A century ago, a new drugstore opened. It was just what the doctor ordered
“The thing I hear the most about is the ice cream,” Sydney Besthoff III admits. n This month marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Katz & Besthoff Drugstore chain. Even after the stores were sold in 1997, the K&B signature purple imprint hardly faded from the memories of New Orleanians. And Besthoff, whose grandfather was founder of the company, is obviously still proud of the family business. n K&B was known for its eclectic inventory and its own product lines. The ice cream? As Besthoff recalls, there was little profit in their ice cream sales because the product was priced to attract buyers. “We used it as a ‘loss leader’ all those years.” The ice cream had a loyal following and with
reason. “We made a good-quality product, and we sold it at a reasonable price,” he explains. If you remember that it was really good ice cream (especially the Creole cream cheese!), you’re right. Butterfat content – the standard by which ice cream is judged – might be higher in expensive gourmet ice cream, but K&B ice cream’s butterfat levels were higher than those found in standard national brands, Besthoff explains.
The purple paper bags; the half-pint bottles of vodka, gin and bourbon with their distinctive purple labels; even the purple pencils – K&B souvenirs are still prized among New Orleanians, and nostalgia continues for the place with crowded aisles and shelves stacked to the ceiling with everything you could possibly need. As Besthoff insists, K&B was different: “My objective always was to run a unique drugstore chain – ‘unique’ being the key word.”
Nowadays, “chains don’t carry the inventory we carried,” he adds. The pharmacy is where that might be noticed most.
With such a good product – a profitable regional drugstore chain – what led to the 1997 sale?
“Time goes on,” Besthoff says. “You always see things in a different light. I was, as they say, not getting any younger, and I thought it was the right time. We had the proper opportunity, and so we sold the business.”
the early years
Sydney Besthoff Sr., a druggist from Memphis, Tenn., had married a New Orleanian, Florence Stich. In 1905 Besthoff opened a store at 732 Canal St. in partnership with a New Orleans pharmacist, Gus David Katz. In a few years another store opened, and the young business began to grow.
By the 1920s, the next generation – Sydney Besthoff Jr. – was working in the firm. The Katz family sold its share to the Besthoffs in the 1940s. With Besthoff Jr. in charge, the store on Esplanade Avenue at North Broad Street opened in 1954. It was the eighth K&B location, and it was modern, with wide aisles to accommodate shopping carts, and an ever-expanding inventory.
Sydney Besthoff III took over from his father as president of the chain in 1965 at the age of 38. At that time, there were 25 K&B stores. The following two decades saw consistent growth, with new locations popping up in suburban strip shopping centers. K&B would occasionally ruffle local feathers when the stark brick stores with parking lots would displace oak trees or older buildings Uptown, but in general the stores were popular with a growing customer base in southeastern Louisiana. The next step would be over the state line. With expansion through neighboring states, K&B in the 1980s became a regional chain, and in the 1990s more than 150 K&B stores dispensed their product lines to customers throughout the Southeast.
Throughout its years of operation, the K&B chain was first and foremost a family enterprise. Besthoff III’s daughter Virginia Besthoff says she and her sisters June and Valerie felt “a great general fondness for K&B – it was the family business.”
They had grown up with the stores. “My mother said that when I was little, I was asked in school what my father did, and I said he worked at K&B,” Virginia says. Asked what he did there, the youngster announced, “He helps people with their packages.” It was a treat for the Besthoff girls to go to the soda fountain, and she recalls how crowded the stores could be, “especially on Christmas Eve, with people running in to get last-minute presents.” Her father was “always running off to the stores,” a habit he would keep, even when the number of stores had multiplied. He visited each site at least once a year, until the stores were sold, in the 32 years that he headed the business.
When the chain celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1980, “it hadn’t crossed anybody’s mind” that the K&B would ever go out of the family, Virginia Besthoff says.
Being a family business meant that management knew the employees and had long-term relationships with many of them. And the company had a policy of paying its way as it expanded – there was little debt. For all their careful nurturing of the family business, the Besthoffs had to face increased competition as other chains, mainly Walgreens, aggressively moved into the K&B area. What Virginia Besthoff refers to as “the era of consolidation” arrived, when throughout the country larger chains absorbed smaller ones.
By 1996, K&B had annual gross sales of more than half a billion dollars. In an interview that year, Besthoff III noted that, given the national drugstore climate, he had three choices: continue its careful growth, merge with a regional chain or sell to a national chain. As events proved, Besthoff decided to sell.
To market his stores, Besthoff “went to New York and met with half a dozen large financial institutions who handled this sort of thing. We hired one of them.
“We went on the public market, and we got about 10 bids – and Rite Aid was the only ‘strategic’ buyer, in the sense that they were the only interested party who was in the same line of business and could obviously handle it.”
New Orleanians were uniformly miserable over K&B’s closing. And the new owners did little to endear themselves to locals. In a well-remembered blunder, the Rite Aid chain stopped selling Coca-Cola products (when everyone in town was used to buying them on sale at K&B). Besthoff notes, “That’s true – the executive staff at Rite Aid, at the time the sale was consummated, decided on several courses of action that were not happily received by the local population.
“Taking out Cokes was really bad,” Besthoff adds.
Well, there have been changes at the upper levels of Rite Aid since then, and Coke is back, but K&B is still missed.
In the period after the sale, Besthoff says, “I did get some complaints,” adding that there was some understanding that things were going to be different. “People know that when you sell a business operation, the whole concept changes.”
Still, New Orleanians were not shy about voicing their opinions: “I got a lot of indignant comments,” he says.
In the sales agreement between K&B and Rite Aid, there was no clause prohibiting Besthoff from returning to the drugstore business. But he has no intention of starting up again. “My ex-employees come to me all the time and talk about it, but I smile and say, ‘Not right now,’ ” he says.
Today Besthoff finds great satisfaction in art, especially sculpture. When K&B’s corporate offices were located on Lee Circle, part of his sculpture collection was on display outside the building and could be seen from the street. Some pieces (including remarkably lifelike figures) were visible enough to rate second glances from passers-by. Fifty pieces from the K&B collection formed the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, which opened in 2003 on five beautifully landscaped acres adjacent to the New Orleans Museum of Art. Clearly Besthoff’s lifelong love of art is bringing him joy in his “retirement” from the drugstore business.
Besthoff’s legacy to the world of commerce may be the wide variety of items – from groceries to motor oil – now expected by shoppers. We may not be able to run to K&B for emergencies (such as grade-school projects remembered at 9 p.m.) or for a special old-fashioned liniment for sore muscles or laundry soap or Creole cream cheese ice cream, but we’re getting pretty insistent that those items be stocked in some store, just in case we need them.
And if Katz & Besthoff nostalgia is about to overcome you, spend some time browsing the K&B archives at the Earl K. Long Library at the University of New Orleans. The archive contains plenty of memorabilia.
That K&B purple – which became the store’s signature color after management bought bulk wrapping paper in that color decades ago – is still a favorite color in the rainbow of New Orleans’ memory. •