Albertsons #4325 / Rowe's IGA Supermarket #1
5435 Blanding Boulevard, Jacksonville, FL
As we continue on with our small taste of Jacksonville retail, our next stop takes us across the St. John's River to the city's Westside, the Wesconnett neighborhood specifically. Unlike the well-to-do Mandarin neighborhood where we spent the last two posts, the Westside of Jacksonville isn't quite as fancy of a place. While Mandarin may have a Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and a former Harris Teeter, the Westside has Rowe's IGA Supermarket, which is the main reason I ventured over to this side of town during my trip. Rowe's IGA Supermarkets has a strange tie-in with Albertsons that I discussed briefly in my post about the Mandarin Albertsons store, but I'll go into more detail about that connection today. While we're at it, we'll also get to see what Rowe's IGA Supermarket is all about with a tour of the store that started it all (well, kind of), housed in a building that may contain a surprise or two within it's walls. But before we get to the tour, let me explain the strange beginnings of this chain, its tumultuous early years, and its rebirth a formidable player in the Jacksonville grocery market:
However, before Rowe's IGA Supermarket came into existence, there was Albertsons. The building you see here originally opened as the third Albertsons store in the Jacksonville metro area in 1978, following the opening of the Albertsons stores in Jacksonville's Arlington and Southside neighborhoods in 1975 (stores #4307 and #4305, respectively). Of the 5 Albertsons stores to open in Jacksonville proper, this was the only one built in the city's Westside, with Albertsons' Jacksonville presence mostly clustered in the southern and eastern sides of town. This store must have done some good business though, as Albertsons gave this store a rather fancy remodel around the turn of the 21st Century. That remodel brought about the fancy arched facade, as well as a new layout to the interior of the building, the addition of Grocery Palace decor, and a rebuilt liquor store. While Albertsons did a good job refreshing this older store, it would only survive another 5 years as an Albertsons before closing for good in 2005. Albertsons' closure in 2005 was prompted by Rob Rowe's purchase of Albertsons' 7 Jacksonville area locations that same year. With Rob Rowe finding his way into the story, this is where Rowe's IGA Supermarket comes into the picture...
Rob Rowe was no stranger to the supermarket industry when he bought the Jacksonville area's 7 Albertsons stores in 2005 to start his own grocery chain. Rowe was an executive with both Albertsons and Winn-Dixie before making the decision to go off on his own, becoming CEO of the new Rowe's Supermarket chain. After purchasing the Jacksonville area's 7 Albertsons stores, Mr. Rowe immediately sold off the Mandarin location to Publix, as the Mandarin neighborhood was not going to be a good target for the more discount-oriented chain he was looking to start. After restocking the shelves and making some minor changes, Rob Rowe was ready to launch his new chain in late 2005. All six of the new Rowe's IGA Supermarkets opened on the same day in 2005, however the strong start Mr. Rowe was hoping for didn't happen. On Rowe's first day in business, the chain's POS system crashed, leaving the company unable to ring any sales. The POS crash was quite the disaster, crippling the fledgling chain for days. After resolving the chain's technological problems, Rob Rowe still had a challenge before him. Many of the chain's 6 original stores were not very successful. Mr. Rowe jumped all in with his new chain rather than growing it organically over time. With poor sales, Rob Rowe began to trim down his store fleet. In 2007, Mr. Rowe closed his store in St. Augustine and sublet the space to Hobby Lobby, claiming that location no longer saw promise as a grocery store. That same year, Mr. Rowe sold three more of his stores to Publix - the stores in Jacksonville's Arlington and Southside neighborhoods, as well as the Orange Park store. Selling over half of one's remaining locations to Publix is usually the white flag of defeat when it comes to the Floridian grocery wars, and it was beginning to look like Rowe's IGA Supermarkets was nothing more than another failed Florida supermarket chain come the late 2000's. 2008 marked the closure of the second to last Rowe's store on Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville, leaving only one store behind, the Westside location. With only one store left, things looked pretty bleak for Rowe's. While the company had gone from 6 locations to 1 in a span of three years, Rob Rowe wasn't ready to give up yet. With only one location left, Mr. Rowe used this to his advantage to experiment with new formats and concepts in his store. By the early 2010's, Rowe's IGA Supermarket had evolved from an average, budget-focused grocery store to more of a community-focused store featuring products tailored to the needs of the Westside neighborhood. With the Westside's cultural diversity, the original Rowe's store began to sell more hard to find ethnic foods while keeping its low-cost focus. The concept began to show merit. If this format could work on the Westside, it could work in other parts of Jacksonville, right? With Food Lion's departure from Jacksonville and the rest of Florida in 2012, Rob Rowe felt this was the time he could try expanding his chain again. In the wake of Food Lion's departure, Rob Rowe bought two former Food Lion stores to convert to his new community-tailored format. The concept showing promise at these new locations as well, Rob Rowe went out and bought two more former Food Lion stores, once again expanding his chain that looked to be one step away from Publix's trophy wall a few years prior. As of late 2019, Rowe's IGA Supermarkets operates 5 stores around Jacksonville, with two more locations in the works come 2020 (in the Baymeadows neighborhood and Northwestern Jacksonville). With Rob Rowe's community-focused approach to grocery retailing, each of his stores has a slightly different feel to it. I visited two Rowe's stores during my time in Jacksonville, and both were very different shopping experiences. Both of those stores were also very much relics of supermarkets past as well, which made things that much more fun too.
