A Brief History of Flotken's Supermarket

After immigrating to the United States around the turn of the 20th century, my grandfather, Morris Flotken, opened his first grocery store in East St. Louis around 1920. Unfortunately, the exact date has long since been lost in the city of East St. Louis' records. I have been able to document that Gramps (as he was affectionately called) moved his store to 1801 South 39th Street in south St. Louis in 1923. The building was torn down during the construction of Interstate 44 and was located where the interstate crosses over 39th Street.

My dad, Frank Flotken, grew up in that store until he decided to open his own store in 1948. A little over a year passed and on December 31, 1949, the store burned down and had to be rebuilt. Dad reopened about a year later with one of the largest frozen food departments in St. Louis...a 12 foot, closed top case...resembling to a chest freezer with a sliding glass doors as a top, checkout counters with conveyor belts, automatic doors and the first St. Louis supermarket with air conditioning. It also boasted a fresh bakery department, where breads and pastries were brought in daily. That department was later operated by Warner Knoll Bakery of St. Louis. Gramps had always specialized in fresh produce and helped Dad bring the finest fruits and vegetables to the store, building a reputation for quality. My brothers Paul, John and I worked in the store. I remember dressing up as the Easter Bunny and handing out candy to kids. On the first anniversary of the post-fire grand opening, Warner Knoll built a huge cake containing prize numbers in gelatin capsules. Numbers were drawn from a fish bowl and customers redeemed their winning numbers for prizes.

Those were the days of big promotions and everyone in the grocery business seemed to know each other. One of St. Louis' most famous personalities was August "Gussie" Busch who made certain that the Budweiser Clydesdales were a regular sight around town. The team and beer wagon visited the Kingshighway store regularly. You can see pictures with me sitting in the driver's seat during a sales promotion in our gallery.

Then, in about 1959, Dad began searching for a west county location. So, Dad teamed up with the people from our wholesale grocery company, Associated Grocers of St. Louis and Louis Sachs of what is now Sachs Properties, to find and develop a location in Olivette. The site was on a two lane road, called Olive Street Road, where Walter Broeker and family, had their home. The Broeker’s were long time residents of Olivette and operated a Phillips 66 Station just west of their home. The basement of the station was home for the Olivette Volunteer Fire Department’s fire truck until the City Hall was built. Olivette was a community of great potential and the location was chosen.

Dad worked with the Sachs people and designed a unique looking store. As I said, Gramps and Dad had always been famous for selling quality produce, and Dad wanted a store with plenty of natural light to show off the quality fruits and vegetables. So, the architect came up with the inverted roof concept where the ceiling would be higher on the sides than in the middle and large windows would be placed on the sides maximize the amount of natural light. It was dubbed the "Flying Wing Roof" and became a very recognizable building on Olive Street Road. In June of 2007, the St. Louis County Historic Buildings Commission, under the direction of Esley Hamilton, St. Louis County Parks department, named our building an “outstanding example of mid-century worthy of preservation”.

The store opened in October of 1961, to much fanfare and publicity. The Grand Opening of the store was soon followed by the opening of the re-constructed Olive Street Road which became Olive Blvd.—a modern 4 lane concrete street. Dad joined with Vernon Boxell, Jerry Feldman, Olivette’s City Manager, Ron Olschwanger, and other citizens to develop a grand opening of the new street and, Picknickel Daze became a reality. The celebration was held on the parking lot of the Olivette Shopping Center next to where Party City is today. Back in the 1960’s this store was a W.T.Grant store and the Dobb’s Tire and Auto Store didn’t exist. The event provided rides, games, and hot dogs and sodas for a NICKEL! The weekend was kicked off with a huge parade featuring floats, bands, lots of decorated cars, dignitaries and the new Olivette Fire Truck—sirens blaring! Picknickel Daze laid the ground work for toady's annual Olivette Summer Fest.

