The Downtown Jewel
Des Plaines' First Modern Supermarket
We take supermarkets for granted today, but it's easy to forget that they're a fairly recent invention.
The downtown building now occupied by Gift Depot was built in 1948 as a Jewel Food Store. Like most early Jewel stores, it was faced in plain white glazed terra cotta with a maroon base, with white suggesting the cleanliness and modernity of their stores, among the pioneers of self-service grocery. Their earliest stores, like the one opened in 1935 farther down Ellinwood Street next to Woolworth, had architectural accents to resemble tiny Greek temples. Over time, the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styles drowned out these accents and by the late 1940s, the Jewel look had become totally unornamented.
The dawn of the modern supermarket was in 1948. Chains like Kroger, National Tea, and A&P were aggressively building new supermarkets, while Jewel was focused mostly on expanding and modernizing its existing stores. The small, independent neighborhood grocers were on their way out. Each chain built between a dozen and 40 stores each in Chicago and its suburbs in 1948, although since stores were smaller, they were located closer together. Until this point, a grocery store would be at most the size of two or three regular storefronts. Many early Jewel stores were in existing store buildings; the old Ellinwood store had been one of the first purpose-built Jewels.
The difference in 1948 was technology. Automatic doors, fluorescent lights, conveyor belt checkouts, parking lots - all were new to the grocery industry at the time. Home freezers were new, too, leading many women to abandon daily shopping for weekly, which led to crowded weekends, necessitating bigger stores with parking lots. Jewel had its own lot to the rear, which was later used for an addition, and the municipal lot was built behind not long after. The Des Plaines Jewel was said to be the largest in the chain when it was built.
Other chains soon followed throughout the early 1950s and a sort of grocery 'arms race' ensued; National Tea built a new store at Ellinwood & Pearson, the independent Pesche grocery expanded several times into a supermarket on River Road, and Kroger and A&P were 'pioneers' extending shopping out of downtown on Lee Street (now Casa Royale and Good News Christian Church); National soon followed the housing market, building the Greater Des Plaines Shopping Center at Algonquin & Lee (now Pet Supplies Plus). In 1953 Jewel went the farthest out with a store at Lee & Oakton (now Chang Jiang Buffet and US Bank). This prompted an expansion at the Ellinwood Jewel.
An addition was created, and the store was remodeled. The store's most well-remembered feature, a conveyor belt to the back parking lot and a breezeway, was added at this time. The store now had five aisles, five checkouts with conveyors, a self-service meat department made possible by new meatpackers union rules, frozen foods, and air conditioning.
By 1973, the retail scene had changed. The Jewel was the last remaining chain grocery downtown, and while it remained busy, it was among the smallest in the Jewel chain. It closed on September 12, and the manager blamed parking meter fee hikes from 1 cent to 5 cents on the drop-off in business.
Des Plaines would not see another major grocery store downtown until Shop & Save opened in September, 2005. The entire Metropolitan Square development was centered around gaining a downtown grocery from day one.
The Jewel building itself became a Naked Furniture store in 1975, selling unpainted furniture. The building was painted black and maroon and a cornice line was added. Around 2002 it became Gift Depot, a variety store, and was painted white again.