Herbert E. “Herb” Beckenheimer, who owned the local Brown's and Food King grocery chains, died of cancer May 15 at his Owings Mills home. He was 95.
Born in Baltimore, he was the son of Moses Beckenheimer and his wife, Rose. His grandmother, who owned an Edmondson Avenue dry goods business, raised him.
A lifelong sports fan, he competed in athletics at the Easterwood Park boys’ club. He was a 1941 graduate of City College.
At age 17 — he lied about his age — he enlisted in the Marine Corps shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific during World War II. He left the military as a master sergeant.
After his service he met and married Paula Bronfein in 1946, and joined his father-in-law Leon Bronfein in his grocery business on Barnes Street in East Baltimore.
In 1953 he opened his own corner grocery at Chase and Wolfe streets. He later took a partner, Bernard Meizlish, and expanded the single store into a chain of independent supermarkets throughout Baltimore. The partners later renamed their operation the Big B Food Warehouse.
“He began his expansion by buying an old movie theater, the Ritz, at Washington and Federal streets and making it into a much larger supermarket,” said Mr. Meizlish, of Baltimore. “He later opened a Brown’s on the westside, at Monroe and Presstman.
“Our stores were quality, first-class supermarkets,” he said. “We were in the city but you could have lifted them up and put them in Towson or Pikesville.”
Mr. Meizlish said they hired neighborhood residents as employees and sponsored basketball and Little League teams. They gave summer jobs to community teenagers and sent needy children to summer camps.
“Our two stores were not touched in the 1968 riots,” said Mr. Meizlich. “They were not touched because of our involvement in the community. Herb understood the neighborhoods he served.”
In the 1970s the two partners expanded their two-store operation into nine groceries, all in Baltimore. Mr. Beckenheimer was the buyer of produce, seafood and meat.
“Our stores were so friendly that our customers might spent two hours shopping. It was a big event for them. They came and met their friends and socialized,” said Mr. Meizlish.
In 1988 they sold the Big B Food Warehouse to the B. Green grocery wholesaler.
Mr. Beckenheimer retired to Florida, but after three years grew tired of the inactivity.
“He did not like Florida and would call me every day asking about a new business opportunity,” said Mr. Meizlich.
The pair leased the former Food Fair space at Reisterstown Road Plaza and named it Food King. They later added seven more stores and operated the last two until 2016, when they sold the operation.
At 93, Mr. Beckenheimer reluctantly retired.
“He was Mister Herb to everybody in his store. His customers loved him and he was a softie to them. He’d be on the floor telling them this item was the best buy today. And he meant it — he cared what they bought,” said a friend, Barry Steinfelder of Pikesville.
“He had a knack with people. He was out there. He loved golf, sports, going to the casino,” said Mr. Steinfelder. “He was a very good friend. He was also a good listener. The first thing he asked you was, ‘How are your kids?’ ”
Mr. Beckenheimer contributed to Jewish organizations and received awards for his philanthropy.
In 1973, Herb married Linda Bass, his wife of 45 years. They were animal fanciers and owned two Golden Retrievers and a Cairn terrier.
He had season tickets to the Baltimore Colts and Orioles. He played gin rummy with friends and blackjack at casinos. He also played golf at the Woodholme and Baltimore country clubs.
In addition to his wife, survivors include two sons, Brian Beckenheimer of Pikesville and Craig Beckenheimer of Delray Beach, Fla.; four daughters, Sharron Rose Weidner of Boulder, Colo., Barbara Goldenberg of Gaithersburg, Cindy Hiller of Quarry Lake and Mindy Lobe of Pikesville; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. His first marriage ended in divorce.
Services were held May 16 at Sol Levinson and Brothers.