The demographics of Olivette was perfect for a Jewish merchant and the store began attracting Jewish families. Recognizing this, Dad began stocking kosher foods and promoting the Jewish holidays. All of the Jewish holidays were important, but Passover was the most important and became the crowning jewel of our calendar. Dad's connections thoughout the grocery industry led to introductions to all of the major kosher food producers in this country and abroad. We used those connections to bring Passover merchandise to the store that had previously not been sold in St. Louis.

Picnickle Daze came and went and the store grew in popularity. Throughout our 24 years in Olivette, we experimented with many things, brought many new products to St. Louis and made many, many friends. As I look back, I feel that Dad's dream was really ahead of its time. We saw many different grocery store concepts tried in other cities and by being members of our international trade organization, Food Marketing Institute, we were exposed to many technological changes. At one point, we toyed with the idea of becoming a limited assortment store, specializing in perishables...produce, meat and prepared foods, but the store's floor plan wasn't large enough so, we remained in control of our business and did the very best we could by satisfying our customers with the highest quality merchandise and best service available.

In the mid 1980's, we opened two smaller gourmet stores in St. Louis shopping malls. The most successful of which was F. Flotken & Son Fine Foods in the St. Louis Centre development...downtown St. Louis. The store began as a true gourmet grocery store resembling famous New York City specialty stores like Zabar’s, Dean and DeLuca, Balducci’s and Macy’s basement. F. Flotken & Son boasted a large carry-out foods department brimming with home-made prepared delicacies, dozens of imported cheeses, a full selection of oils, jellies, vinegars, candies, and other grocery items—some of which had never been displayed in St. Louis before and, of course, a produce department. The store also had a wine department, a fresh bakery and a 42 foot food/salad bar which was very busy during the lunch hour. We developed off premise catering and a large gift basket business in addition to our retail business. The concept was successful until the mall started to decline. Since there were no downtown residents at the time, we had to depend on breakfast and lunch traffic to generate our sales. After tweaking the concept several times and promoting the store, we discovered that, once again, we were ahead of our time and we closed that store.

1985 was a year of big decisions for Dad. The St. Louis marketplace became incredibly competitive. Other grocery companies were building stores 6 times our size and offered a much larger selection of non food items. We wrestled with the idea of completely changing our focus to one that mirrors today’s Whole Foods or Trader Joes, but, after much research, we found that the St. Louis market wasn’t ready for such a specialty store. So, in October of that year, we went the way of other independent grocery stores our size and closed our doors.

That was indeed a sad day for all of us—family, friends and customers alike. It was the first holiday season in 65 years that a Flotken's Grocery store didn't provide holiday meals to customers in St. Louis. For months after the closing, our friends and customers called us asking where they could shop to find the quality and service that we provided for so many years. They all complained that there wasn’t such a place. To this day, almost 30 years later, our family members are still asked when we will be re-opening Flotken’s.

But, Dad continued to do what he loved and that was merchandise, promote and sell high quality fruits and vegetables. The president of Melissa Produce Company, Joe Hernandez, our California supplier hired Dad to represent their products in the St. Louis market. Dad expanded the distribution of Melissa Specialty Produce Products exponentially by hitting the streets and obtaining sales space in the all of the St. Louis grocery stores. Dad also made connections with Sam's Club and frequently traveled to Bentonville, Arkansas, to help establish the produce program that is in Sam's Club today. In addition, Dad was called upon to present seminars for Food Marketing Institute on how to increase produce sales.

Our dad, Frank Flotken, was a real entrepreneur and we are all proud to bear his name. Together with our mom, Carol, Dad was liked by all he met because he was a genuine people-person. His real legacy is that he loved people and people loved him. The precepts, morals and values that he taught are treasured by all of us to this day. I personally thank him each day for the opportunities that he gave to me by allowing me to learn the retail and people business from the ground up.

Dad passed away quietly on March 24th, 2006 with his family by his side. The funeral was held at United Hebrew Congregation. There wasn't an empty chair in the United Hebrew Congregation sanctuary at his funeral...A very fitting tribute to our dad, Frank Flotken.