Whether it's a war-zone deployment, a cargo ship in port for 18 hours or a passenger cruise ship on its regular stop, R.S. Stern Inc. has put groceries in larders and spare parts in engine rooms since 1870.
From its brick warehouse in Canton, the company's 15 employees dispense uniforms and copier supplies, mops for swabbing and pork chops for dinner to about 1,000 ships calling on Baltimore and other nearby ports each year. Need a 4-by-6 Sri Lankan flag for the mast? Stern's got you covered.
No requisition is too exotic or esoteric for North America's oldest ship supplier.
"Once, I got a request for two cases of 'Ring Around the Collar,'" said owner Alan Kotz, referring to a 1970s Madison Avenue campaign. "They wanted Wisk."
A cruise ship with 2,200 passengers may need four tractor-trailer loads of provisions, while a cargo ship with a crew of two dozen gets by with just a couple of shrink-wrapped pallets of goods. R.S. Stern also can fill orders on the fly.
When the SS Wright, a U.S. Maritime Administration reserve ship, was deployed from Baltimore to Staten Island last fall to house Hurricane Sandy relief volunteers, R.S. Stern stocked it in less than two days. The hospital ship USNS Comfort, now berthed in Norfolk, Va., twice required a 48-hour turnaround when it deployed for Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990 and in 2005 when it steamed to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
"If you want to be a major port, you've got to have a guy like this in town," said Rick Schiappacasse, a Maryland Port Administration official who used to compete in the supply business against Kotz. "He's a huge, huge asset because he can just make it happen."
R.S. Stern began as a Lexington Market butcher shop that served both a city of 267,354 people and the port, which teemed with ships bearing coffee, oil, and immigrants from Europe. Robert Samuel Stern's ability to provide quality provisions at competitive prices attracted the maritime community.
Before the days of the telegraph, suppliers waited at the waterfront for gangways to drop to make the mad dash to see the captain.
"Sometimes, it was the first guy who got to the captain or had the best price or had the prettiest girls," Kotz said.
About a decade after the end of World War I, the company moved to Conway Street, in the shadow of the Camden Yards warehouse. Business boomed during World War II, "when R.S. Stern supplied convoys and could get stuff no one else could," said Kotz.
During the 1940s, Stern's sons began buying up the competition. In 1966, the family sold the business to their neighbor and Kotz's grandfather, Louis Crystal. "And he sold me on Stern," said Kotz of his grandfather.
As soon as Kotz was old enough to get a driver's license, he went to work after school, bundling orders and delivering goods to the docks. He continued between semesters in college.
When Crystal became too ill to run the business, it fell to Kotz, shortly after he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in business in 1972.
"It was difficult as a young man to come in and take over a company. There was a lot of competition in Baltimore, and I had a lot of new ideas I wanted to try," Kotz recalled.
R.S. Stern gobbled up some more of the competition: Magnus Aske Ship Supply, Walter Spieker and Co. and Columbia Marine Supply Co.
As technology advanced from telegraph cable to telex to fax machine, the emphasis on purchases shifted from the whim of a sea captain to the bottom line of a corporate bean counter.
Schiappacasse credits R.S. Stern with streamlining the supply business by getting ship owners to submit requisitions two weeks before their vessel was due in Baltimore.
"By getting ships to stop doing the last-minute stuff, Stern was able to have everything waiting on arrival," he said. "That was very important in getting some of the lesser-known items. They were very successful in getting a paradigm shift."
Researching products and prices — and translating foreign requisitions into English — became easier with the Internet, but that also meant being open for business at all hours. Kotz said he sometimes sets his alarm for 2 a.m. to be ready to make a deal with Asian shipping companies.
The warehouse, about the size of the M&T Bank Stadium playing field minus the end zones, has walk-in refrigerators for fresh produce and a deep-freezer for packages of meat and whole sides of beef. On one floor are shelves and pallets stacked with cleaning products, canned goods and spices. Another level has eating utensils, tools and safety equipment.
John Klauza, the machine manager for 35 years, is fluent in metric and imperial measurements, which helps as he fills orders or tries to find a ship's engineer the right part. Every common tool and fastener must be kept in stock in both measurements.
Harold Markowitz, for 23 years a chief steward at Bethlehem Steel, runs the food operation, where tastes over the years have changed with the nationalities of the cargo crews.
Markowitz works with local ethnic markets and wholesalers in Jessup to ensure a ready supply of beans, cheeses, spices and condiments from Southeast Asia, Greece and India. The requisitions may specify mutton over lamb, Cadbury chocolates over Hershey bars, or a specific brand of bagoong alamang, a fermented shrimp paste used in the Philippines. No two orders are the same, he said.
Broccoli, once the bane of crews, is in high demand, as is bottled water in lots of 250 cases.
But of the more than 6,000 items stocked in the warehouse, two are near the top of almost every shopping list.
"I'm not sure how it happened, but every ship seems to want Lays potato chips and Pringles," Kotz said. "They see the ads everywhere and they want to have them, and it's always by name."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun