Grocery empire: Prinster brothers put City Market on map
An estimated 50 to 75 mom-and-pop markets dotted Grand Junction’s landscape when the Prinsters bought the first City Market in 1924 on North Fourth Street. Fifteen years later, after tirelessly working to build a loyal customer base, the family opened a gleaming new supermarket that would wow the masses with delightful displays and a do-it-yourself shopping concept. Another store opened in the 1950s, greeting customers with the town’s first ever automatic sliding doors.
It’s easy to take supermarkets for granted, but City Market’s splashy opening in September 1939 was heralded as the Western Slope’s largest, and for a while, the grandest in Colorado.
The story of the Prinster family launching City Market stores in Grand Junction, and expanding to 38 locations around the region, is detailed in the book, “The History of City Market: The Brothers Four and the Colorado Back Slope Empire,” written by Anthony Prinster and Kate Ruland-Thorne.
“It was an adventure,” Anthony Prinster said. “When I started out I had this vision of what the story was. When I got into it, it wasn’t even close. It took on a life of its own.”
The four Prinster brothers, Frank J. Sr., Paul H., Leo G. and Clarence F., are the subject of a new Historic Sculptures Legends installation to be unveiled at 5 p.m. Friday at 200 South Spruce St., Mesa County’s Central Services building. The building was once the site of a City Market warehouse.
The Prinster family, known for their determination, compassion and business acumen, developed a faithful customer base, even during the Great Depression. According to the book, City Market developed a policy of accepting scrips during this time — a cash substitute that some employees, especially teachers, received in lieu of a paycheck.
During WWII when meat was scarce and transportation to deliver goods was limited, the Prinsters coordinated with local farmers and ranchers to get the best quality cuts and produce. The local store quickly earned a reputation of having the best food selection around, Prinster and Ruland-Thorne write in their book. Also, the family worked with suppliers on a pay-as-you-go basis, endearing suppliers to them.
Former City Market president Phyllis Norris remembers walking with her grandmother to City Market, and taking to heart her admonitions that she should never shop at the Piggly Wiggly store across the street.
“She would tell me that store was dirty,” Norris said, remembering her grandmother’s warning. “We’d shop at the Prinster brothers’ store. When I was hired on at City Market, I was so excited.”
Norris, who was promoted over the years, was hired in 1974 when Frank Sr. was president. Presidents then would be Joe Prinster, Leo “Teo” Prinster and Anthony Prinster, the great-grandson of Joseph Prinster, whose four sons are being acknowledged in the statue project.
Norris enjoyed working for the Prinster family, though each president had his own personality. Norris was tapped as president in 2001, the first non-member of the Prinster family to hold the position. She had been the first woman to become a store manager in the entire Dillon Corp., which later bought City Market. In 1983, City Market was purchased by Kroger.
“They were interested in what I did, not whether I was a guy or a girl,” she said. “Even in the ‘80s women weren’t promoted. I was fortunate to work with a company that recognized good work.”
Teo Prinster was a quiet and caring boss, who stuck to the office, she said.
Joe Prinster was such a “people person” at the former Eastgate City Market on North Avenue that people still remember him, Norris said. Anthony Prinster proved to be a great leader, pushing the company forward, Norris said.
When she became president, Joe came to visit her every week.
“I was a grocery man in his mind,” she said.
For a time, though he was retired, Joe would walk around the store marking items down, or sometimes marking them up, keeping tabs on the store’s cleanliness and the displays.
“They were grocery people. They struggled. They were workers. This wasn’t given to them,” Norris said about the Prinster legacy. “They were out there working to build stores.”
The book’s co-author, Kate Ruland-Thorne, said the book was fun to write, especially because Anthony Prinster had been collecting materials for it for a decade. “If he hadn’t done that, the book would have taken a couple of years,” she said.
The book delves into the “gossipy” family details, which the authors questioned whether they should include, Ruland-Thorne said. Especially challenging was information on Leo Prinster, she said. Leo, who was dubbed “Kingfish” for his abrupt mannerisms, is remembered as a good businessman, but he was quick to show his temper.