U Totem used to be one of the Big Two convenience store chains in the Houston area. Along with 7-11, there was little room in this market for competition from the growing Circle K chain that seemed to be taking over the rural market all across rural Texas and the greater southwest.

LeRoy Melcher (1912-1999) of Houston bought controlling interest in the U Totem chain in 1950, becoming its president in 1953. He expanded the chain to a network of one thousand stores over thirteen states, solidifying the company’s control with the acquisition of Fairmont Foods in 1969. Circle K finally caught up with U Totem in 1983 when it purchased all the company’s stock for $225 million dollars. All the stores were subsequently renamed Circle K as the brand “U Totem” faded from the retail food business.

My memories of U Totem go back to one of the early stores in their chain. – Let me qualify that claim. I don’t know for sure how this particular place actually became part of the eventual U Totem chain, but the name similarities are hard to write off as purely “coincidental.”

This place existed in Houston in the years immediately following World War II. It was the first convenience store of personal memory, although I was far too young then to be concerned with issues of convenience when it came to shopping. I was the just the right age, however,  to be duly  impressed by a catchy business name.

The name of the place was U TOOT WE TOTE.

U TOO WE TOTE was located on the south side of Lawndale in the block just east of the 75th and Lawndale intersection. It was an early convenience store and its name was also its original marketing message: Shop here in the convenience of your own car. Just drive up and honk your horn (U TOOT). We will come out and take your order and then bring it to your car for you. (WE TOTE).

At some point, the store decided it didn’t need to provide curb service to be attractive to customers seeking an easy way at odd hours to purchase the grocery items they needed. This one eventually became a U Totem. I just don’t know if U Totem took over U TOOT WE TOTE – or if the U TOOT WE TOTE name simply evolved into U Totem. I’m betting on the latter.

Convenience was not the operative word for Houston shopping in 1954. Full service grocery stores usually closed at 8:00 PM and stayed closed all day Sunday due to the old blue laws. You also could not purchase many items beyond pure groceries in these stores during that era. Drugs, clothes, and music were items you had to purchase in specialty stores that handled those kinds of products, and these places also operated on more limited opening hour schedules.

By the late 1950s, the time was right for convenience stores. Next up would be the diversification of products offered through grocery stores. Then came Sam Walton and everything changed forever.

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3 Responses to “U TOOT WE TOTE.”

  1. Bob Hulsey Says:

    My first exposure was in 1965 when I discovered baseball cards. I’d bicycle to the U Totem at Bingle and the Katy Freeway and get Topps cards along with a Slurpee. I was 8 or 9. Simpler times. The building is still there but serves a different purpose now.

    Somewhere in the chronology also belongs the Stop N Go chain that was everpresent in the 70s and 80s.

  2. James Anderson Says:

    Bob is right, those Utotem stores and 7-11 stores had a wonderful supply of bubble gum baseball cards and a comic book section to die for.
    They were not air conditioned as you notice in the photo. The entire front end of these old drive-in stores were completely open with that characteristic Coca Cola coffin case sitting in front with bottles of Coke and wharever else they put in there iced down with loads of ice.

    Unfortunately the type of layout of these stores would be prime candidates for robberies today.

  3. Bryan Hallonquist Says:

    Dear mr Mccurdy, I have some information about the history of u toot we tote. I am personal friends with the son of the original owner. If you would like info just email me.

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