If bar trivia offered a question, “What American city has the single largest grocery store?”, would any team get the answer right?
One might expect the answer to be a sizable metro area like New York City or Los Angeles, with their high population density and proximity to major shipping ports. Good guess but no cigar. These places also have extremely high land values, and the horizontally oriented supermarket—a multilevel grocery store is practically unheard of—cannot always justify stretching across multiple acres in an area where land is so expensive.
Ruling that out, a smart trivia team could go the other direction, where land values tend to be particularly low. Like Texas. It’s easier to make a case for supercenter grocery stores (those over 150,000 square feet in Texas), but H-E-B, the signature Texas grocery chain, tops out at 178,000, which is a far cry from the biggest.
Another guess might be some of those semi-upmarket regional chains that offer a more elegant shopping experience and an abundance of readymade foods, without the price gouging stigma one associates with a Whole Foods, the nation’s largest natural foods chain (owned by Amazon). What semi-upmarket regional chains do I have in mind? In the northeast, it might be Wegmans, and in the southeast it could be Publix. I’ve never been to the latter but have spent much time in the former. Wgmans offer multiple different freshly made food vendors, huge supplies of bulk foods, a significantly above-average international food section, and, in some cases, a full-service restaurant/pub. But Wegmans are merely big, not huge: the largest are 140,000 square feet. And the largest Publix are only about 60,000 square feet—not really that big at all. Meanwhile, those bar trivia participants with a Midwestern bias might choose the legendary Jungle Jim’s International Market, which is certainly a titan of food shopping, not just for its breadth and eclecticism but the way one can turn a corner and find a whole new culinary avenue. I’ve featured the iconic Cincinnati grocery here on this blog. It’s huge—but not quite in the highest echelon. Each of its two locations is over 200,000 square feet, with one over 220,000, but there are bigger stores out there. Sorry, Cincy. Whether Wegmans, Publix, or Jungle Jim’s, this team also would fail to score a point at the bar trivia.
Time to think further about economies of scale, shipping, and how people indicate their demand for basic comestibles as represented through groceries. Maybe the biggest isn’t in a mega-city like New York, or even a Houston or Dallas, but somewhere else in the vast open country? Out West? Everything may indeed be bigger in Texas, but the Lone Star State hasn’t been the biggest in the nation since 1959, when Alaska was admitted to the union as number 49.
And there’s the clincher. Fairbanks, Alaska’s second largest city, has a grocery store that measures 230,000 square feet.
I recognize that this picture doesn’t do it any real justice. This location is in West Fairbanks, somewhat near the University of Alaska flagship campus. It could be anywhere, and it could just as easily depict some other big-box retailer; the green-gabled roof sort of reminds me of a Bass Pro Shops. But It’s a Fred Meyer, the Portland-based chain with over one hundred locations, exclusively in the Pacific Northwest—and Idaho, for those who consider Idaho too far from the Pacific to earn such a moniker. (Pennsylvania is Mid-Atlantic despite being landlocked; who am I to judge?) Here’s a Google Street View of the exterior, which offers the best possible angle I can muster to show its immensity.
This Fred Meyer’s vastness really only manifests itself from a walk through the interior.
For those Americans who contemplate on commercial real estate like I do, this Fred Meyer measures over five acres. (I say “Americans” because no other country uses acreage in any regular basis, but Americans are wedded to it.) A normally paced walk around the full perimeter—from the inside aisles—would like take about ten minutes. Here’s a view smack in the middle.
The clothing section is extensive, and with its own centralized checkout desk, it assumes the character of a department store. Checkout desks within the middle of the premises are unheard of for most grocery stores; they concentrate everything at the exit.
But here’s what the exits at this West Fairbanks Fred Meyer looks like.
