Lessons in store: New book recounts history of City Market

Former City Market president Tony Prinster tapped a variety of materials in conducting research for his book about the history of the supermarket chain and his family, including a newspaper supplement published in 1939 when the Prinster brothers opened a supermarket in downtown Grand Junction. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times


Tony Prinster recalls how he quickly developed a deeper respect for the way two previous generations of his family had managed a supermarket chain when he took over himself as president of City Market in 1990. “I really gained a lot of respect for what my ancestors had done and what they built.”

Now more than a decade into retirement, Prinster says he’s gained a greater appreciation still in researching and writing a book about the four brothers who founded City Market and how they expanded the operation from a single store in downtown Grand Junction to what is today a chain of 35 stores spread across four states.

The book offers a history not only of an enterprising family, Printer says, but also history lessons that remain relevant to aspiring entrepreneurs striving to replicate that kind of success.

The book, titled “The History of City Market: The Brothers Four and the Back Slope Empire,” is scheduled for publication in mid-October, coinciding with the unveiling of a bronze sculpture in downtown Grand Junction depicting the Prinster brothers.

Tony Prinster, the last member of his family to serve as president of City Market, wrote the book along with Kate Ruland-Thorne, a journalist and historian in Grand Junction who’s written many historical novels. The History Press based in South Carolina will publish the book.

Prinster said he’s long been interested in writing what’s in essence his family story.

In the book, that story begins with Prinster’s great-grandfather, a young Italian immigrant named Josef Pruenster who came to the United States in 1873. Prinster, as his name was subsequently spelled, lived and worked in Cincinnati, but eventually found his way to La Junta in Eastern Colorado. He started a slaughterhouse and then expanded his business ventures to include a meat shop and a grocery store named City Market.

His children worked in the family businesses, including the four brothers who later moved to Grand Junction and bought a store also named, coincidentally, City Market.

Paul Prinster, the oldest of the four brothers, came to Grand Junction first and and initially worked at a Piggly Wiggly grocery store. But in 1924, he bought an interest in another store located on Fourth Street just north of Main Street — named City Market. The three other Prinster brothers — Frank, Leo and Clarence — followed and bought out the remaining interest in the store.

In 1939, the Prinster brothers opened what was at the time a state-of-the-art supermarket near Fourth Street and Rood Avenue. What followed after World War II was a period of expansion as City Market opened stores in Montrose, Delta and other communities in Western Colorado as well as New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Tony Prinster ends the book in 1970, when City Market merged with the Dillon Companies chain of grocery stores. In 1983, Dillon merged with Kroger, one of the largest grocery chains in the United States. Kroger continues to operate City Market.

Tony Prinster grew up in the grocery store business operated by his grandfather, Frank, and great uncles. His father, Frank Prinster Jr., served as president of City Market from 1961 to 1978. Tony Prinster left his Grand Junction law practice to join City Market in 1987 and served as president from 1990 to 2001.

Tony Prinster attributes the success of City Market in large part to the business practices and vision of the four brothers.

The brothers established a cash and carry policy that differed from other grocery stores at that time that extended credit. The brothers likely learned that lesson from their father, who had difficulty collecting money from customers of his store in La Junta, Prinster says.

The cash policy enabled the brothers to buy goods from vendors at lower prices and, consequently, sell those goods for less than competitors, Prinster says. Their strategy of lowering margins and increasing volume was the same Wal-Mart later used to become one of the largest retailers in the world, he says. “They understood that.”

The brothers also avoided debt, even in expanding operations, Prinster says. When they opened their Grand Junction supermarket in 1939, they paid cash for the land and building.

They reinvested profits in the best equipment and facilities to keep their operations up-to-date. And they were quick to recognize the opportunities in opening grocery stores in small towns in the region, he says.

In addition, the brothers were adept at fostering relationships with their suppliers and growing staff of employees, he says.

Prinster says he experienced daily  what his family had accomplished when he served as president of City Market. But he’s even more impressed now that he knows the full story of how the family business evolved. “I really gained an appreciation for the magnitude of what my predecessors had done.”