopted unified television advertising, and slowly replaced Safeway store brands with Sobeys' own equivalents. Nevertheless, further opportunities for integration have eluded the combined company, and it has struggled with losses, culture clashes, and closures in the years since.

It's difficult to predict with any certainty what the future for Safeway (or Sobeys) in Thunder Bay will entail. But the past informs the future, and Safeway's past is a feat that's remarkable to behold.

A very brief excerpt of this article appeared in the Chronicle-Journal, 25 Jan. 2020.

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Last update 21 March 2022.