Red Owl was a grocery store chain headquartered in Hopkins, Minnesota, that operated in that state and the upper Midwest. Although the Red Owl stores and name have been gone for more than 30 years, there are many former employees and customers in its service areas that have not lost their attachment to the stores or its merchandise.
Founded in 1922, it was initially owned and operated by a private investment firm affiliated with General Mills. The company was purchased in 1968 by Gamble-Skogmo. The company was purchased in 1968 by Gamble-Skogmo; it was acquired by Wickes Corporation in 1980. Wickes sold the Red Owl chain to three executives of the chain in January 1986. At that time, the company operated 441 stores in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North and South Dakota.
Then, in December 1988, the rights to the Red Owl name were purchased by grocery wholesaler Supervalu Inc., along with the company’s warehouse and distribution operations. A short time later Supervalu phased out the Red Owl name.
Red Owl was founded by investors linked to General Mills. The company was led by Ford Bell, a son of General Mills founder James Ford Bell. When it began it sold groceries, dry goods and coal. Its original slogan was: “Be Wise: Burn Red Owl Coal.”
Its first store was in Rochester, Minnesota. Its first store in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area opened in Hopkins in 1948.
Expansion spreads the brand and its reputation
Between 1950 and 1970 Red Owl became the largest retail grocery chain in the Twin Cities. At its peak, Red Owl had 55% of the grocery business in Minnesota.
Eventually there were stores throughout the upper Midwest. The chain expanded into the key Chicago market in late 1959, but the company sold its Chicago area operations to National Tea Company in 1963.
The privately held company went public in 1961. In 1962 the company operated 172 retail stores and sold Red Owl-branded products to 472 independent grocery retailers through its wholesale division.
Starved for capital by Gamble-Skogmo and then Wickes
By 1983 Red Owl operated only 75 company-owned Red Owl grocery stores and Country Stores supermarkets. When Supervalu acquired the company in 1988 there were 11 Red Owl stores in the Twin Cities and nearly 40 in the state of Minnesota.
By 1990 the number of Red Owl stores in Minnesota had shrunk to seven. There is one remaining Red Owl grocery store in operation. It is the Mason Brothers Red Owl, located in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Fierce loyalty to the brand
According to a 2018 article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “Only one old grocery chain still brings a smile to people in the Twin Cities. Former employees get together to reminisce about it. eBay sells nearly 700 nostalgic items from it. Red Owl.”
The article also stated that while many Red Owl employees are now dead, a group of them still met annually to have lunch and talk about the store they loved (as of 2018). Val Schulz, who was 88 at the time, was a former executive vice president of Red Owl. He stated, “I came [to the reunion] because I wanted to see old friends and renew old friendships. Red Owl was my first and only love in my work life.”
Schulz added that Red Owl was a predecessor of various big-box stores. “We were innovators with a larger selection of products and one of the first to introduce self-service packaged meat.”
Another former Red Owl employee who was at the reunion was Bernie Gaytko. He was quoted in the article as saying, “The consideration for our customers made it unique. Managers wore name tags that said ‘My pledge to you, Servitium optimum’ [optimum service].”
But things changed under Gamble-Skogmo. According to another Star-Tribune article that was published in 1986, a securities analyst said, “The deprivation of capital in the late 1970s and early 1980s gave Red Owl a ‘second-class’ image with consumers that resulted in declining market share.”
The Red Owl legacy
Today, Red Owl is remembered by former employees, shareholders and customers. The company’s logo is hard to forget once it is seen, and its fleet of dedicated trucks delivered in 10 states. But it is also known by many who never shopped at a store or weren’t born when the majority of the stores disappeared. Over 700 items sporting the Red Owl logo are sold on eBay and other sites. There are Facebook pages dedicated to the chain or its various stores.