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Eddie's on North Charles celebrating 20th year Saturday

Owner Nancy Cohen protecting her turf as grocers proliferate in area

By Larry Perl, lperl@tribune.com

8:38 PM EDT, March 31, 2013

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The second Eddie's of Roland Park store opened Sept. 22, 1992, so the store's 20th anniversary was actually last fall. But the store on North Charles Street is celebrating its 20th year officially April 13.

"Spring is a nice time," owner Nancy Cohen said, smiling. "It's around the Jewish holidays. Kids are back in school."

The store at 6213 N. Charles (the original, 69-year-old store is on Roland Avenue) will mark its anniversary with a Shop Local event from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., featuring specials, tastings and a meet-and-greet with local vendors.

For Cohen, it's a time to reflect on the past, present and future of the third-generation, family-owned-and-operated business that her father, the late Victor Cohen, started in Roland Park in 1944 when he joined Eddie Levy's buying and advertising cooperative. (The cooperative eventually dissolved, but the name Eddies stuck, Cohen said.)

It's also a time for Cohen, one of the few female supermarket CEOs in the mid-Atlantic region, to ponder the potential impact of grocery stores and supermarkets that are proliferating in Towson and could do the same in north Baltimore.

That's why Cohen is aggressively marketing the full-service stores with their own meat, deli and bakery departments, and why last week she delivered to the media gift bags containing Eddie's aprons and sweets.

"You can't just sit back and assume everybody will come," she said.

For many years, the original Eddie's was the Cohen family's only store (not to be confused with the 50-year-old Eddie's Market of Charles Village, owned by Jerry Gordon). The store on Roland Avenue was known for emphasizing customer service, and Cohen said it was the first store in the Baltimore area to offer "gourmet to-go" prepared foods for busy customers with little time or inclination to cook meals at home after work.

But in 1992, Cohen opened a second store on the site of a former Acme Market.

"The thinking was, it was an opportunity to grow and there's parking," unlike the original store, which doesn't have its own parking lot, Cohen said. "I had no plans to expand."

But when she saw the space, "I said, 'I have to have this.' "

The morning of settlement, she had a little buyer's remorse, thinking, "Oh, my goodness, what have I done and what if nobody shows up?"

She had no reason to worry.

"It really took off," she said. "I was so lucky."

She has since opened a wine and liquor store next to the grocery store, to mirror the wine department at the original store, and has continued to focus on service, prepared foods ranging from crab cakes to rotisserie chickens and specialty gift baskets at the second store, too.

The North Charles store is nearly 17,000 square feet, larger than the original, 13,000-square-foot store. It also has as many as 150 employees, most part-time and some hired from area organizations such as Jewish Vocational Services and Genesis, which help people with developmental disabilities, said Cohen, a former vocational rehabilitation counselor.

"It makes a difference for them. It makes a difference for their families," Cohen said.

Shoppers have their carts unloaded for them at the checkout lines and, if they want, employees will walk the shoppers to their cars and put the groceries in the car for them. An employee can usually be found at the front doors of both stores, giving customers a hearty, "Welcome to Eddie's," as they enter.

Eddie's also supports local food and produce vendors, as befits a business that used to sell gooseberries from local residents.

An estimated 11,000 to 12,000 people on average shop each week at the North Charles Street store, which draws from north Baltimore and the Rodgers Forge-Towson area. By comparison, the original store draws about 8,000 a week, Cohen said.

Although Cohen said business is good, she is mindful of burgeoning competition from the Towson area, which is now home to Weis Market, The Fresh Market and Aldi's.

More competition could soon come from north Baltimore. The Rotunda is looking for a boutique grocer — possibly Graul's Market, a chain that offers much the same services as Eddie's of Roland Park. Developers of a vacant lot in Charles Village are considering a grocer for that site, too.

Cohen said she too has been approached by "landlords and brokers" about being a tenant in various developments as far away as Washington, D.C.

"I'm flattered, and I consider it," she said, but added that she has resisted so far, because she prefers to own her own buildings, as she does at both of her Eddie's of Roland Park stores.

"We do get calls pretty regularly," she said, adding that she might expand again if the right opportunity arose.

Cohen, a native Baltimorean and Lutherville resident, is now grooming her son, vice president Michael Schaffer, 28, to someday take over the business, but said she has no plans to retire. And, she said she welcomes the competition.

"It makes me work harder," she said. "I have to really stay focused and stay ahead of the trends."