During the twentieth century, Elm Avenue served as a commercial hub and community center in East Waco. Looking to launch his own venture, entrepreneur Ike Kestner opened a bank and grocery store in the 500 block of the street in 1914. A full-page advertisement in the Waco News-Tribune announcing “fifteen days of wonderful bargains” reveals the store’s transition to dry goods’ sales by the 1920s.
Kestner’s Family Department Store became a central part of life along Elm Avenue. Patrons loyally returned to the store because of its quality merchandise offered at low prices. McLennan County Commissioner Lester Gibson told the Waco Tribune-Herald that he grew up shopping in Kestner’s where his mother bought him overalls and ties because it was “a working man’s store.” Waco newspapers frequently ran advertisements for Kestner’s manufacturer outlet sales which proudly offered merchandise for less than the raw materials could be purchased for. The family atmosphere of the department store also contributed to its success. Ike trained his son, Jack Kestner, to run the store alongside him. Jack later passed on the ownership of the store to his son-in-law, Howard Cohen, although he himself continued to work in the store until he retired in 1985.
The 1950s and 1960s represented Elm Avenue’s prime. The street filled with crowds travelling amongst shops and restaurants, stopping in various stores. Kestner’s employees often found it impossible to stop for breaks because the shop filled with customers. However, the suburbanization of Waco took a heavy toll on East Waco. Shops left Elm Avenue for the swiftly developing Valley Mills Drive, and walk-in traffic at Kestner’s waned following the opening of Wal-Mart.
To meet this trend, Kestner’s Family Department Store expanded to a second location in 1979 on North Thirty-Fourth Street under Cohen’s ownership. Since the majority of the department store’s sales were composed of men’s clothing, Cohen also opened Kestner’s Fine Jewelry Store on Bosque Boulevard in order to widen Kestner’s customer base.
Longtime employee Donald Fadal began working in the store during its heyday in 1960 and became the owner in 1984. To meet the challenge of the department store’s dwindling customer base, Fadal carried on the Kestner’s tradition of hard work, customer service, and quality merchandise. He developed personal services such as free alterations to entice greater sales and drew upon the loyal following which Ike and Jack had cultivated during the store’s early days.
Much to the dismay of longtime patrons and many East Wacoans, Fadal decided to retire in 2002 due to health concerns. Although Kestner’s Family Department Store closed in March of 2003 after one final sale, its nearly ninety years of low prices, quality goods, and dedicated customer service established it as a vital piece of the history of both Elm Avenue and Waco.