While the company overall is in a rebound mode after its shaky start, Rowe's had some recent expansion plans that failed or didn't pan out too. Rowe's took over a small grocery store in the nearby town of Baldwin in 2014 (dubbed "Rowe's Express" due to its small size), which closed in 2018. Rob Rowe was also interested in buying some divested Sweetbay stores from Winn-Dixie in 2014, which would have taken Rowe's far outside of Jacksonville to some random locations in West Central Florida. That deal would later fall apart, and that was probably for the best. Rowe's has tried overextending itself once already, and leaping into random parts of Florida outside the company's home core probably wouldn't have worked out too well, at least in my opinion.
When Rob Rowe purchased his initial batch of Albertsons stores in 2005, he did very little to each of them. All the Rowebertsons stores retained the decor from Albertsons inside, with only some minor fixture changes happening. Even as all the other Rowebertsons stores fell, the Westside Rowe's Supermarket continued to showcase the Grocery Palace decor in nearly full form. Since this store was an older location remodeled to Grocery Palace, this store didn't get the deluxe Grocery Palace treatment like the stores built with that decor. However, in 2018, with Rowe's IGA in full rebound mode, Rob Rowe decided to do something with his original store that I wasn't expecting - spend $2.67 million to remodel the place. I guess that's proof Rowe's is doing well, especially if Rob Rowe is willing to throw that much money into doing a remodel. In the 2018 remodel, nearly all the old Grocery Palace decor was removed in order to transform the store into what we're about to see today. The new decor is much blander than Grocery Palace, but lucky for us, that 2018 remodel missed a few spots. While it would have been so much better if my visit to this store happened a year earlier, I won't complain. We'll get to see some Grocery Palace remnants, which is enough to qualify this store as the featured post to mark AFB's 6th anniversary. With all of my babbling about this store's history out of the way, let's head inside and see what Rowe's IGA Supermarket is all about:
Stepping through the front doors and turning to the right, you enter a maze of spacial deals dumped into large cardboard bins. Beyond all the bargains we find the deli counter, which we'll see in more detail shortly. The layout of the right side of the store is fairly original to Albertsons' 1978 opening, with deli in the front right corner, followed by the bakery and produce department beyond that. Most of the Grocery Palace era modifications happened on the left side of the building, which we'll see later.
Moving a few steps further into the store, we see more giant red bins as we near the deli counter.
Turning around, here's a look across the front of the building.
Nearing the deli, we find a row of coolers housing the pre-packaged deli meats. In the Grocery Palace days, this was the "Meals to Go" department, where Albertsons kept its selection of pre-made foods. Speaking of the Meals to Go department...
...hey, there it is! In addition to the photos I took of this store, throughout this post I'll be randomly throwing in photos I found on Google Reviews showcasing this store before the 2018 remodel. The photos I included in this post are the ones which give us the best overview of the old Grocery Palace decor, although feel free to scroll through all the images here. In the background of Mr. Smiley's selfie at the supermarket, we can see the old Meals to Go signage hanging above Rowe's packaged meat cases, cases which were also replaced during the remodel. In addition to the decor and the cases, Rowe's also replaced the flooring in the store. In the photo above you can see the old Grocery Palace tiles, which in my photos was switched out for faux wood patterned tiles.
Zooming in on the deli, some Grocery Palace remnants still lurk behind the counter. The tile backsplash is a remnant from the old decor.
