By 1928, he had expanded his idea for a "cash and carry" business -- an alternative to the "charge and deliver" system -- to a chain of 87 stores, which he sold a year later.
But in 1932, despite the Depression, he gave sons Wilfred and Theodore the financial backing to restart Vons Grocery Co. Soon, they offered a bakery, a deli, and meat, grocery and produce departments under the same roof, becoming known as a "supermarket."
The Von der Ahes were devout Catholics, lauded by the Vatican for their charitable work. They were also power brokers who presided over the finest country clubs and buildings.
Ralphs and Vons were fierce competitors that learned from and tried to top each other.
But it was George Ralphs who first understood what the automobile would mean to the grocery business. In 1911, he built an offshoot of his original store at Pico Boulevard and Normandie Avenue. That was the first step in what would become today's Compton-based chain, with stores on major thoroughfares.
Ralphs loved the outdoors almost as much as he loved his business. On June 21, 1914, he, his wife and two children were on an outing at Lake Arrowhead when a 3-ton boulder dislodged and crushed his leg.
"Whatever you do, don't give me any ether," Ralphs, 63, told the doctor as he was carried into the hospital, according to Linda Ralphs, his great-granddaughter. "They cut off my arm without ether. You can cut off my leg the same way."
The doctor ignored him, telling Ralphs' teenage son, Albert George: "Your father will take to ether like a baby takes to candy." Ralphs fought as the doctor put the anesthesia mask over his face but soon slipped into unconsciousness.
"He never woke up," Walter said.
Ralphs' nephews, his only son and, later, his grandsons took over the supermarkets. They continued to expand, opening more stores and adding another innovation: parking lots.
In 1926, house-brand bread began to rise and roll off assembly lines. Ralphs opened a bakery in West Los Angeles as a response to the "bread trust," a would-be baking monopoly that threatened to double the cost of bread from 5 cents to 10 cents. In 1957, the bakery moved to bigger facilities on San Fernando Road near Glendale, where it remains today.
Ralphs' campaign to lower the price of milk in the 1930s was less successful. The Ralphses carried their challenge to the state's milk-pricing system all the way to the Supreme Court and lost.
The ruling led the company to build its own creamery. Being able to control the flow of goods from its manufacturing plants to the checkout counter gave Ralphs an edge in cost-saving and efficiency.
By 1928, Ralphs had opened nearly a dozen markets. It halted home delivery service and switched to the "cash and carry" system pioneered by Vons.
Ralphs was sold to Federated Department Stores in 1967 and has changed hands several times. In the last decade, mergers and consolidations have combined Ralphs, Boys, Viva, Food 4 Less and others under Kroger Co., the nation's largest supermarket operator. There are 300 Ralphs stores.
The Von der Ahes sold the chain in 1969 but remained involved in the business until 1975. Today, Vons stores stretch from San Diego to Fresno and from Nevada to the Pacific. The chain, part of the Safeway group, has 325 sites, including Pavilions.
Volume buying, the big store, the open refrigerated case, centralized meat-cutting, the cent-off food coupon -- all came out of Southern California in the days when Von der Ahe and Ralphs were trying to cut each other's throats.