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Baltimore’s neighborhood groceries were once just a block away

Jeremy Diamond stands in the Sharp-Leadenhall neighborhood, where his grandfather once owned a corner grocery store. He has written a book called "Tastemakers" about Jewish neighborhood-based grocers of Baltimore in the last 75 years. July 8, 2021
Jeremy Diamond stands in the Sharp-Leadenhall neighborhood, where his grandfather once owned a corner grocery store. He has written a book called "Tastemakers" about Jewish neighborhood-based grocers of Baltimore in the last 75 years. July 8, 2021 (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Jeremy Diamond is proud of his grandparents, Eastern European immigrants who came to Baltimore with no English-speaking skills and no government aid.

During the 1940s their village had been taken over by German troops and they were confined there.

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His grandfather and his brother-in-law opened a grocery store and what followed is an amazing Baltimore story. Diamond’s family was not alone. Other immigrants started unpretentiously, worked incredible hours and succeeded.

Diamond, who remains active in the family business, wrote and published “Tastemakers: The Legacy of Jewish Entrepreneurs and the Mid-Atlantic Grocery Industry” four years ago. The book tells the story of his grandparents and their grocery competitors, people like Israel “Izzy” Cohen, Harry Tolkoff and so many more.

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“As native Ukrainian/Polish Jews, they experienced hard anti-Semitism and witnessed the slaughter of many family members and friends at the hands of the Nazis,” Diamond wrote in his book. They came to America in 1947 after the war ended, in search of a better life and to find their inner strength to rebuild their shattered lives.”

The Diamond and Schuster families had cousins in Baltimore. They were initially put up at 2308 Eutaw Place and later at 1833 Linden Ave.

On Jan. 1, 1948, Paul and Sonia Diamond bought their first neighborhood grocery at the corner of West Cross and Leadenhall streets in the Sharp-Leadenhall neighborhood. They borrowed from relatives and came up with the $4,000 for the store, which served workers of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the nearby South Baltimore factories.

One store led to another. Within two years the Diamonds were off to Harlem Avenue and by 1960, joined with other relatives, Dave Diamond and Ben Schuster, they founded Food-A-Rama at Liberty Heights Avenue and Garrison Boulevard and soon thereafter, Baltimore Street and Fremont Avenue.

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By 1961, there were still only two Food-A-Rama stores. The telephone book of that year lists 19 Food Fair stores, a competing chain based in Philadelphia but well known throughout Baltimore for its distinctive pylon architecture and aggressive marketing campaigns.

But time and changing business would change all this. Food Fair declared bankruptcy in the late 1970s after trying to rebrand itself as Pantry Pride.

“My grandfather, the man who came to Baltimore with nothing and would buy 14 former Food Fair locations at auction,” said Jeremy Diamond. “He was a man who believed you created something for your children and their children.

He dedicated his book to his father, Abe Diamond, and spent hours at the Enoch Pratt Free Library going over old newspaper accounts of the grocery business in Baltimore and, to a lesser degree, in Richmond, Washington, D.C. and southern Pennsylvania.

He tells the stories of the creation of Giant chain (and its Heidi Bakery), Harry Tulkoff and his horseradish and his bottled garlic, Weis Markets and Klein’s Family Markets, so well known in Harford County.

Diamond notes the highs and lows of the grocery business. He took his tape recorder to the industry pioneers before their deaths and coaxed them to tell the off-the-record stories, the tales of bitter financial rivalries created within the extended families who built grocery chains.

“Food is emotional,” Diamond said one day this week as he stood near the corner where his grandfather and uncle first set up business 73 years ago. “You can go in the door of the store and the smells trigger feelings and memories. You want to be greeted by a friendly staff, you want it to have low prices and you want it to be clean.”

Diamond got an early start. He was 17 and running a cash register at the County Market in Randallstown on Liberty Road. He remains active today managing all the Baltimore neighborhood real estate his father and grandfather assembled.

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