Jack Straub and his son, Trip, are looking at the old snapshots that hang on the walls inside the Straub’s Markets office in Clayton. One picture shows a long row of telephone operators taking calls for home delivery service: All are wearing bulky black headsets with thick cords fitted over coiffed hairdos, their legs are crossed and they’re flashing big 1940s smiles.
“That’s the hall they were sitting in right there,” the elder Straub point out. He looks at another picture of his grandfather, company founder William A. Straub, who started selling groceries in Webster Groves 112 years ago, three years prior to the World’s Fair.
When Jack started working with his dad and grandfather 50 years ago, he remembers how William A. would stand at the front door and say hello to everyone who came in, “My granddad knew the names of all the customers.” Jack also remembers special days at Busch’s Grove and how his dad took what seemed like forever to sit down to eat because he had to talk to everyone in all of the other dining huts.
As we walk through the store’s kitchen, workers are busy preparing meals, including the Straub’s legendary chicken salad—the same way they’ve been making it for generations. And through a swinging door, we are in the produce section where a charming spiral stairway sits in the middle.
Years ago, the staircase was the centerpiece of the store’s restaurant. Back in the day, all the best stores had at least a lunch counter. Today, it stands as yet another reminder of the past. With its sleek curved design, it was a working post-war tribute to the oncoming age of modern American efficiency and practical style and elegance. And the more you look around, the more you realize this building really hasn’t changed much since the Straubs had it designed, built and opened in 1949. It seems to suit Jack and Trip just fine. The tiled walls are well-worn but still functional, and the offices are very modest—just the way the first two generations of the family wanted it. “My grandfather, his brother and my great-grandfather were a little more conservative. Perhaps they ran the business more as a lifestyle business, as opposed to trying to get as big as possible and earn as much as they could,” Trip explains as he sits down at his desk. “They enjoyed knowing the customers by name; and if you get too big, there comes a point when you can’t do that anymore.”
Trip’s nickname is short for Triple. He’s actually Jack William III, but that would be far too formal even though he carries one of St. Louis’ household names. One of the pictures in his office hangs purposely in his direct line of site, a reminder of his biggest business miscalculation: It’s a photo of him standing on top of a checkout counter with his arms spread wide inside the Straub’s store in Ellisville—yes, the same Straub’s store that was a huge flop, it closed almost before it opened. The store was 40,000 square feet, a modest size by most new supermarket standards, but it just didn’t fit the Straub’s image or the area. It was a tough lesson for Trip to swallow. “If you can’t admit mistakes, you’ve got problems; and if you can’t learn from your mistakes, you’ve got even more problems.”
Trip says he learned a lot. They are back to the same four stores that helped establish the Straub’s name as a top-quality, service-oriented specialty grocer. Trip says the company is now back on track and headed toward its most profitable year ever.
St. Louis is a family grocery town; Trip believes the three family run chains may make the industry here unlike any other city in the nation. Schnucks, Dierbergs and Straub’s are the most prominent names, although Trip admits they really aren’t even in the same league as their much-bigger rivals.
Nonetheless, four generations of Straubs have helped shape the grocery landscape of the city, even if it’s been just one avocado or USDA Prime cut at a time. “Its phenomenal when you look at the history of family business—not even necessarily a grocery store, but a fourth generation of any business, are you kidding?” Trip notes. “In the grocery-store business, where the profit margin is razor-thin and there is competition on every corner, how have we survived?”
Whether there’s going to be a fifth generation of the Straub family in the grocery business is a question that Trip still can’t answer. “I’ve got four children (a daughter and three sons), and the oldest is just a freshman in college. Will one of them or more end up here? I don’t know, but they aren’t going to be allowed to at first. They’ll go work somewhere else for two or three years, and then I’ll have to see if I can afford them!” he chuckles.
Trip thinks having a place for the next generation is one of the best things about having a family business. They probably won’t have trouble finding space on the old tile walls to hang more snapshots.
A native St. Louisan, Brown is a lifelong journalist, and previously served as a broadcaster for KMOX and KTRS radios and ABC 30. His Paul Brown Media specializes in public and media relations.