The presence of a jewelry store-within-a-store is an obvious distinction, atypical of most grocers. It’s every bit the size of an inline jewelry tenant (such as Kay Jewelers) that one might find in a mall. And that should offer more than a hint: Fred Meyer may be a grocery store first
and foremost, but this location is a one-stop-shop, a concept that Mr. Fred Meyer pioneered when he first started his namesake 90 years ago. The actual grocery section isn’t necessarily anything striking—certainly not compared to, say, Jungle Jim’s or even a Wegmans—so look carefully at the photo below:
It’s the department labels in the background that are critical. Most American grocery stores do provide some kitchen and bathroom fundamentals: cleaning supplies, cooking utensils, napkins. But not bedding. Not plates.
Not towels, nor an entire aisle for portrait frames. Other departments show the reach of a Fred Meyer:
It also offers a reasonably sized bookstore, pet supplies, optical, banking, a post office, and basically all the departments one might expect in a full-scale supermarket (bakery, floral, meats and cheeses, salad bar, pharmacy). As one visitor noted, you can basically witness the curvature of the earth in this place.
Am I giving free promotional material to the Fred Meyer store? It may seem like it, but take a look at this final photo:
Much like the exterior, it could be almost any mega-retailer that basically every American knows, like a Walmart or Target. But Targets don’t have nearly as robust of a grocer, while Walmarts never look this clean. (These days, neither do most Targets.) Rarely is something this vast also so well put-together.
Yeah, I suppose this article is a bit of a promo. But returning to our bar trivia question, who would have guessed Alaska, let alone Fairbanks? It’s the second largest city in this sparsely populated state, but it’s a distant second after Anchorage—only about 32,000 people in the city limits; Anchorage has nearly ten times this population. However, the metro area (Fairbanks North Star Borough, the only metro area besides Anchorage) has just shy of 100,000 people spread over 7,400 square miles, about the size of New Jersey. As is the case across much of Alaska, tiny settlements under 1,000 people splay out across the enormous boreal forest, often so remote that these communities can only justify an internal road network. No way in and out besides airplanes. Keeping this in mind, this Fred Meyer in West Fairbanks serves a massive trade area, catering to people who travel over 100 miles to get household staples. Given the distance some people travel to Fairbanks, the only settlement of any real size in Alaska’s interior, the demand for Fred Meyer’s signature one-stop shopping is far greater than one might expect for a relatively low population density.
And that’s not the only indicator: as this Anchorage Daily News article reports, this 230,000 square foot location is actually the second largest Fred Meyer. And I’ll confess I cannot confirm what is ranked number one (it’s been impossible to find despite considerable research), but hearsay suggests to me that the top location is, in fact just a few miles away, in East Fairbanks. The building footprint seems quite similar, and these two locations in the same metro are both neck-and-neck for some other important records: Fairbanks West location is not just the highest grossing Fred Meyer in the country, it’s the highest grossing within the entire portfolio of parent Kroger Company, which merged with Fred Meyer in 1998. Headquartered in Cincinnati, Kroger has nearly 3,000 locations; Fred Meyer has represented the northwestern reach of the nation’s largest grocery store chain. And the East Fairbanks location of Fred Meyers tends to rank at or near the top for Black Friday sales.
These ranks suggest that the metro really does punch above its weight class, given that only 11 of Fred Meyer’s 130 locations are in Alaska, and the chain serves a number of larger metros: Seattle, Portland, Anchorage, Boise, Spokane, Tacoma, Eugene (among others). It doesn’t hurt, as the Daily News article notes, that the high cost of groceries in Alaska tends to skew the state’s stores toward an above average fiscal performance. Of course Fairbanks wins on sales. But why is everything so expensive? It’s a persistent conundrum: despite the fact that Alaska hosts a disproportionate amount of oil reserves, retail gasoline costs are still sky-high; the harsh winter temperatures and lack of a dense transportation network preclude the presence of any refineries in the state. Thus, the state’s extracted oil must go elsewhere for the refinement before returning in a usable state. And those escalated gas prices translate to logistical prices, compounded because so many places are remote, thereby undermining the economies of scale’s ability to confer cost savings to durable or perishable goods (like those that dominate at a Fred Meyer).
