The Enduring Legacy of Katz Drug Stores



"The Kings of Cut-Rate"

   This year marks the 100th anniversary of the iconic Kansas City area retailer with the grinning cat logo.

   Founded in 1914, Katz Drug Stores were more than a place to pick up prescriptions or smokes. They were where memories were made and friendships and romances blossomed.

   A trip to your neighborhood Katz store meant enjoying a burger and shake at the soda fountain with your sweetheart. Or going with your dad on a Saturday morning to get candy or a comic book for you and fishing tackle for him. Or visiting its legendary pet department to look at the alligators, parrots and monkeys for sale, but ultimately feeling satisfied if you went home with a hamster or goldfish.

   “Let’s go to Katz” was a frequent household refrain.

Photo:  "The kings of cut-rate"

Ike & Mike Katz

   Gone now from the Kansas City scene for 43 years, the drug store chain, during its 57-year run, was known for discounted pricing, salespeople in every department, its variety of merchandise and aggressive promotion.

   It grew to include 65 stores in five states. It reached more than $100 million in annual sales and employed 3,000 people from soda jerks to vice presidents.

   With the advent of self-service chain stores in the late 1960s and early 1970s, stores like Katz began disappearing from the retail scene. The drug store chain was sold in 1971 to Skaggs Drug Cos., which eventually merged with Osco Drug, which eventually merged with CVS Pharmacy.

   But Katz Drug Stores has remained in the hearts and memories of many Kansas Citians of a certain age.

   “The word Katz meant corner drug store even after they were gone,” says Steve Katz, whose grandfather, Isaac Katz, founded the store with his brother, Michael. They were sons of Ukrainian immigrants.

   After operating a fruit and news stand in Kansas City’s West Bottoms for years, the Katz brothers in 1914 branched out by leasing two buildings, one at 8th Street and Grand Avenue and the other at 12th and McGee Streets in the Argyle Building, which was full of doctors.

   In 1917, the United States entered World War I. The government mandated that only critical businesses could remain open after a 6 p.m. curfew. So, in a move that foreshadowed many savvy business decisions, the Katz brothers bought drug items and hired a pharmacist for $22 a week to dispense medicine after the curfew. Doctors in the Argyle Building sent their patients to Katz to fill their prescriptions.

   “That was the inception of the Katz Drug Stores,” Steve says.

photo:  "the kings of cut-rate"

Katz on Main

   His grandfather, he says, always saw challenges as opportunities. Take, for example, the “Katz Pays the Tax” campaign.

   Because of the war effort, a cigarette tax of a penny a pack was imposed. At 10 cents a pack, it was a 10 percent tax.

   While some retailers took the opportunity to charge 12 to 15 cents a pack, the Katz brothers decided to maintain the 10 cents a pack and pay the tax.

   “That put them on the map nationally,” Steve says. “The media at that time loved that.”

   People flocked to the stores, he says.

   “It was such a promotion that even other competition would come into their stores and buy their cigarettes from Katz and turn around and resell them,” Steve recalls. “My grandfather saw that and so what he did — another challenge — was that he developed a little branding iron that had the Katz logo on it.”

   Thus customers of competitors knew where the cigarettes came from. Eventually, the government issued a cease-and-desist order against the Katz tax campaign, declaring that the store wasn’t paying the tax, just absorbing it.

   But the cigarette-tax episode lingered in the minds of customers, who were forever grateful for the cost-saving measure.

   By all accounts, “Ike and Mike” had foresight and vision to succeed, even flourishing throughout the Great Depression, Steve says. Store grand openings were big events.

   “Because Katz had a loyal following, and because they sold goods at such advantageous prices, their customers shopped there during the hardest years,” he says. “As a matter of fact, they continued to open stores. All through the Depression years, they expanded. They opened the store at 39th and Main, the landmark store, in 1934, in the depths of the Depression. They designed the store with a 300-car parking lot. There weren’t 300 cars in that neighborhood. But they had the foresight to open that store. It was the world’s leading cut-rate drug store.”

 

   Steve relishes telling stories about his beloved great-uncle and grandfather, who was an arresting figure. Because of a malformed foot, he walked with a cane, which was a big part of his personality. He had his coats tailored with extra-large pockets so he could pass out gum and candy and perfume to people as he walked the streets.

   In 2011, Steve Katz collaborated with Kansas City Star reporter Brian Burnes, who wrote a memoir called “The Kings of Cut-Rate: The Very American Story of Isaac and Michael Katz.” More than 500 Kansas City Star readers sent in reminiscences as the book was being prepared.

   To commemorate the drug store’s 100th anniversary, Steve is conducting a book signing at Barnes & Noble at Town Center, 4751 W. 117th St., Leawood, from 1 to 4 p.m. Aug. 9.