Entrepreneurs have to be gutsy. But imagine moving 20 miles just so you could open a business with 140 nearby competitors. A gutsy move, wouldn’t you say? Or a little nuts, perhaps? Pick any adjective you want, but it’s something that just wouldn’t be done today.
That’s what Frederick Wilhelm Albrecht did when he moved from Massillon to Akron in 1891 to start his own grocery. His little store near the corner of Buchtel and Center Streets became the first Acme.
Akron was way different in 1891, having only 40,000 residents. Cuyahoga Falls had fewer than 500. The developed area of Akron extended roughly to the Cuyahoga River on the north, Arlington St. on the east, Wilbeth on the south, and the continental divide — Portage Path — on the west. That’s about 12 square miles. The area we now call Northwest Akron wasn’t annexed until 1915, about the same time Firestone Park and Goodyear Heights were being developed. The City of Ellet and the Village of Kenmore weren’t annexed until 1929.
But the locals surely didn’t have to worry about where their next meal was coming from. Home gardens and orchards supplied the produce, and backyard chicken coops took care of the eggs and Sunday dinner. What couldn’t be grown or raised at home came from nearby vendors. The 1990 city directory identifies 140 retail grocers, 18 bakers, eight milk depots and 47 meat markets in the city at the time. Indeed, it seemed as if one’s next meal was no more than a block or two away.
Groceries were often little more than storefronts set up with merchandise located behind counters and proprietors living in the back or upstairs. Patron’s orders were fetched by clerks. There was no self-service. The inventory tended to be pantry staples, in-season produce, maybe some home-canned fruit or vegetables supplied by neighbors, soap, and housewares like clothes pins, ironing boards and clothes boilers. If a grocer carried anything that needed to be kept cold, he relied on the ice man. Affordable refrigeration, and even commercial canning, didn’t start in the U.S. until the mid 1910s..
Fred Albrecht got through his first years by running a tight ship while keeping the needs of his customers first. In the early days his stores opened at 5:30 in the morning, six days a week. He had delivery boys that were able to make two wagon trips in the morning and two in the afternoon. By 1900 Akron had a half-dozen F.W. Albrecht groceries and a warehouse.
Albrecht painted his stores yellow for visibility and changed the name of the stores to “The Acme Stores.” He decided he would no longer offer his customers credit and switched to a cash-only business model, reasoning that bad debts had to be made back through higher prices. His no-credit policy allowed Acme to keep its prices low and, one by one, he added stores as his competitors dropped away. His business had 46 stores by 1920, and 91 by 1940, spread from Wooster to Youngstown.
Early on, Albrecht decided to number his stores to help his bookkeepers and delivery people keep track. Acme #1 — the original Acme #1, not the one at 1835 West Market Street — was at 204 East Center Street. That street number, if it still existed, would be on the University of Akron campus, somewhere around Guzzetta Hall and the Sisler-McFawn residence hall. But the store’s been long gone, as are many of the original locations. Several were taken by road building and normal redevelopment. A couple sites were bulldozed for new car lots.
But, believe it or not, many of Fred Albrecht’s original Acme’s are still standing, according to county tax records, and people drive by them without knowing.
The #7 store at 21 Merriman Rd., near Rockne’s, was built around 1916, and remains a great example of a mixed-use building housing a business on the lower level and a residence upstairs. Steve Albrecht, CEO of Acme Fresh Markets, the business’s latest appellation, remembers his aunt living there before the store closed. It has since housed Richard’s Florists, Birchwood Supply, and now an ad agency.
The number #12 store was in the lower level of a 1900 garden apartment at 576 Carroll St., still there and in beautiful condition. The old commercial entry is placed diagonally on the corner, easily seen from any direction. A side residential entry allowed privacy for the folks living upstairs. The building is apparently student housing today.
The the #18 store at 619 N. Howard is a similar, one-story version where the residents lived in the back. It is now the home of an employment agency.
The intersection of West Exchange, Maple and Cedar Streets, known as “Five Points,” was once one of Akron’s busiest shopping areas. Acme #16 was in the red and tan building that rounds the corner of Maple and West Exchange, fronting on Maple.
Several blocks west, the building at 179 S. Portage Path is the home of a dry cleaner and the mouth-watering Portage Service Broaster Chicken. But it wasn’t your grandpa’s chicken place. It was first Acme #22. The building was built in 1900.
Not too far away were #32 at 1877 West Exchange and #45 at 964 Delia. The former was part of a strip center built in 1915, now houseing Your Pizza and a few other small businesses. The latter was quite likely built by Acme in the 1930s and is currently home to Delia Market.
The fact that this area is dotted with large, five and six bedroom houses explains how four Acmes thrived within a mile of each other. It also shows how the city, transportation and the times have changed.
We’re not completely sure about a couple other buildings. Old city directories put the #4 store it at 127 East Cuyahoga Falls Ave. in the 1915 building currently used as an office, day care center and an Asian clothing store. Records conflict, however. It could have been on the site of the nearby branch library. We aren’t sure about the #6 store either, Directories say it was at 55 East Market, which has been torn down. But Crave is at 57. Next time you eat there, look around and see if it looks like an old grocery.
Steve Albrecht explains that most of those 2000 to 5000 square foot neighborhood stores were vacated by Acme after World War II, in favor of larger “supermarket” formats. The new stores, typically 10,000 to 20,000 square feet in size, allowed for larger meat sections, health and beauty items and more general merchandise. But the supermarkets were upgraded, too. The Acme Fresh Market stores of today, of which there are 16, are as large as 70,000 square feet. They also accommodate pharmacies, bake shops, organic foods, deli counters with prepared food, seafood and a wider selection of adult beverages.
“We added catering many years ago, and we still have delivery. So that hasn’t changed,” he told us. “We actually have customers in California who order food for parents here in Akron. That was what they needed.”
“Everyone doesn’t need delivery, but — whatever happens in the future — we will let people shop the way they want to shop. Our goal is to have safe, clean, neat stores and helpful people. Our success will always be driven by our customers.”
This sounds like the ethic Fred Albrecht brought with him from Massillon in 1891. Seems like it worked. Jeff Davis is a retired writer, editor, and teacher who sometimes wonders about old buildings. He’s also a proud co-owner of this newspaper. He can be reached at email@example.com
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