And even though Fairbanks is a big settlement by Alaska standards, it’s basically the end of the road. Nothing but tiny communities to the east and west, most of which are accessible exclusively by airplane. (Alaska’s residents have the highest percentage with valid pilots’ licenses of any state in the country, by far.) And then, to the north of Fairbanks, Dalton Highway stretches all the way up to Prudhoe Bay, the heart of the nation’s largest oil field (and the biggest justification for this expansive yet fundamentally empty highway). From the perspective of the trucking industry, Fairbanks is basically a cul-de-sac—useful in its own right because of its role as the final populated outpost to Alaska’s interior…yet not terribly strategic as part of a financially lucrative network in the same way that a similarly sized remote city in the continental US might be (like, for example, Rapid City, South Dakota). Or even a literal cul-de-sac like Key West, Florida, whose maritime location confers huge advantages despite the community sitting at the end of a long and often lonely highway consisting largely of bridges.
Fairbanks is a community like none other on the continent. It is both further north and more populous than its Canadian counterparts, Whitehorse (Yukon) and Yellowknife (Northwest Territories). The metropolitan area defies most other market analyses and, with its unusual combination of university, military, petrochemical, and meteorological (cold-weather research) industries, it has justified a higher population base than anywhere else in North America, surpassed only by a few even more northerly, brutally cold Russian cities like Yakutsk. Therefore, Fairbanks’s combination of a large, somewhat isolated population and interminable winters together help justify an uncharacteristically large indoor shopping destination. Two of them. Both called Fred Meyer.
So, unless that bar in particular requires razor-sharp precision on the question of the nation’s largest grocery store, an answer of “Fairbanks” or even just “Alaska” should suffice. Or would it? Fred Meyer himself originated the concept of one-stop shopping, or, at the very least, he integrated it into the grocery store typology. How different, therefore, is a Fred Meyer from a Target or a Walmart, who both largely offer the same spread of merchandise? The latter two chains, known across the nation rather a single region, merely achieved super-center status coming from a different angle in terms of commodities. Both Target and Walmart begin as discount clothing/houseware retailers and slowly integrated groceries, while Fred Meyer began as a grocery store, and, in locations where the demand warrants it, has added all the other stuff. But these two massive operations in Fairbanks push the definition of “grocery store” to their limits, since that’s only a portion of the massive facility’s total floor space, well below 50% of the total, just like Walmart and Target. The one distinction is Fred Meyer’s origins as a grocer first and foremost, just like its parent company Kroger. All said, the average Wegmans or even a Kroger might rightfully claim the standard of “largest grocery store” once we remove all that floor space at a Fred Meyer devoted to electronics, bedding, apparel, and books. Wegmans are “pure grocers”. Bearing this in mind, when considering the largest facility devoted entirely to food, perhaps the rightful answer to the bar trivia question really is the celebrated Jungle Jim’s, whose playful, non-corporate interior is devoted exclusively to food. (Just a few miles away from the corporate headquarters to Kroger in downtown Cincinnati, I might add.)
Or—even worse—maybe the final answer to the bar trivia question is far more predictable: a humdrum Walmart in the far less remote location of Albany, New York. A location at the Crossgates Commons Shopping Center claims just shy of 260,000 square feet of retail space, in a two-story typology highly atypical of a Walmart. It turns out it opened in the early 2000s as a Walmart Supercenter and Sam’s Club atop the same footprint (one floor for each chain). The Sam’s Club didn’t last long, closing in 2006. Two years later, Walmart Inc. expanded the Supercenter operations across both floors—the largest in the country. But again, is it really a grocery store? And do we count all that square footage when stacked on two floors? If one of the two floors to this Albany Walmart serves exclusively groceries, that’s 130,000 square feet—pretty big but not a record breaker. Either way, it certainly isn’t going to feel as vast as a Fairbanks Fred Meyer.
Perhaps the best solution is to just retire the question altogether. My attempt to answer it required far more research time—and bore less fruit—than just about any article in this blog’s history. It was never clear-cut enough for bar trivia anyway. Just enjoy the vast cathedrals to consumerism whether Alaska, Arkansas, or Albany. It’s the American Way.