Rice Epicurean Grocer Closing After 85 Years

HOUSTON – (By Michelle Leigh Smith, for Realty News Report) – Ending an 85-year run in the Houston grocery business, the last Rice Epicurean Market is closing its doors.

“With the closing of our last store, this is a historic time for our family as we complete the transition of our business that we began several years ago,” says Larry Calvin, Director of Marketing for Rice. “We are proud of our three generations of family who have been operating grocery stores in Houston, and we have always enjoyed serving our community with the best service, catering, and products we could provide. Our grandparents, William and Edna Levy, opened the original “Rice Blvd Food Market” store 85 years ago. The store was in a shopping center developed by our great grandfather, Manuel Meyerhoff, in the original shopping center in the area we know as the “Rice Village.”

The Levy family, a well-known name in the Houston grocery world, have announced they will close the Rice Epicurean Market at Fountainview and Inwood, the last outlet in a once-thriving chain of 55 stores. A Spec’s Fine Wines, Spirits and Foods has leased the Rice Epicurean  space on Fountainview, a 42,000-SF market with just under 100 employees, many of whom have worked there for decades.

Rice Epicurean has always distinguished itself as a forerunner, being the first to offer Houston customers online shopping through Rice Delivers, launched in 2002. Before the advent of the supermarket of today, customers shopped in their own neighborhood and were known by name by the grocer, who usually offered charging privileges by simply signing their names on the grocery bills. That era is over and it’s time to say goodbyes.

“We plan to keep as many people working as we wind down the operations through the end of July and use the transition period to help our associates that are looking for new positions,” says Bruce Levy, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer and grandson of the founder. “We’re excited to welcome Spec’s to this outstanding neighborhood and look forward to seeing them continue their tradition of quality and service they bring to our city. We also recognize that this transaction affects people who have worked for our stores for many years, some dating back to the original Rice Food Market stores. They are all very important to us.”

When the Tanglewood store opened, it was surrounded by farmland and many customers were nearby rice farmers who were delighted not to have to go into the city for groceries. The store virtually stood alone and was the only major structure in what was to become the prestigious Galleria area.

A letter went out to longtime customers on Tuesday, signed by Gary and Tommy Friedlander, Bruce Levy, Scott Silverman and Phil Cohen.

Rice Epicurean Markets, the oldest family-owned supermarket in Houston, opened its first store in 1988. At that time Rice Epicurean was a division of Rice Food Markets, Inc. Founded on May 5, 1937, by William and Edna Levy, grandparents of the current owners, the first Rice Food Market store, a 2,400-SF building at 2501 Rice Boulevard, named their specialty store Rice Boulevard Food Market.

May 5, 1937  – “Rice Boulevard Food Market” Opens For Business

In 1937, The Village shopping center west of Rice Institute (later named Rice University) was an undeveloped, wooded area. Rice Boulevard was an unpaved dirt road and West University Place was in its developmental stages. In those early days, there were only two buildings in the shopping center, an ice house at the corner of Rice Boulevard and Kirby, and Rice Boulevard Food Market at 250l Rice Boulevard. The original location, which opened on May 5, 1937, was on Rice Boulevard, hence the name “Rice Boulevard Food Market”. The store was one of only two establishments in the now popular Rice Village Shopping Center.

The first store was only 40 feet by 60 feet, and included William Levy’s wife Edna among the personnel, which numbered only five. That successful first store was eventually enlarged on five occasions until there was no longer space on the site for expansion. “We still own the building,” says Levy. “Up until recently it has been Pier One Imports in the Village.  It is now Top Fitness.”

Today, Rice Epicurean Markets is still merchandised in sync with its surrounding neighborhood. The charge card system with monthly billing, introduced in 1964, remains in effect. The store prides itself on the number of employees who have been with the chain for 20 years or more and can tell you by name, the customers and their families who have shopped with them for many, many years.

In April 1957, the family opened its second location at the corner of 5016 San Felipe and Post Oak in Tanglewood. The Tanglewood store, as it was referred to in conversation, necessitated a change in the firm’s name from Rice Boulevard Food Market to Rice Food Markets. “My father (Joel) would tell stories that this is where people would go to ride horses when he was a kid.  We acquired the Fountain View store from Appletree in the 1990s,” says Levy.

Neighbors are practically mourning the impending close. “The Pin Lady has been a fixture there,” says Helen Perry, who grew up on Brentwood street. “Her Rice vest is covered in pins -all sorts of fun pins.  The staff loved my Mom, knew her name, carried everything for her.”  Many of the neighborhood children and grandchildren enjoyed the cooking lessons/classes there, including Marialice Martin, granddaughter of fashion model Dallas Hill, and Katharine Smith.

The 1960s – Rice Grows

By 1960 Rice had added another location bringing their total up to three. The same year, a merger took place with another grocery chain owned by a local family known as “Jack’s.” This brought the total store count up to 6. The chain had a brief stint on the public market from 1968 through the late 1970s. That ended when the original founding family reclaimed controlling ownership  of the store.

In 1955, William Levy’s son-in-law, Alfred L. Friedlander, joined the business. Two years later, his son, Joel M. Levy, came into the family business. William H. Levy passed away in 1968, but Rice Epicurean Markets continued to maintain his concepts from the first neighborhood location: quality products and personal service. Rice, to compete with the larger chains, was re-created in a successful effort to be the best grocery store in town. In 1988, Rice Epicurean Markets was born.

From Cold Cuts to Cold Beer

The Rice Epicurean concept pays close attention to the regular stock of grocery store items, but special requests, gourmet products and customer service figure prominently in the overall operation. The perishable departments receive special attention, featuring the finest meat, produce, chef prepared salads and entrees, upscale floral, European bakery, Angus Beef and See’s Candies.

Rice Won National Supermarket Business Magazine Award in 1996

In 1996, Rice Epicurean Markets was awarded the prestigious Nationally Acclaimed Award of Excellence honor by Supermarket Business Magazine.

Four Houston locations at Holcombe, Weslayan, Tanglewood, and Memorial closed during the first part of 2013, with the North Carolina-based specialty grocer, The Fresh Market opening in the vacated spaces by end of that year. Fresh Market’s organic mix was short lived, replaced by a Walgreen’s at the Westheimer location and Total Wine at the other three.

Rice Epicurean Markets, Inc. is wholly owned by founding family members. Current family members involved in the daily operations of the business are: Gary Friedlander, President and Chief Operating Officer and Bruce Levy.

May 26, 2022 Realty News Report Copyright 2022

Photo: Courtesy Rice Epicurean Markets and Levy  family

File: Rice Epicurean Grocer Closing


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