In addition to the usual cold cuts and other deli fare, Rowe's also had a decently sized prepared foods department for a small chain. In accordance with the community-focused approach, a lot of the prepared foods at this store were of Hispanic and Caribbean origin, in addition to the usual rotisserie chicken, sandwiches and such. I didn't sample any of the prepared foods at this particular Rowe's, but my lunch for the day came from the Rowe's store I visited immediately after this one. The second Rowe's I visited had a much different prepared foods selection than what was offered here, again, due to the community tailored approach. The prices on the prepared foods were actually quite cheap too, and I was quite impressed with that (more on that when I get to blogging about the other store though). Anyway, one of the unique features of this store's deli post-remodel was the addition of an in-store smokehouse, which is used to make fresh sausages and such. The smokehouse is just out of frame to the left in the above photo, although you can see the signage for it in my first interior photo.
Panning to the left, the bakery and produce departments round out the service departments on the right side of the store. While the new decor is nice and colorful, it just comes off to me as being so flat and bland. I really think using 3-D letters for the department names would have been such a huge improvement, adding a little more effect to the walls to make the department names stand out. While the decor is simplistic, it still looks nice, even though I'll always be a tad bit partial to what was here prior:
While this Google Review photo was focused on the bakery cases (I think), we can still see some of the old wall decor from this store's Grocery Palace days poking out at the top. The bakery is prominently featured in this image, although a small portion of the deli pokes out in the background.
The cardboard dump bins begin to thin out as we approach the bakery, where some display tables of baked goods occupy the sales floor space.
The back right corner of the store was home to a rather large produce department, which can be seen here in the present...
...and here in the past, complete with the crate-themed Grocery Palace produce decor.
The logo for Rowe's Supermarket appears along the wall in a few places throughout the store, breaking up some of the otherwise blank areas.
Before leaving the produce department, here's one last look across the right side of the store, looking back toward the deli.
Turning the corner from produce, here's a look down the store's back wall. Meat cases occupy the majority of the back wall, with the meat counter located off in the distance where that gray awning is pokes out. Speaking of that gray awning, we're going to have to take a closer look at that in a moment, but first, let's skip through some of the grocery aisles:
In this picture, we're looking across the center aisle that cuts each of the grocery aisles in half.
Here's a look down one of the grocery aisles. Rowe's carries a full selection of your average, everyday groceries you'd find in most supermarkets. In addition to that, Rowe's also tweaks things for the community. For example, this store had a large selection of international foods, specifically Hispanic and Caribbean stuff, with a little bit of Asian thrown in too. The other Rowe's Supermarket I visited also had a decent international section as well, but not to the extent I saw at this store.
Turning the corner, here's a look across the front of the grocery aisles. The aisle markers installed during the remodel looked very reminiscent of the ones Sweetbay used, but I believe that was completely coincidental. While Rowe's did express interest in buying a few ex-Sweetbay stores in 2013, I highly doubt these aisle markers came from an old Sweetbay, as the color schemes and placard fonts are very different. However, I wouldn't be surprised if these aisle markers were purchased from the same company that made Sweetbay's.
Stepping down a few aisles, here's a much clearer overview of the front end. Do you spy the obvious Albertsons relic in this picture? If not, I'll talk about that relic in much more detail later in this post, otherwise, back into the grocery aisles we go...
Looking down aisle 3, we can see the upstairs windows above the signage for the meat department. Those windows looking over the back of the store were a common feature in most Albertsons stores built from the 1970's through the mid 1980's.
Here's another look across the back wall, with the meat counter coming into view. But before we get to the meat counter, here's a few more photos from the grocery aisles:
Seen here is one of the aisles of international foods.
Going back in time for a moment, here's a center store photo from the Grocery Palace days. While Rowe's left much of the Grocery Palace decor in-tact, the one thing that was changed out immediately upon this store's opening were the old aisle markers, which looked like this. Notice on Rowe's old aisle signs, it's not called aisle 9, but instead "Rowe 9" (get it?). While the new aisle markers aren't as punny as the old ones were, the new ones are much nicer looking than these, which were probably homemade.
The aisle markers aside, we can also see the old Grocery Palace meat and seafood counter in the background. Jumping back to the present...
...I don't know why I called it the "old Grocery Palace meat counter" before, as post-remodel, it still is a Grocery Palace meat counter! Leaving behind tile backsplashes in a remodel is one thing, but forgetting an entire department?! I'm not going to complain though, as at least one major part of this store got to live on from Albertsons.
