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This Man Invented the Self-Serve Grocery Store. Then He Went To War.

Schuyler Bogue
An advertisement for the Groceteria, from the Seattle Times.


This story originally aired on January 6, 2018.  

It wasn’t so long ago that, in order to buy groceries, most people would walk into a market, hand their list over to a man behind a counter, who would then go back into the store room and get everything for them. There were generally no prices listed -- it cost what it cost. You rarely got much say over what brand you got. That was the way it was, and it was hard to imagine it working any differently.

But in the early 20th century, a man named Alvin Monson had a vision for a self-serve grocery store -- a “Groceteria,” combining the concepts of a grocery store and a cafeteria. This was nearly unheard of at the time: Customers would actually walk in, get the products off the shelves themselves, and simply pay the clerk.

Credit Schuyler Bogue
Alvin Monson at Camp Lewis in 1918, before deploying to fight in World War I.

  The Groceteria got its start in downtown Seattle. Soon it had expanded to about 20 stores. But then Monson’s life took a turn: He was drafted to serve in World War I, and was shipped off to Europe.

What happened to him there would change his life forever, and might also help explain why “Safeway” and “Piggly Wiggly” are household names, while the “Groceteria” is largely forgotten. Historian Rob Ketcherside sat down with Sound Effect host Gabriel Spitzer to tell the tale.


Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.