Ask anyone who's been around Ross long enough about Amarraca. Chances are their eyes will instantly light up and plenty of good memories will pour out of their mouth.
Amarraca was truly a one-of-a-kind store when it opened in 1984. (The name comes from Bill Marra, the creator of the store, and is, of course, a play on “America”). Upon walking into the main shopping area, customers were greeted with fresh prepared foods. There were four meat counters: a smokehouse, a seafood department, a poultry counter, and a butcher shop for beef, pork, lamb, and veal. Two deli counters, one for meat and one for cheese, could be found in the direct center of the store, as could the produce department, which featured a salad bar and a “weigh as you exit” policy. Amarraca had a floral department, a full-service bakery, a bulk foods department, a gelato counter, and a dairy department selling milk from three different dairies. Of course, they also had plenty of regular grocery items.
The above description of Amarraca may seem fairly standard for a grocery store these days for the most part, but keep in mind this was 1984. Amarraca was a revolutionary store, one considered “upscale” by most retail experts of the day. Still, Amarraca had some even more remarkable features that made it truly stand out from other posh grocers.
Something was missing from Amarraca’s parking lot–a shopping cart return. Carts were not allowed outside of the store area. Instead, your groceries were loaded directly into your trunk or truck bed. Each customer received a ticket, which was matched with another ticket stapled to one of the bags to ensure the correct groceries were claimed. (This also prevented those nasty shopping cart dents, which inevitably happen within a week of purchasing a new car).
When Amarraca initially opened, cooking classes were offered. Amarraca also had its own restaurant (this portion of the store lives on as Sesame Inn, which set up shop in 1993 following the closure of the Amarraca Buffet).
No discussion would be complete without mention of the AmarraCard, a revolutionary debit card which initially served only as a withdraw tool. Why not have a designated card just for groceries?
There was a “Consumer Bill of Rights” in the front of the store, which went along with the name of the store and also served as a guarantee of great service. The logo took the play on words even further, combining imagery of a grocery cart with that of a waving American flag.
Of course, the best part of Amarraca was the people. Anyone who shopped at the store frequently was on a first name basis with the butchers, cashiers, produce clerks, grocery loaders, and gelato scoopers. Everyone was knowledgable about their particular specialty, offered exceptional service, and got to know their customers quite well.
I genuinely enjoyed shopping at Amarraca. Although I was a youngster when the store was around, I never minded going alongside family members. In fact, I usually wanted to go so I could catch up with the folks I knew around there. I was even told I would be able to start working there as a cashier as soon as I turned 15. Given the slow-paced, friendly, casual atmosphere of Amarraca, I felt this would be a great first job.
One day, my mother picked me up from school. I had stayed late to edit a literary magazine. When I got in the van, she told me she had some very bad news. Amarraca was closing.
For most seventh graders, the loss of a grocery store wouldn’t be anything major. However, losing Amarraca was like losing a friend. A ton of questions filled my mind. Would we be able to find Thanksgiving turkeys as good as the Jandil turkeys Amarraca sold every year? Would any of our favorite employees, some of whom we’d been served by since the mid-1980s, latch on at Giant Eagle or some other store? Would there be any suitable replacement for Amarraca’s baked ham, butter cookies, or mint chip gelato? Would any other grocer step up to create the atmosphere we’ve come to know and love?
Shopping at the Amarraca clearance wasn’t exactly easy for me. I wore my Amarraca ballcap, given to me by Jim, one of the butchers, and made sure to thank the employees for their service. I made sure to hold onto their last circular and placed it alongside my Cranberry Hall menu in my small collection of artifacts. I even got ahold of an entire stack of grocery claim tickets, something I’ve always wanted to show Giant Eagle management whenever a new store is opened.
Giant Eagle, of course, is what ultimately killed Amarraca. When the store opened, as mentioned earlier, Giant Eagles weren’t anything like they are today. The McIntyre Square location opened in 1987 and took full advantage of its size, having located to the upper level of a former standalone Kaufmann’s. Many of Amarraca’s features were copied, including the concept of prepared foods and a florist within the store. A large greeting card department, seven day banking with the store, and a video rental department solidified Giant Eagle as a one-stop shop as the 1990s trudged on. Although McIntyre Square’s Giant Eagle initially offered cooking classes, the classroom was later replaced with an Eagle’s Nest.
