Just after suppertime Monday night, business died an unnatural death at the Super Fresh supermarket in the 6200 block of Kenwood Ave. in Rosedale.
Word had just spread that the Valu Food store nearby at Frankford Avenue and Belair Road in northeast Baltimore had been robbed that afternoon by a gang of armed bandits.
"Everybody was talking about it," said Donna Copp, an assistant bookkeeper at Super Fresh. "I can't believe [the robbers] haven't been caught yet."
As city police yesterday formed special units to confront the latest in a wave of robberies against supermarkets, grocery stores were taking extra precautions and their employees were trying to remain calm in the face of the threat.
At least 20 armed robberies of groceries and fast-food outlets have occurred in Baltimore and Baltimore County in the past four months. Police do not think the crimes are all related, but were puzzled that some arrests they made last week hadn't stopped the robberies from continuing Monday.
City police announced yesterday a series of flying squads of motorized and foot patrol officers to stop the robberies. Each night, four officers will be in cars in each of the nine city precincts plus the foot patrol officers. They will be on overtime.
Although four of the last five grocery holdups, apparently by different gangs, were in the city, county police are also working to catch the thieves who have struck there. County officers are keeping their moves quiet, however. "We'd rather stay mysterious about what we're doing," Sgt. Stephen Doarnberger said.
Steve Denrich, president of the Valu Food chain, wasn't interested in mystery.
"We have a plan of action," he said. "We're putting video recorders in all our stores as soon as possible, maybe by the end of this week. We're taking this very seriously, and we don't like it."
Denrich and spokesmen for other grocery chains said they are removing cash from stores as frequently as possible and are asking employees to keep alert for suspicious-looking people.
All said the last thing they want is a violent confrontation in their stores.
Denrich and Barry Scherr, spokesman for Giant Food, both said that security guards are sometimes present in the stores, but confrontation is not what the managements want. Most guards are not armed anyway, although some are in Giant stores, Scherr said.
Giant is adding more security guards, is training employees and is working closely with police, he said, without being specific.
"We don't want any heroes," Scherr said.
A Giant store in the 5900 block of Reisterstown Road in the city RTC also was robbed Monday. In that incident, one of the robbers held a handgun to the head of a security guard. No one was hurt and no shots were fired, police said.
Employees at Valu Food across town were less fortunate. Four robbers confronted 50 customers and staff there about 5 p.m. and one robber hit the manager over the head with the butt of a pistol, causing the weapon to discharge.
Workers at other area markets said they have noticed no drop in business during evening hours, but said they are worried for their own safety.
"It sure is making us a little anxious," said one worker, who didn't want to be named, at a Super Fresh market in the 900 block of Taylor Ave. in the county. "Everybody seems to be talking about it."
Along with the worry is a sense of helplessness for workers, said Ernest Robinson, co-manager of a Super Pride store in the 1700 block of E. Northern Parkway. "I just hope they don't come here," he said of the bandits.
Mario Torres, grocery manager at a Mars supermarket at Harford and Joppa roads in the county, said he can do little more than try to comfort worried employees.
Police in both jurisdictions were confused that the rash of holdups has continued even after city officers raided a suspected crack cocaine house in Edmondson Village last Friday and arrested seven people, charging two of them with involvement in separate robberies of food stores.
Also 11 days ago, a 25-year-old Westport man was charged in a Feb. 15 robbery of a Super Pride market in the 7400 block of Liberty Road near Woodmoor in the county.