LANDOVER -- The drama yesterday at Giant Food Inc.'s otherwise staid annual shareholder meeting centered on who was there and who wasn't.
In attendance: The natty David J. Sainsbury, chairman and chief executive of J. Sainsbury PLC, scion of the founder of Britain's No. 1 grocer.
Absent: The charismatic Israel "Izzy" Cohen, Giant's 82-year-old chairman and chief executive, who was recently diagnosed as ** having a bone marrow disorder.
There's a connection: Mr. Cohen's illness has fueled speculation that Landover-based Giant, the region's dominant supermarket chain, may be acquired by Sainsbury, already a minority stakeholder.
Yesterday, neither side said anything to dispel the notion.
After the meeting, Mr. Sainsbury, pursued by a coterie of reporters, wavered little from the statement: "For the moment, we're very happy to be minority shareholders."
Although he was short on details, Mr. Sainsbury, a Giant board member, was more verbose than Pete L. Manos, whom Mr. Cohen named as Giant president in September 1992. Mr. Manos, when asked about Sainsbury's future role in Giant, said: "I can't comment on that at all."
Sainsbury bought a 16 percent stake in Giant for $325 million in October 1994, and some Wall Street analysts are convinced that the British company is interested in more than a spiffy return on its investment.
Another salient fact: Sainsbury controls three of Giant's seven seats on the board of directors, and Mr. Cohen elects the other four. But whether the Giant CEO would be willing to sell his stake in the company remains unanswered.
Mr. Cohen, who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment, still comes to work from time to time, company officials said. But in what is believed to be a first in his career, he missed Giant's annual meeting.
He was at home yesterday recuperating. But shareholders didn't forget, applauding when his name was recalled before a crowd of about 200 investors.
"There's a dynamo that's missing today -- and that's Izzy Cohen," said Peter Ladd Gilsey, chairman of Potomac Asset Management in Washington.
Giant's financial figures, while consistently solid, seemed like an afterthought. Sales were up 3.6 percent to $856.5 million for the quarter ended Aug. 12, while sales in stores open at least a year rose 1.7 percent.