The Forgotten Legacy of New Orleans Supermarket Pioneer John Schwegmann

Author David Cappello will sign copies of The People's Grocer this weekend at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum

The Schwegmann Bros. grocery chain, launched in 1946 with a first location on St. Claude Ave. in New Orleans, closed for good in 1999. That’s not too long ago, but enough time for the pioneering vision of founder John Schwegmann to have been largely forgotten.

Enter business writer David Cappello. His main goal with his biography of Schwegmann, The People’s Grocer, is to ensure that people shopping in 2017 at Walmart, Costco and other large discount chains can be made aware of the foundation laid for big-box retailers by Schwegmann. Cappello will be at theSouthern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans Saturday July 8 from 2 to 3 p.m. to discuss his book and sign copies.

John G. Schwegmann, who passed away in 1995, liked to publish homsepun thoughts on the side of his brown-paper grocery bags. He also made astute use of local newspaper ads. From a great review of the book this week by Dominic Massa, an executive producer with New Orleans CBS-TV affiliate WWL:

Schwegmann used his newspaper ads to offer blunt and pointed commentary on the price-fixing wars and many other issues. One 1963 ad cleverly featured Schwegmann’s supposed family coat of arms and the origin of their name, which he said came from “schweg,” a Germanic term for axe. Thus, a “schwegman” was an axe-man, soldier or knight. ‘We at Schwegmann’s are still carrying out the old tradition—protecting the people’s pocketbooks, slashing prices and waging ware on the price fixers,’ the ad claimed.

As Cappello documents, there was a time in the U.S. when the kind of discounting constructed by Schwegmann was illegal. Several of the grocery store trailblazer’s fights against those laws made it to the Supreme Court.