Ben Schuster, a Holocaust survivor who developed a supermarket chain after moving to Baltimore, died of pulmonary fibrosis Saturday at Sinai Hospital. The Pikesville resident was 85.
Born in Holoby, Poland, he graduated from a yeshiva - a Jewish school - and attended two years of college until he was forced to flee because of Nazi persecution. He joined the Polish army and faked an appendicitis attack to avoid fighting. Family members said he spent the rest of the war fleeing the Nazis.
When he arrived home after the war, all of his immediate family, including his parents and 10 siblings, were missing and presumed dead.
While in Poland, he met Deborah Diamond, whom he married in 1945. The couple came to the United States in 1947 with little more than $8 provided by a Jewish aid society. They initially moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where Mr. Schuster taught briefly in a Flatbush yeshiva.
In 1948, they moved to Baltimore, where Mrs. Schuster had relatives. Though Mr. Schuster spoke little English, he opened a small grocery store at Druid Hill Avenue and St. Mary Street, which his wife's relatives helped finance.
Mr. Schuster, who believed it was a good practice to work with relatives, later brought his brothers-in-law into an expanded grocery business, which they called Food-A-Rama. They subsequently developed a strategy of operating primarily in city locations vacated by major grocery store chains.
"To say that Food-A-Rama is a low overhead operation is the understatement of the year," said a 1978 article on the business in The Sun, which described its corporate offices as "two cramped rooms on the fifth floor of a building in Pikesville." It described the office as frenetic and chaotic, while the business was doing $80 million a year in sales.
"There always seem to be people waiting to see Ben Schuster, the chubby co-owner who is in charge of operations, but the office receptionist said she often does not know who should be allowed in first since Mr. Schuster keeps many of his appointments in his head."
"My father was brilliant and could remember the price of a can of peas in 1953," said his daughter Berly Hershkovitz. "He was afraid to go in the food business in the beginning, but his goal in life was to provide for his family."
When a reporter asked Mr. Schuster what his targets and plans were, he broke into a grin and said, "You think I know?"
By 1982, a Sun article said Mr. Schuster and his partners held the second-largest share of the Baltimore-area grocery market, after the Giant chain.
In 1985, he sold the business to Super Rite Food Inc.
He was inducted into the Maryland Food Industry Hall of Fame in 2003.
Mr. Schuster was a donor to local charities. A past chairman of Israel Bonds, he was also associated with the Baltimore Zionist District, the Jewish National Fund and local Jewish charities. He was a member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation.
He enjoyed engaging friends in political discussions and debating world affairs. He also gardened, traveled, sang and told stories to his grandchildren.
Services were held Monday.
In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include a son, Dr. Alvin Schuster of Baltimore; two other daughters, Sylvia Elhai of Baltimore and Paula Schuster of Bethesda; nine grandchildren; and a great-grandson.