In the Baltimore-Washington corridor, many Jewish families and businesses trace their origins back to the economically challenging years of the early 20th century and the beginnings of a grocery store establishment.
Some corner groceries eventually became major supermarket chains, while some peddlers with horse-drawn wagons evolved into major food distributors. These families took great pride in their hard work to make a better life for the next generation. As their businesses grew and prospered, these families became active and influential in their communities, congregations and institutions.
Not long ago, I embarked on a quest to preserve, highlight and bring to life the many family grocery stores and businesses that dotted the Baltimore-Washington landscape. My 2018 book, “Tastemakers: The Legacy of Jewish Entrepreneurs in the Mid-Atlantic Grocery Industry” (which is available on Amazon), documents the legacy of many grocers through untold stories, historical facts and rare photos.
This group of people were of a much different mindset than what we see today. Many of them experienced the Holocaust and miraculously survived, while others endured the hardships of living through the Great Depression.
Language barriers, a lack of education, fierce competition, and financial struggles and challenges did not stop them from achieving success. And they all realized that groceries and access to food were a necessity for every neighborhood and community.
Jews have been involved in the local food and grocery industry since before the early 1900s. Here are just a few examples: Lithuanian immigrant Benjamin Green began selling household products door to door in 1915. His company, known as the Baltimore-based B Green & Co., became one of the largest wholesalers to grocery stores and military commissaries along the East Coast.
Landover-headquartered Giant Food, a supermarket chain of 164 stores that dominates the mid-Atlantic region and employs approximately 22,000, was founded in 1936 by a rabbi and a Hebrew school teacher. The Cohen and Lehrman families worked hard and always remained at the forefront of technological advances and vertical integration, ranging from checkout scanners to an in-house ice cream plant and a main bakery servicing all the stores.
Harry and Lena Tulkoff created the largest horseradish manufacturing business in the nation, based right here in Baltimore. Originally from Russia, the Tulkoffs moved to Baltimore in the early 1930s and opened a produce stand. Horseradish was their best-selling product!
My own family arrived to the shores of the United States in 1947 and became a fixture in the local grocery scene. They came here after losing many relatives in the Holocaust, owning only the shirts on their backs and not able to speak English.
They embarked on a new life in America and employed many Holocaust survivors. The Baltimore-based Food-A-Rama grew to a 48-unit supermarket chain spanning across multiple states. It was founded by my grandfather, Paul Diamond, and my uncles, Ben Schuster and Dave Diamond.
Drawn to the grocery business as a kid, I have been on a mission to document these stories, not only of my family’s journey and Food-A-Rama but all of the other Jewish-owned grocery stores and businesses as well.
Names like Diamond and Schuster, Cohen and Lehrman, Green, Tulkoff, Klein, Kowitz, Nabozny, Kozlovsky, Leikach, Gottlieb, Podberesky, Shmirgold, Herman (Shoppers), Victor Cohen (Eddie’s), Schlossberg (Castle Food Distributors), Schreiber, Smelkinson, Denrich, Harry Shapiro, Saval, Chaimson/Sibel, Magruder’s and Snider’s – these and many others made up the Baltimore-D.C. grocery scene back in the day. Several are still around as well.
Throughout the researching, interviewing and writing processes for my book, I’ve come to realize that my grandparents’ generation was cut from a different cloth. They should be admired, honored and appreciated, and my hope is that anyone who reads “Tastemakers” – which is available on Amazon — can learn something from reading about these extraordinary individuals and their paths to success in America.
A Cheswolde resident, Jeremy Diamond is the author of “Tastemakers: The Legacy of Jewish Entrepreneurs in the Mid-Atlantic Grocery Industry.”