I really couldn't tell you why Rowe's never touched the decor around the meat counter during the remodel, as the old Grocery Palace design really stands out amongst the colorful plainness of the new decor. Maybe Rob Rowe really liked the look of this department? Maybe he wanted to keep some kind of tribute to the store that originally operated out of this building? Maybe the remodel ran over-budget and something had to be cut? While the reason may remain a mystery, this is quite the nice little throwback to what this store looked like for the majority of the early 2000's.
Looking at the meat counter, here's a close-up of the Grocery Palace wall tile design.
Here's one final look at Grocery Palace's last remaining department here at Rowe's before we continue on with the tour...
Leaving the meat department, the back left corner of the store comes into view. In this portion of the store are frozen foods and dairy, with dairy located primarily in the alcove in the corner. Prior to the Grocery Palace remodel, frozen foods would have been located in the center of the store, one of the most dramatic changes to the layout during that remodel. Before we get into frozen foods and dairy, I have a few final photos from the center grocery aisles:
We have a double-wide aisle here, the last one before we get into frozen foods.
As we near the back left corner, here's a few photos of what this part of the store looked like in the Grocery Palace days. This corner was apparently the most photogenic place in the whole store, as most of the decent photos of the old Grocery Palace decor came from back here.
While not focused on the dairy department itself, this is an overview of the entire store as seen from the back left corner. I want to say it was an employee who took this photo and posted it to Google Reviews, as it looks like it was taken from up on a ladder.
With this close-up of the frozen foods/dairy alcove, we'll skip back to the present and head into the alcove:
The ceiling height lowers inside the alcove, with lower ceilings common in the Frozen Food/Dairy departments in Grocery Palace stores. While the high-ceiling Grocery Palace stores had a wooden grate ceiling in this department, a drop ceiling was added in here to match the ceiling in the rest of the store.
Here's a look at the dairy portion of the alcove, looking toward the back of the store. Dairy lines the perimeter of what you see here, with some frozen foods located in the coffin coolers in the center of this image.
Turning around, here's a look toward the front of the store, which we can see poking out in the corner of this image.
We exit the alcove at the store's center cut-though aisle, which we have a peek down here.
Frozen foods spill outside of the alcove into this aisle. The coolers to my left were added during the 2018 remodel, as this part of the store was previously home to bulk bags of rice and more red dump bins of promotional merchandise (which can be see in the older photos above).
Moving toward the front of the store, beer and wine appear in the front left corner.
When Albertsons was here, this part of the store would have contained the pharmacy counter and health and beauty items. While some older Albertsons remodeled to Grocery Palace had the pharmacy island installed near the front doors, this store never got that fancy of a treatment. Instead, the pharmacy counter was brought to this corner when the old side entrance was closed in for the remodeled liquor store.
The above photo is the last I have showing the interior of Rowe's before the 2018 remodel. Here you can see the front left corner of the store, and just how open this area was prior to the remodel. The odd looking "Wine Cold Beer" sign poking out from the right side of the image appears to have been the location of Albertsons' old pharmacy counter, as that was the only part of the store that had its original Grocery Palace decor stripped out prior to 2018.
In the front of the store by the registers, Rowe's added in some local flare during the remodel. Two photos back the logo of Jacksonville's most prominent professional sports team, the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, was featured on the wall. Even though Rowe's isn't large enough to be the official supermarket of the Jaguars (a title which goes to none other than Publix, as not even Winn-Dixie was able to be the official grocer of their hometown NFL team!), it was still a nice local nod. In front of the registers we see the local flare pictured above, proclaiming Rowe's as 'Jacksonville, Florida's "Fresh for Less Supermarket" - Est. 2005'. With Rowe's rise from the ashes, it's pretty neat that Jacksonville can claim to have a true hometown supermarket. While Winn-Dixie and its parent SEG are based out of Jacksonville, Winn-Dixie is spread all through Florida and its neighboring states. The small Rowe's chain only exists in Jacksonville and the immediate suburbs, leaving the company to really understand the city and its needs. It's pretty neat that there's a grocery chain in Jacksonville trying to be an alternative to Publix and Winn-Dixie, and succeeding too, even if Rowe's did have a rough start. If only this were the case in more regions of Florida!
Here's another photo of the local flare signage above the front end. The little alcove under the sign was probably the Albertsons Video Rental Center, a popular feature in Albertsons stores in the 90's and early 2000's. As video/DVD rentals began to decline in the 2000's, the remaining Florida Albertsons stores removed their video rental centers and converted these spaces into other uses. Since this store closed in 2005, the video center probably lasted until the store closed.
