By Richard Carl Lehman
By Richard Carl Lehman

In the early 1960s, Wonderbread hired me to design floor displays and signs, but the sales manager asked if I wanted to take on a driver salesman job. It offered base pay and commission, which was enough to pay for essentials and even purchase real estate.

The job entailed working nine hours a day with an hour for lunch as mandated by our union. At the get-go it sounded great but a big drawback was Wednesdays and Sundays were to be the days off.  Tuesday is not a particularly good date night. There was Friday night, but Saturday was a double delivery day since stores were closed on Sunday.  I started running some vacation routes: The first one was Capitol Hill and then several more in my stomping grounds in Madison Park.

The park had three types of grocery stores. Mom and pop grocers were small. The next size were delis, and finally the chain stores like Safeway, Tradewell and A&P were the largest.

Just west of the Purple Poodle Tavern (now McGilvra’s, was Village Foods owned by Bob and Sam Angel — a mid-sized store specializing in meats and home delivery. Mid-block was a small sized Safeway store, and at the end of the block was the first Bert’s Market, owned by Bert Croshaw, where How to Cook a Wolf restaurant is now. Bert’s later moved to 41st and Madison to a previously vacant lot that we used to skate on in the winter. Remarkably, another store sprung up: Ken Frazier’s Lakeshore Deli just west of the present Bert’s.

Many neighborhoods had a mom-and-pop store. Where the Madison Park Veterinarian Hospital approximately is now stood a mom-and-pop store called Johnson’s Grocery. It was small but stayed open for those who worked late. Millie and John raised boys and lived in the apartment above. Folks headed out to work would start the day there sharing news and coffee as it had a real family feel. On our way to J. J. McGilvra, we stopped in to buy energy food (candy) to get through the school day. We waved at our dentist across the street, Dr. Chris Bendickson, and his wife, Darlene, providing proof that we were poster children for the next checkup. The Johnsons eventually sold their store and built a house on the water in the Canterbury area.

Running vacation routes that covered the entire city and beyond was exhausting yet lucrative and seemed a pleasant time for all in the grocery business. The stores accommodated its customers by filling basic needs; beer and wine was the only alcohol sold. It was the lull before the storm, however.

About nine miles north of Bow Lake Airport (Sea-Tac Airport) on Empire Way (Martin Luther King Drive), a new concept in stores emerged.

Jack’s Payless sold bread, milk and eggs, as well as car tires, batteries and other automobile essentials. A Canadian consort delivered drop shipments of bread to Seattle stores, which then could sell four loaves for $1! This really affected the market in general but didn’t last too long.

Art’s Food Market started in Juanita in the ’30s, and seeing the potential, a second store later opened on Mercer Island staying open late and open on Sundays. Soon this affected mid-size stores, all the chains and sadly was the demise of 800 or so mom-and-pop grocery stores. This maneuver profoundly changed the grocery business.

Dollars overfilled the cash registers at these stores with only two to five employees. Enter: a brand-new business, “Excess Cash Removal, Inc.” and large men with guns who you almost never said no thanks to. My first encounter with this type of entrepreneurship was when I walked in on a situation to which I  wasn’t invited, but when a gun is jammed in your back, you really do not decline.

Another prevalent crime was those who took advantage of the crowded stores that had little or no surveillance. On one service call, I noticed a suspicious mother with two little ones in a stroller. On a subsequent call, I saw this scenario again.  Finally, the third time, I followed her down an aisle and noticed the tykes were putting baby food under a false bottom of the baby stroller. This day I said, “Well, look at Mommy’s helpers!” She turned and said two words that were not Merry Christmas. The manager thanked me for the forewarning.

Not far from Madison Park were stops in an area with several schools. Three guys wandered in casing each and knowing it would prove fruitful since the owners were busy with the kids. One of the stops was Johnnie’s on Empire Way (MLK). I ran to the front door, which salesmen never did. In fact, managers and salesmen never got along! The manager would not open and yelled at me. I yelled louder, “You’re going to be held up!” He let me in and called 911. Moments later, four big dudes got out of a big 1950s Buick, and then there were cops all over. The policeman thanked me and said they were a gang from Portland. The manager also thanked me with a cup of coffee.

Whenever I was in a hold-up, my first thought was how late I was going to be. My last stop was a restaurant where I had coffee and did my books. Behind the napkin holder was a shot of Canadian club that helped ease the nerves.   

I liked to joke with the store managers and ask, “May I serve you or are you being held up now?”

Seven years later I found a slower, safer pace of life as a draftsman and was happy to have Saturdays to sleep in again — sometimes without dreaming of delivering bakery goods.