Walking through the aisles of the grocery store on North Charles Street, Nancy Cohen can’t get far without stopping to chat with someone.
“I’m here all the time,” says the 69-year-old CEO of Eddie’s of Roland Park, which also operates a store on Roland Avenue. She’s a close talker with a contagious laugh that a Sun reporter once wrote “begins like a hiccup and ends like a sigh.” The Towson resident wears a navy shirt dress by Elie Tahari, and a few people stop to compliment her recently coiffed bob (she goes to a salon recommended by a customer). Her smile suggests she’s about to let you in on a secret.
Suddenly, she remembers: “I gotta grab challah." She dashes off to get a few loaves for a friend.
As Eddie’s celebrates its 75th anniversary with an exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Cohen and longtime employees ensure that the business her father opened retains the gracious and familiar service that has helped make it a Baltimore institution.
“It’s the personal touch,” that makes Eddie’s on Roland Avenue the go-to grocery store for customer Anne Stuzin, who comes almost every day to fill her backpack with groceries. The longtime Roland Park resident talks sports with the guys in the meat department and often runs into friends by the entrance.
“It’s the neighborhood hub," Stuzin said.
Nancy Cohen, the second-generation owner of grocery store Eddie's of Roland Park, celebrates 75 years in business.
Her two airedale terriers, Duke and Rocket, come to a sit down on the sidewalk when they reach the entrance and wait for an Eddie’s employee to bring them a treat. The door is still opened by a real, live person.
“You get used to seeing these familiar faces,” Stuzin said. “God forbid I have to go to Wegmans.”
Baltimore was once home to a number of smaller neighborhood grocery stores that gave way to larger supermarkets offering bigger selections and parking in an age of increasing automobile use. “The footprint started getting bigger and bigger," said Jeremy Diamond, author of “Tastemakers: The Legacy of Jewish Entrepreneurs in the Mid-Atlantic Grocery Industry."
The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, better known as A&P, was a dominant player in the city until the 1970s and 1980s, Diamond says.The 26 Eddie’s franchises that, at one time, ran from Catonsville to Brooklyn, have dwindled to four — two are owned by the Cohen family. Another longtime independent grocer, Graul’s Market, has stores in Baltimore County, Anne Arundel county and St. Michaels.
It was at A&P that Cohen’s father, Victor, learned to butcher meat and sell produce. A Russian Jewish immigrant who came to Northwest Baltimore in 1924, Victor Cohen was managing a store by age 19. During the Depression, he opened his own shops, one on Park Heights Avenue and another in Windsor Hills near Leakin Park.
With hopes of opening a high-end grocer, he set his sights on the wealthy, white Roland Park neighborhood. “In no way could Park Heights Avenue and Windsor Hills support what I had in mind,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1994. “Roland Park could afford it, so I decided to have the best.”
Seventy-five years ago, he opened Victor’s Market in the Roland Park Shopping Center, today home to Petit Louis Bistro and Johnny’s. In 1954, Cohen purchased an Eddie’s franchise from Baltimore-based grocer Eddie Levy, opening the new store at 5113 Roland Ave. and later relocating Victor’s Market next door.
In the 1980s, Victor Cohen described his philosophy to The Sun: “The way to compete with chain stores is personalized service. I’ll be the first to admit our service is old-fashioned. But at the same time we’re very modern."
Today, Victor’s and Eddie’s have merged into the same shop on the “Eddie’s block.” In 1992, Nancy opened the branch on North Charles Street.
The history is laid out at the Jewish Museum’s exhibit, on view through October.
"Coming from a place where we do really celebrate immigrant contributions, this was a fantastic way to explore the legacy of one immigrant and how he succeeded in creating something both for his family and his community,” program manager Trillion Attwood said of the exhibition, which includes a yearbook from City College and an award given to Cohen from the state of Israel.
Current employees recall how the elder Cohen’s customer-first approach shaped the Baltimore institution.
“Mr. Victor had a mind like a steel trap,” said assistant manager Darryl Caster, who began working at Eddie’s at age 16, more than 20 years ago. After meeting Victor Cohen just once in the 1990s, he “remembered my name, my school and everything else about me,” Caster said. To Caster, then a grocery bagger at the store on Roland Avenue, the encounter left a lasting impression. “It makes you feel like you matter.”
And “he was here seven days a week, just like Nancy,” said meat and seafood manager Steve Miller, who started working at Eddie’s as a 14-year-old. Miller met his wife while working at the deli counter.
“We’ve had a number of people that have met their spouses here,” Nancy Cohen said.
Perhaps more than other forms of commerce, grocery shopping is an emotional experience, said Diamond.
“They [Eddie’s of Roland Park] focus on customer service and local products, and they just do it right,” Diamond said. At the same time, he points out, they have modernized as needed.
Eddie’s of Roland Park has offered delivery since the 1960s, says marketing director Jared Earley. “We’ve been delivering since Amazon was still a seedling.” Older customers appreciate the convenience of being able to call and have a favored personal shopper pick out their produce.
The store caters events and family dinners, and can even make treasured recipes at request. One customer calls every year before the High Holidays to order chicken Marbella from “The Silver Palate Cookbook.”
And Nancy Cohen had the foresight to offer ready-made foods in the 1980s, after having a child of her own. “I wound up getting pregnant with [my first son] and I realized I didn’t want to cook,” she said. She thought to herself: “There’s got to be a lot of other people like me." So Eddie’s began selling prepared foods in the store’s “gourmet to go” section.
Nancy’s sons grew up in Eddie’s. She once told The Sun she hoped that Michael, her oldest, would someday take an interest in the family business. “He’s 2. Every time I bring him in I say, ‘This is your store.’ And then he proceeds to take everything off the shelf.”
Today, Andrew and Michael Schaffer, now 32 and 35, are around somewhere in the store, the third generation to lead Eddie’s of Roland Park. Michael is the company’s vice president, while Andrew holds the title of facilitator.
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“Andrew, we never came up with a title for him," Cohen said with a laugh. “He wanted facilitator.”
Near the meat counter, a mom tries to explain to a toddler why the child can’t eat from the plastic bag of candy pumpkins: “You have to pay for everything."
Watching the scene, Cohen and Miller smile and laugh.
“That’s the next generation of Eddie’s," Miller said.
If you go
The exhibition “Baltimore’s Local Grocer: Celebrating 75 Years of Eddie’s of Roland Park” is on view at the Jewish Museum of Maryland through Oct. 24. Admission to the museum is $10 for adults. 15 Lloyd St., Jonestown. 410-732-6400. jewishmuseummd.org