As the University of Nebraska Medical Center expands in midtown Omaha, it digs up memories for residents who have seen the city change from a big small town to a metropolitan area. Such was the case when UNMC announced in October 2016 that it had bought a lot on 42nd and Leavenworth streets on which stands an Omaha icon. To many, that building is “Charlie Graham Auto Body,” but to others, the building is synonymous with Hinky Dinky grocery stores.
The name Hinky Dinky brings a smile of recognition to many longtime Omahans. Although it sounds like part of a nursery rhyme, the name came from the World War I soldier’s song “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” which contained the chorus “hinky dinky parlez-vous.”
The stores were Omaha landmarks, beginning with the first one, which opened in 1925 at 24th and Vinton streets. They were eventually sprinkled throughout the city.
The company was founded by the Newman family, longtime owners of grocery stores, starting in the 19th century with Baruch “Bernard” Neumann, who ran a general store in his small Hungarian village. His daughter, Fanny Neumann, came to the U.S. in the 1880s, where she met and married Moritz Newman. The couple ran M. Newman grocery store in Sioux City. Fanny and Moritz had four children: Jules, Henry, Albert, and Sally. After World War I, Jules opened a grocery store with a partner named Wohlner, eventually buying him out. Jules, along with his brothers and cousin Ben Silver, then started the Hinky-Dinky chain.
That first store on Vinton Street was soon followed by others. As the company expanded during the mid-1920s, the owners rented their first warehouse at Ninth and Dodge streets. When they outgrew that warehouse, they bought a larger one at 11th and Jones streets. This one bordered Union Pacific railroad on one side, allowing them easy access to shipped-in supplies.
In the 1930s, the chain faced several challenges. Soon after the 1929 stock market crash, Piggly Wiggly, a national chain with over 2,500 stores at that time, sued Hinky Dinky, claiming the name was too similar. The courts ruled this to be a weak argument and Hinky Dinky’s name remained. Hinky Dinky was also caught in an Omaha price war battle, in which Safeway began drastically slashing prices to drive other stores out of business. Yet another challenge was the house labels of the emerging supermarkets. These labels could far undersell the nationally advertised brands. In retaliation, Hinky Dinky, along with several other regional chains, developed their own private label called Topco.
As the country was working its way out of the Depression, Hinky Dinky’s profits were increasing. The stores were able to offer nearly all their items in both private-label and advertised brands. And they operated the type of cash-and-carry grocery store people know today, as opposed to credit-and-delivery stores common at that time. At credit and delivery stores, clerks would take phone orders or lists, complete the order, and send the groceries out with employees to be delivered to customers at home.
The stores were pioneers in their markets. They were the first to offer customers wheeled shopping carts, wider aisles, and automated checkout counters. They also introduced frozen foods in open “coffin-style” sales cases, self-service meats from refrigerated cases, and automatic entrance doors.
As early as the mid-1930s, Hinky Dinky’s share of the Omaha retail grocery market was at least 30 percent. The family-run grocery store continued to expand as Jules’ children reached adulthood.
Jules’ second son, E.R. “Bob” Newman, began working for Hinky Dinky when he was 14 and rode the streetcar to the warehouse to sort ration stamps. It was the beginning of a career for him, as he joined the business full-time after serving in the Korean War.
“It was wonderful working with my dad and brothers; we all shared the responsibilities,” Bob says.
In 1956, Jules realized that it was time for the next generation to take over. Oldest son C.M. “Nick” Newman became president, Bob became executive vice president, and youngest son Murray Newman began learning the buying end of the business.
This dominance in the Omaha grocery market continued until the mid-1960s. At its peak, Hinky Dinky had 18 stores in Omaha, three in Lincoln, four in Des Moines, and about 15 in smaller towns.
In 1972, Hinky Dinky was sold to the Cullum Company of Dallas, Texas.
“It was sad, especially for my dad, but it was time,” Bob says.
After the change in ownership, the stores began losing money. Many were small and outdated, and funds that were promised to improve them never materialized. It also became increasingly difficult to compete against nonunion competition. New stores were opening throughout Omaha, and Baker’s gradually became the dominant chain in town. Cullum closed the chain’s last remaining 25 stores in 1985, just before Hinky Dinky’s 60th anniversary.
The name still makes many smile and also stirs fond memories. In fact, the Facebook page Forgotten Omaha has many loyal Hinky Dinky fans who swap stories, post photos, and compare sightings of former store buildings with a passionate, almost cult-like obsession.
Bruce McCorkindale, whose family shopped at the store on 84th Street and West Center Road, was 11 years old in 1971 when his mother won a Winnebago in a Hinky Dinky contest. And Amy Bielewicz, who started working at the 72nd and Dodge streets store in 1976, formed a friendship with Tom, a co-worker. Romance blossomed in the produce aisle and the couple have now been married over 20 years.
The continued sentiments about the stores make Bob happy. “I’m a little surprised, but pleased,” he says. “I guess it means we must have done some things right.”
Although that former Hinky Dinky store on 42nd and Leavenworth streets best known for its glazed tiled front will not be around forever, previous Charlie Graham Auto Body owner Jim Champion says the neighborhood surrounding the area is part of what kept him in that old building.
“The area has always been very diverse,” Champion says, “which is one of the main reasons I liked having my business there. People from all walks of life were our customers.”
Charlie Graham Auto Body, which is now Great Plains Auto Body, is moving to the southeast corner of 42nd and Leavenworth streets, taking with it the iconic neon sign that Charlie Graham had installed on the art-deco building after he bought it in the late 1960s. Local devotees, including Champion, are excited that the much-loved Charlie Graham sign will be moved to the new building.
“As for the future, seeing the building go away will be sad,” Champion says, “but it has served the area well since 1942. It housed Charlie Graham Body and Service longer than it did Hinky Dinky, but it will always be known as ‘The old Hinky Dinky store.’ And rightfully so.”
This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.