For more than 20 years, shoppers with exotic European tastes have traveled from as far as North Carolina to a little store in Randallstown for Polish pickled zucchini, Russian baby squash, Israeli cucumbers, Gypsy salami, Ukrainian bread and other specialty foods.
But now the Old World Deli and Bakery on Liberty Road must move, after losing its lease to a future Walgreens drugstore. And mother-son owners Annie and Gary Hein aren't happy about being forced to relocate by the end of August.
"We would like to stay in Randallstown, where we have customers who appreciate us," said Gary Hein, 39, who has built up the business with his mother since he was 10 years old. "If we can't find suitable space, we might look in Towson or Columbia."
It's a situation that has drawn concern from business leaders who have struggled for years to keep the Liberty Road corridor stabilized, as stores have abandoned nearby shopping centers.
"The Old World Deli is one of our prime attractions," said Henry Weisenberg, executive director of the Liberty Road Business Association, who has scoured the area for possible locations. "Their reputation for wonderful food is literally regionwide."
And Gary Hein -- whose mother had hoped to buy the property from their landlord until Walgreens beat her to it -- said that the store's customers no longer are just Randallstown locals or Russian immigrants living in the county's northwest corridor.
The Heins once had a customer who drove up from North Carolina to buy rice paper baking sheets for an heirloom cookie recipe sent by a German relative. They ship weisswurst, a type of bratwurst, to a man in Iowa and German chocolate to an elderly woman in Charles Village.
"Our customer base runs from Washington to the Eastern Shore, from southern Pennsylvania to Northern Virginia," said Gary Hein.
The business was begun by Annie Hein, an immigrant from the German town of Kassel, who began selling German beer steins and cuckoo clocks by mail order 29 years ago. Later she and her son opened a store, selling mostly German foods. The business moved to its current location in 1978.
When Soviet immigrants began moving to the area, Gary Hein became an expert on Russian foods. He makes a weekly trip to Brooklyn, N.Y., returning with Russian rye breads and cakes, Russian-style smoked herring and trout, and other delicacies.
His 63-year-old mother arrives at the store's bakery each morning at 4: 30 to make American and Jewish pastries and breads, wedding cakes, and her son's favorite chocolate eclairs, with homemade, chemical-free custard filling. She works with a Russian baker who also serves as an interpreter for Russian customers.
Their store is jammed with 30 kinds of mustard, 30 kinds of German beer and chocolates from Belgium, Holland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Poland.
"We employ 18 people and would like to increase that employment at a new location," said Gary Hein.
But Walgreens is set to take over the location sometime after the summer, and the Heins say they are having difficulty finding a new spot nearby.
"There are no-compete clauses with grocery stores in shopping centers," he said. "Since we have a beer and wine license, we can't be near a school or a church or another business with a liquor license."
He complains that Walgreens has done little to help him find a new store. "They said they were a concerned corporate citizen, but we haven't heard from them," he said.
Jim Helfrich, a partner for Village Properties, the California developer for Walgreens, said, "We're not the bad giant. We want to be friendly and helpful." He said the company wants to help the store relocate nearby. He also said that he does not know when construction will begin or when the new store will open.
On Friday, Eric Chadwick, Village Properties acquisitions manager in Baltimore, said he is trying to help the Heins find a new location. A recent attempt to move them to a vacant Pizza Hut fell through.
The Old World Deli continues to attract customers impressed by its inventory.
On a recent day, Ethel Sugarman and Irene Blum made their first visit from Pikesville, searching for a jar of shredded celery root, which they couldn't find in area supermarkets.
"We take cooking lessons, and the teacher made this wonderful salad with celery root," said Sugarman, who bought four jars. "This is the only place we could find it."