The Giant Eagle Advantage Card forced Amarraca to play catch-up. Savvy historians will remember the initial perk of the Advantage Card, aside from saving cash, was to accumulate points for a free turkey. Amarraca quickly followed suit and re-launched the AmarraCard with a similar program. (Prior to the Advantage Card savings, Giant Eagle used the term "Temporary Smart Buy" to refer to weekly specials).
Although Amarraca seemed to be doing fine at this point, two stores opened in 1999 to further complicate things. The Giant Eagle in Pine Creek Plaza was rebuilt that year, placing it in the same league as the larger, more advanced McIntyre Square store. Target opened later that year and quickly became a favorite stop for those looking for a few groceries. Those avoiding Giant Eagle because of traffic now had another store to flock to. Shoppers coming in for one or two items who wanted to go elsewhere could now go to Target, whose prices were often better.
Crowds died down by early 2000, although plenty of loyal shoppers continued to turn to Amarraca. Twelve years later, many still miss the store, myself included.
I typically shop at the Glenshaw Giant Eagle these days if I'm visiting Pittsburgh. It’s a newer store, having opened in January 2011, and is one of the friendlier Giant Eagles in the area in terms of the employees. Overall, it’s not a bad store at all, but it’s still missing the feel of Amarraca, as well as some of its conveniences.
The million dollar question: would another Amarraca be able to launch at some point? If so, how would it be changed so it could compete against the Giant Eagles of the world?
Let’s assume we build one at McCandless Crossing, where lots of land awaits development. Since I’m the one in charge, I’ll pull a pun on my own name and call it Scottland.
Scottland would have a similar layout to Amarraca as well as many of its unique features, such as grocery loading. To keep it in the game, I’d also include a sushi bar, a ton of natural and organic products (not yet a craze when Amarraca closed), a pharmacy, a focus on locally-grown produce (and perhaps local eggs, too), a full-service bank, and free wi-fi throughout the store.
Let’s take some things a step further. Instead of a daycare center, how about a tutoring center? Students could come for a math, reading, writing, or science lesson as their parents shopped. Cooking classes for students could also be offered (as well as some for adults). Rather than require a card for discounts, how about keeping sales open to everyone and leaving the card only for accumulating points toward free turkeys and discounts on fuel? In fact, why not place a mini-serve fuel station in front of the store itself? How about adding a drive-through smoothie bar? (Given a proximity to LA Fitness, a Smoothie King-type setup would probably take off and draw customers to the store). Even better, how about bringing another southern favorite, Cook Out, to the store?
Friendly, knowledgable employees would be key. The apathetic cashiers who barely make eye contact at Giant Eagle would not last one day. I’d look for the best of the best when recruiting for any position and would also require all employees dealing with money to be able to make change in their head in case the computer systems went down. (Believe me, I know adults who can’t multiply eight by four without a calculator).
Perhaps most important would be the marketing. It would need to be flawless and pride itself on being the “anti-Giant Eagle”. For every North Hills resident who loves Giant Eagle, there is another who despises it and often shops there only because there are no sensible alternatives. Although television commercials would probably be out of reach for a tiny startup like Scottland, perhaps featuring it on a local program (much the way Amarraca was once featured on a PBS cooking show) would be able to draw in customers.
Would it work? If Wal-Mart can’t come to the area and Giant Eagle continues to be the madhouse it normally is, there is no reason to believe it wouldn’t as long as it stayed revolutionary. It would need to mimic Amarraca enough to bring in the old customer base and offer enough advantages over Giant Eagle and the other stores to be a viable alternative.
That being said, I’m not currently looking to enter the grocery business and am plenty content as a teacher in Charlotte, NC, but if I ever feel called to do so, I feel the North Hills would be a perfect location to set up shop.