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Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Behind the Photo: Coates' Meat Markets 1903 - 1926

updated Feb. 2015

Often I will see an old photo or ad and spend some time digging into the story behind it. Sometimes I find a great story, sometimes not. Either way, I learn a few things about the city's history. Here's my latest attempt:

I found this circa 1910 postcard at Peel's and wanted to find out what I could about Mr. Cotes and his meat markets. 

Oh, and if you thought that the days of horse-drawn wagons would have meant calmer streets, check out the above article from the November 24, 1911 Free Press. I wonder if the two gentlemen in the above photo were the ones involved ?

Coates ca. 1920

William Coates came to Winnipeg from London in 1888 at the age of 17. He soon found work with local meat processing company Gordon, Ironside and Fares. By 1897 it was the largest meat processor in the country and selling frozen product throughout the Commonwealth. In 1899 he became manager of their cold storage business.

By this time, he was married to Bertha. They had at least two children, Bertha and Anne, birth dates unknown.

 Manitoba Free Press, March 6, 1906

In 1902 it was announced that Coates was being transferred to manage the company's large facility at Ste. Marie, Ontario. Either the Coates' did not stay in "the Soo" for very long, or they never went at all. In late 1903 William opened two meat shops, one at 483 Portage at Colony and another at 136 Osborne Street. By 1908 he had five shops.

Initially, the company's strategy was to have a couple of larger markets and smaller satellite meat shops. According to the 1910 Henderson Directory, Coates had main stores at 306 Sherbrook Street and 483 Portage Avenue, and smaller shops at the City Market building, 163 Nena (Sherbrook), 221 Nassau, 621 Sargent, 383 Logan and 692 Notre Dame.

Coates came across as a consumer advocate. He advertised that he would "never be undersold", introduced an electronic scale to his larger stores to combat suspicions that some merchants were rigging scales, and was openly critical of both packing houses and retailers when large drops in the price of livestock did not get passed along to consumers.

The Coates' Meats empire peaked in 1919 with ten stores. He also had contracts to supply the General Hospital and CPR shops.

December 3, 1921, Manitoba Free Press

Despite being a prominent businessman, the family's personal life did not make it into the newspapers. By 1907 they were living at 133 Langside Street, where they stayed until the early 1920s. By 1925 they lived at 295 Academy Road.

In 1925 Coates' retail empire encountered financial difficulty and he was forced to sell off his stores, most of them to the store managers. He told the Tribune that he was not retiring and would be back on the retail scene soon.

June 10, 1926, Winnipeg Tribune

In 1926 a consortium of businessman took the trusted Coates name and created a company called Coates Market and went public, raising over $200,000 in capital. They used the money to lease the main floor and basement of the newly built Donell Building at Ellice and Donald, creating what they called "Western Canada's first departmental food store".

As the slogan suggests, instead of consumers having to go to numerous different stores to purchase groceries, they could find everything they needed under one roof. There was dry goods store in the basement, while the main floor contained a produce section, butcher, fish counter, bakery, dairy coolers and a lunch counter / soda fountain.

For its time, the concept was unique. There were budding grocery store chains popping up in the city, such as Neal's, but they were not to this scale. American chains such as Piggly Wiggly and Safeway did not enter the the local marketplace until 1929.

William Coates does not appear to have been one of the investors, but he was hired on as the general manager of the store.

ca. 1912 postcard

Coates Market had a fire in the basement on November 26, 1926, but most of the damage was to stock due to water. They did reopen and advertised in both the Free Press and Tribune right up until December 30th, then disappeared.

Neither newspaper mentions what happened to the store. Possibly the financial hit of the fire was worse than let on. In June 1927 Laurent's Meat Market, located across the street, announced that they had purchased the lease and fixtures of Coates and was moving in.

The only remnant of the Coates empire was the old 437 Portage store which, despite being sold off in 1926, called itself Coates Central Market.

January 23, 1948, Winnipeg Free Press

As for Coates, he is not mentioned in either newspaper until the news of his death on January 22, 1948. The Tribune noted that he had "been an invalid for a number of years". Bertha died in 1975 at the age of 99.

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