B. Green & Co. has evolved from wholesale grocer to retailer over 100 years

In its 100{+t}{+h} year, Baltimore's B. Green & Co. has evolved in the grocery business.

B. Green & Co. helped pioneer warehouse-style supermarkets in the 1970s and at one time ran the largest grocery wholesaler on the East Coast. More recently, the family-owned retailer launched a campaign to expand healthy food choices in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Now the company can tack on another achievement. It has survived 100 years.

"One hundred years is a huge accomplishment with any business, especially in the food business," said Jeremy Diamond, a director of Diamond Marketing Group and an industry consultant.

Based in a Southwest Baltimore warehouse, B. Green today runs several distinctly different food operations. It operates two "everyday-low-price" Food Depot grocers in Baltimore and the Green Valley Marketplace in Elkridge, where prepared foods and baked goods are made in-house, meat is cut to order and seafood is displayed on ice. It also runs a distribution business that delivers groceries to small food retailers — such as some Asian supermarkets — that are too small for big wholesalers. And in the same warehouse, it runs Cash & Carry, a members-only warehouse where the region's many corner grocers can shop for goods.

"My parents taught me to do the right thing, and that's what I've always tried to do," said B. Green CEO Benjamin "Benjy" Green. While public companies focus on profits and stockholders, "in our case," he said, "it's more than that. Relationships were important. That's what allowed our company to survive."

The nearly 500-employee business bears little resemblance to the tiny wholesale grocer that Lithuanian immigrant and street peddler Benjamin Green started in a West Baltimore Street rowhouse in 1915, when he made deliveries by horse-drawn cart. It's now a smaller-scale version of the once-large supplier of independent retail chains and military commissaries along the East Coast. The family sold that wholesale business in the early 1990s.

Evolving through a changing social and economic landscape has been the key to its longevity, one expert said.

"B. Green has been able to reinvent itself over the years, always keeping its core customer in mind," said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Columbia-based Food World trade journal. "Retailing today is about differentiation and ability to pioneer and execute concepts that create a unique brand identity for that retailer."

After developing a successful wholesale business, "they were the ones who in the Mid-Atlantic developed the warehouse food concept in the mid-1970s," Metzger said. "They basically created a model that they could connect to their retail customers."

Even after B. Green sold off the large-scale wholesale business, the company was able to undergo another transformation.

"They've switched from a wholesaler to a retailer; that says a lot," said Diamond, whose family ran Food-A-Rama, a B. Green customer, from 1960 to 1985. "Only a locally grown company can do that effectively, and they have. They're in touch with the neighborhoods where their stores are located."

Chances of a company making it through even 50 years are slim, said Mary Kier, managing partner of Cook Associates Inc., a Chicago based executive search firm, noting that only a quarter of the private-sector businesses started in 1994 survived through 2010, according to the U. S. Department of Labor.

"The companies that make it to 50," Kier said, "work at it every day, are not the companies they were when they started and won't be the same in 10, 20 or 50 years."

Now in its third generation, B. Green is co-owned by three of founder Benjamin Green's grandchildren, including Benjy Green, CEO since 1995, and his cousins, siblings Benjamin L. Sigman, the chairman emeritus, and Bernice Sigman. The founder's six children, including Benjy Green's father and the Sigmans' mother, all worked in the wholesale business along with their spouses.

During World War II, the company started supplying stores on military bases and grew into the largest military commissary supplier on the East Coast.

In 1959, a fire destroyed its single-story warehouse and most of its offices in the 2200 block of Winchester St. Vendors such as Uncle Ben's offered assistance and, within days, B. Green was delivering groceries from a rented warehouse.

Benjy Green began working full time in the business in the 1970s, when his father, Bernard Green, was president.

"We were more or less the only surviving Baltimore wholesaler … with business up and down the East Coast on the military and civilian side," Green said. "My first thing was to look at different formats so our customers could compete more effectively. This was an era when chains dominated the East Coast, including Baltimore. There was a new format called the warehouse food market, and we worked with retailers to convince them this is something [they] should look at."

B. Green invested in a new store in Pennsylvania to serve as a laboratory for the low-price, no-frills format that featured items stacked on pallets.

"Times were tough, and price was a real draw" for grocery shoppers, Green said.

Two of the bigger customers at the time, Food-A-Rama in Baltimore and Jumbo Food in Washington, signed on, spurring growth for both — and for B. Green.

"Food-A-Rama became the pre-eminent warehouse market in the Baltimore area in the 1970s," Metzger said. "I don't want to diminish the job the retailers themselves did in executing the concept, but B. Green pioneered the model and saw that model executed."

Jumbo Foods eventually became Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, using the warehouse concept, and expanded into the Baltimore market when its parent bought the Metro Food Markets chain.

By the family's third generation in business, members began to go their own ways. Benjy Green's family and the Sigmans bought out the other four branches in 1989. Also that year, plans to build Oriole Park at Camden Yards forced the company to move its long-running Cash & Carry operation from a warehouse at 400 W. Conway St. to its current location at 1300 S. Monroe St.

With annual sales of $675 million, B. Green ranked 263rd on Forbes magazine's 1991 list of the nation's largest private companies.

But in December 1992, B. Green sold its military supply division to Nash Finch, a Minnesota wholesale distributor. About a month later, the family got out of large-scale wholesaling when it sold its non-military business to the former Richmond, Va.-based Richfood Holdings for $55 million.

That left it with just the small-store distribution business and Cash & Carry, and a continuing interest in retail. In 1996, B. Green opened Food Depot on Belair Road. The Frederick Avenue store opened in 2009 and Green Valley in Elkridge in 2011.

Green describes his role as an administrator who watches numbers and spots trends. But walking the stores, where he greets many employees by name and can recount their backgrounds, he tries to look at each of the stores through the eyes of a customer.

Many customers at the Food Depots, located in the city's poorest ZIP codes, rely on food stamps and struggle to afford basics at the end of each month. The store buys much of its merchandise directly from manufacturers, enabling it to offer deals it says beat dollar stores' prices, including a discount section with products for 88 cents.

On Thursday morning, a steady stream of customers filed through the door at the Frederick Avenue store. Near the entrance, Sheryl Hoehner, B. Green's dietitian, stood behind a table offering samples of chili and printouts of the recipe — an example of a way to eat healthier meals on a budget. One young shopper asked whether she made the chili and seemed surprised, but intrigued, when she said, "Yes, and I can teach you how to make it."

Hoehner's presence is part of a partnership between B. Green and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that encourages shoppers to buy healthier items and fewer highly processed foods.

Regular customer Lucy Brown said she looks for Hoehner when she stops in, often with her 9-year-old grandson, whom she is teaching to make some of the recipes. On Thursday, she picked up the chili recipe on what is typically a daily visit to the store.

"I like the food and the prices," Brown said. "The cashiers know me here."

Green said he can compete as an independent grocer by customizing stores for particular neighborhoods rather than following a cookie-cutter chain approach. Store managers and employees are given flexibility to develop ideas and merchandising strategies. The Food Depots, for instance, offer products demanded by local customers, smoked meats, fish displayed whole and on ice, and in the summer, steamed crabs at competitive prices.

"Our ability to survive is a function of knowing the neighborhood we serve better than the other guy," Green said.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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