Looking back on Mercer Island’s grocery store history

With the arrival of a new grocery store on Mercer Island, it is fun to look back on grocery store history.

With the arrival of a new grocery store on Mercer Island, it is fun to look back on grocery store history.

In the earliest years, residents had to go down to the dock near the current Roanoke Inn to receive groceries weekly by boat. It is unclear whether people actually placed orders or bought whatever was on board.

However, more recent history is even more intriguing. At one time, a major complaint among residents was that the only businesses on Mercer Island were dry cleaners, gas stations and grocery stores. There was a time that there was a Safeway, an Albertsons, two Thriftway/Tradewell, an Art’s Food Center and a Seven Eleven, which was located on Sunset Highway near where Tully’s is now.

In the current Rite Aid site, there was a Mayfair grocery store and later even more briefly, there was a Skagg’s or Osco grocery.

Much of the public has a “build it and they will come” mentality about grocery stores. But remember that when Thriftway moved out of the current north end QFC site, that location remained empty for almost three years.

Are you old enough to remember that meat could not be sold after 6 p.m. on most days or at all on Sundays? That was mandated by the Meatcuttter’s Union.

There are notables among Mercer Island’s grocery managers: Ralph Wayne (Robby) Robinson, Tuk Tada and Bill Muncey. Robby ran Robby’s Foods, which was next door to the current Chamber of Commerce office. He had a pilot friend who would bring fresh Alaska king crab legs to sell at Robby’s.

A farmer on the south end of the Island provided peas, lettuce, cabbage and spinach. I distinctly remember waiting for Walla Walla sweet onions. Not only was Robby’s open until 11 p.m., it was open on Sundays when other grocery stores were closed. Robby’s was originally Croshow’s Food Shop, “Groceries Frozen and Cold Meats; Ice Cream, Fresh Ranch Eggs – Next to the Post Office.” That is when the Post Office was located in the Boyd Building. Look’s Pharmacy was first located there too — and sold liquor!

Muncey, the hydroplane race driver, owned two stores. Bill Muncey’s Thriftway, where the South end QFC is now, was a large grocery store compared to The Roostertail, which was essentially a convenience store in Shorewood. It was located in upper Shorewood where the newest apartments are now. Before Muncey bought it, it was called Shorewood Foods. It advertised in the Mercer Island High School yearbook “Groceries Delivered – Groceries – Magazines – Sundries. Monday thru Saturday 9 a.m. To 9 p.m. Upper Shorewood – Adams 3466.”

Are you a longtime resident to remember when our phone numbers started with AD followed by four digits? That was before area codes! When a dry cleaner asked for your phone number, you needed to give him only four digits.

Tuk Tada was the QFC manager at the South end for 25 years. He is remembered fondly by residents as a neighbor. One customer said that when his dad died, the bank froze all the family’s funds. Tada told the mother to charge her groceries (remember this was way before credit cards!) until her finances stabilized. “You have enough to worry about without wondering how to feed your children.”

Another Tada story was about a customer who was leaving on a trip and the bank closed before he could get cash. Remember this was before ATMs as well. Tada handed him several hundred dollars. “Pay me back when you return.”

QFC tried to move Tada to a busier store. The higher volume meant a much higher bonus at the end of the year. He refused the constant promotions. “These are my friends and neighbors.”

Consequently whenever an assistant manager was assigned to Tada’s South end QFC, he or she knew that the next assignment would be as a manager. QFC used Tada as the final honing for customer service.

One store that many longtime residents will remember is Art’s Food Center, which was located where Island Square Apartments are. It had deli meats and cheeses at a time when such items had to be purchased at an actual delicatessen or cheese store. It had indoor/outdoor wall-to-wall carpeting. The carpeting left some customers susceptible to static electricity shock in the cold winter months when they reached for a can.

The current site of Rite Aid has an interesting grocery history. It was home to Mayfair Grocery Store, and then became Skagg’s Grocery Store, and then Osco Drugs.

One little known fact concerns the HOV lanes, which are open to single-occupant vehicles. Those vehicles must exit onto Mercer Island. Years ago, the North end QFC did a survey of checks written to QFC. Remember when customers wrote checks for groceries? Well, over half the checks were written by off-Island residents, mainly from Bellevue and Issaquah.

Mercer Island’s business district has been changing so much somewhat due to the state mandate that cities absorb the growing population.

Sometimes we are so close to the forest that we don’t see the trees. When the director of a nearby Chamber of Commerce visited a couple years ago, she commented that her overall impression of our downtown was tidy and modern.

Many thanks to Sally Ford York Brown, resident of Mercer Island since 1955, member of the first graduating class of Mercer Island High School in 1958 and current secretary of the Mercer Island Historical Society, for much of the information in this article.

Dee Hitch can be reached at rockypointlane@aol.com.