Kays’ shop at 3 High Street, Ely, is a surviving remnant of a grocery chain that had over 100 small branches throughout much of South-East England and the Midlands in the middle of the 20th century, before the age of self-service and supermarket shopping.
The founder of Kays, John Jay Kay (1895-1973; born Jacob Kalinski), opened his first grocery shop at 15 Magdalen Street, Norwich, in October 1921. By reinvesting profits, Kay soon opened a second outlet in Norwich, followed by a third in Ipswich. Around 1930 he moved his family to Ealing and settled into a new head office at Doreth House, 50-53 Cowper Street, London. William Nelson Overland (1890-1943) became Kay’s business partner in 1931. Like so many multiple retailers, both men became involved in property development as well as retailing.
By 1935, when John Kay Ltd. floated as a public company to finance further expansion, the chain comprised 71 branches dotted through the South-East England and the Midlands, extending as far north as Sheffield. Of these shops, 19 had opened in 1934. The company owned seven freeholds; all other branches were held on a leasehold basis. Kay’s own carpentry department fitted out the interiors, but not the shopfronts, which were commissioned from a professional shopfitter.
Job advertisements for managers and shop assistants reveal that numerous branches of Kays Modern Food Stores opened in the late 1930s, including that in Ely. The chain had grown to 104 branches by 1938, and continued to expand. Although Kays kept a fleet of vans for home deliveries, errand boys were under strict instructions to collect cash payments. A home delivery service did not always mean that credit was available.
In 1943 Overland died and Kay sold the chain to Moores Stores Ltd., a growing business based in Newcastle. The shops were doubtless too small to be converted to the self-service format and were dispensed with after the war. The last few branches closed in 1953. Meanwhile, Kay became a farmer, buying Bourne Place in Hildenborough, Kent, where he bred Sussex cattle.
Kay’s shops had bright red fascias. In Sevenoaks this was too much for the Council – already battling with Woolworth’s over its ‘signal red’ – so they asked Messrs Kay to change the colour to blue ‘and that if this is not possible a less glaring shade of red be substituted’. Such wrangles with local authorities were becoming increasingly common in the late 1930s.
A 1944 photograph of the Bedford store shows the name ‘Kays’ fitted into a lunette-shaped fascia – a fashion of the 1910s and 1920s also adopted by the Melias grocery chain – flanked by the slogans ‘for price’ and ‘for quality’. A sign beneath the canopy box read ‘Modern Food Stores’. Bedford may have been one of Kay’s early branches.
The Ely branch of c.1938 – part of the newly-built Coronation Parade – was similar to the Bedford shop, with a narrow frontage, boxy windows and steel vents. The use of black and white Vitrolite and shiny stainless-steel frames imparted an air of hygiene and efficiency. Kays’ name survives in the vents and in the terrazzo floor of the entrance lobby, which is edged by a white marble threshold strip of the type commonly used for all kinds of food shops. Historic photographs – for example of the Dagenham branch – show that this was the standard house style of the late 1930s. It may, however, be the only one that survives.