Panning the camera into the aisle, here's an overview of the store's front end, looking back toward the deli.
Before we leave, I do have one last relic to address here. This is the relic I was hinting at earlier in the post - the express lane signs. These giant express lane cubes were a common sight in 90's and early 2000's built and remodeled Albertsons stores. Even though they look like it, these cubes don't light up, and they never did. They're just large signs. At least in Florida, it's super rare to see these cubes hanging around anymore. In the late 2000's, Albertsons ripped out these cubes and replaced the lane lights in all of the Florida stores with generic lights containing panels for advertisements (which are visible if you zoom in on this photo). The reason these survived is because this store closed so long ago! The other register lights in this store are generic ones installed by Rowe's upon opening in 2005, and aren't from Grocery Palace.
Even with a decent remodel, there was still a bit to be seen from Albertsons in this place. While it would have been more fun had I visited this store prior to the 2018 remodel, we still got to see some Albertsons relics today. And it's not like this was the last fully preserved Grocery Palace Albertsons in Florida either. There are two others still out there, both of which are now operating as Sedano's supermarkets. One of those two we toured a few years ago in Orlando, and the second (which is even more well preserved than that Orlando one) is way down in Homestead. I really, really, want to visit that Homestead Grocery Palace Albertsons one of these days, as that one closed in 2001 after barely 2 years in business, so it's quite original!
With our little taste of Grocery Palace done, we'll had back outside and drift over toward the old Albertsons liquor store, located in the front left corner of the building.
Albertsons' old liquor store is currently home to the independently owned Shores Liquor, which looks to have been here for about as long as Rowe's has. In case you were curious, the interior of Shores Liquor still has an untouched version of the Grocery Palace liquor store interior.
On the wall between the liquor store and the main store's facade, some (now covered over) river rock panels can be seen. However, if we're looking for a glimpse of what this store looked like originally, all we need to do is walk around the corner:
Besides a little paint, the left side of the building still looks very much like it would have when Albertsons opened in 1978. The bulge-out where the liquor store's sign is now would have been home to Albertsons' side entrance and the entrance to the original liquor store. The side entrance was removed during the Grocery Palace remodel, when the liquor store was expanded and moved up to the front of the building.
Here's a better look down the mostly original left side of this former Albertsons store. In the background behind the old Albertsons, part of a former Scotty's Hardware store can also be seen.
With our store tour done, it's now time to jump into the aerial images. As usual, we'll begin with some bird's eye aerial images, courtesy of Bing Maps:
And now for the historic aerials, courtesy of Google Earth and historicaerials.com:
Former Albertsons #4325 - 2019
Former Albertsons #4325 - 2013
Former Albertsons #4325 - 2008 - The CVS had yet to be built in the parking lot of the Rowe's store. As you can tell from the prior satellite images, the construction of the CVS ate up an entire row of Rowe's parking lot. The CVS replaced that old gas station located on the corner, which if you keep a close eye on the remaining satellite images, went though at least three different canopy transformations through the years (including one one only a few years before it was demolished). That gas station appears to have been a Chevron for a while, before finishing out its time as an independent called B&Y.
Albertsons #4325 - 2005
Albertsons #4325 - 2002
Albertsons #4325 - 1999 - In this image you can see what the building looked like before the Grocery Palace remodel.
Albertsons #4325 - 1994
Albertsons #4325 - 1980
Future Albertsons #4325 - 1971 - It looks like Albertsons built this store on a former mobile home park.
I couldn't find any images online of this store when it was still an Albertsons, so this recreation by YonWooRetail2 will take the place of that. While I've never seen any images of this store as an Albertsons, the placement of the signage and the color scheme looks pretty accurate to me. However, even 15 years and a remodel later, Rowe's IGA Supermarket has let Albertsons's legacy live on in Jacksonville's Westside. Maybe not to the extent they did a few years ago, but we have to take what we can get sometimes.
Albertsons remnants and relics aside, I really liked Rowe's IGA Supermarket too. While this was a fun store to visit, I really enjoyed my experience at the Rowe's I went to immediately after here. However, that's a story for another day. We'll wrap up AFB for 2019 in a little over two weeks, on December 22nd. While I still have more to share from my Jacksonville trip, I'll bring this series to an end (for now) next time. Next time we'll jump back across the St. John's River to Mandarin, where a tour of a supermarket oddity awaits us.
So until the next post,
The Albertsons Florida Blogger