Grocery Store Maven

By Jacobs, Phil

Phil Jacobs

Executive Editor

Publication: Baltimore Jewish Times

Date: Friday, August 28 2009

 

Jeremy Diamond approaches supermarkets a little differently than the rest of us.

When Jeremy Diamond goes grocery shopping, he's not just squeezing fruit or checking for expiration dates.

The 33-year-old Cheswolde resident is looking for that bottle of teriyaki sauce or that box of cereal that he's never seen before. He loves to take his time, sometimes hours, to read the backs of bottles, cartons and containers: where the product came from, manufacturer to distributor.

It's not just packaging, but the entire grocery shopping experience that entices Mr. Diamond. When the Wegman's store opened in Hunt Valley, he and wife Helen lined up at 5:30 in the morning to be among its first shoppers. When they vacation out of town, Mr. Diamond checks his laptop for reference materials on a grocery store he might see from the car.

He collects grocery stores like other people collect antiques.

Why shouldn't he?

He grew up in a family with a rich history in Baltimore's supermarketing. His grandfather Paul Diamond and uncles Dave Diamond and Ben Schuster were the founders and owners of Food-A-Rama. When the chain sold its 48 stores in 1985, Food-A-Rama was second only to Giant in Baltimore grocery outlets.

He takes me family business as a rite of passage. Mr. Diamond has telephone book-sized albums where he's stored every newspaper clipping he could find through research at the Enoch Pratt Free Library: news accounts of store acquisitions, copies of advertisements, photos of family members in the stores and the stores themselves. His upstairs study is a shrine to the Baltimore grocery empire his family put together.

Though his family has been out of the business end of the supermarket trade, it is not unusual for Mr. Diamond to be called on by local business journalists for consulting comments.

All of this started way before he was born. His grandparents, Paul and Sonia Diamond, came to Baltimore in 1947 from what was then considered Poland/Ukraine. They would begin their American dream by purchasing a corner grocery store, in this case at West Cross Street in South Baltimore.

It was a time when even the observant Jewish retailers had to stay open seven days to make a living. Jeremy recounts his' grandfather telling him that when it was time to say Kiddush, his grandmother would signal her husband with a bang on the floor from their apartment above the store. When Paul needed his wife to help him with a crowded store, he'd take a broom handle and bang it on the store ceiling.

Paul Diamond, along with his brother Dave Diamond and brother-in-law Ben Schuster, would go ahead and purchase their first major supermarket, which was located on the corner of Garrison Boulevard and Liberty Heights, in 1960. They named it Food-A-Rama. In less than nine years, there would be five Food-A-Ramas. They would then, over the years through acquisitions, go from their one store to 48 strong. At one point, they'd hold 16 percent of the grocery outlets in Baltimore, second only to Giant's 18 percent. They would be located all over the city and metro area, including places such as Liberty Court Shopping Center in Randallstown and the Woodmore Shopping Center, Reisterstown Road Plaza and Mondawmin Mall. There were 17 located in the city and 15 located in Baltimore County, with others in surrounding counties.

Throughout his youth, he would work in many capacities, from cashier to stock to produce to deli department. Mr. Diamond would graduate from Beth Tfiloh and attend college locally, but his real business education came from working in his family's food empire.

To this day, if he is permitted, he'll even go into the stockrooms and loading docks of stores. He knows how stockrooms are organized, even in some cases how trucks are loaded and scheduled. In his study he collects miniature plastic 18-wheel trucks with logos of food stores on them.

It was, in a sense, a time when the supermarket business was modernizing. Universal price codes were introduced, as well as warehouse shopping and other innovations.

If there is a change that he's seeing now, Mr. Diamond said, "there are so many different types of stores selling the same product. The independents need a niche."

Also, chain stores are seeing competition coming from stores such as Target and Wal-Mart.

Now a local businessman and real estate developer, Mr. Diamond is considered a grocery consultant. His opinion is frequently sought and quoted in articles found in the trade publication "Progressive Grocer."

His role as "industry observer"?

He smiles a huge smile. A lot of grocery shopping went into that tide. He's "observed" the ingredients on a lot of labels.

There does seem to be one specific bottom line, he'll tell you. And that is simply cost.

In these recessionary days, customers might be less inclined to go for the visual amenities of a well-appointed or well-decorated store. Instead, Mr. Diamond says, they'd rather save money or, as he was quoted recently in an area newspaper, "The average consumer is looking at price."

For Mr. Diamond, though, the price isn't half as much fun as carts, the shelves, the checkout and the inventory.

Who can blame him? He comes by it honestly. The grocery bug is in his family.

* Paul Diamond, Dave Diamond and Ben Schuster bought a full-sized grocery store in 1960 and they named it Food-A-Rama on the corner of Liberty Heights and Garrison.

* Paul was Jeremy's grandfather, Jeremy's father Abe's father: Dave was Paul's brother Ben was Paul's brother-in-law.

* By 1970, they owned five stores.

* By 1974, it was 11 stores

* 1976 Food-A-Rama with B. Green bought six Big Valu stores from the Penn Fruit Co.

* 1978 first local chain to open a Warehouse Store in Baltimore, named it Cost-Saver Warehouse Food Markets

* 1979 Food-A-Rama now owns 19 stores

* 1980 Food-A-Rama has six warehouse stores

* 1981 Food-A-Rama buys 11 Pantry Pride stores, renaming them Super Super

* 1982 second-largest chain in Baltimore behind Giant with 16 percent of the stores compared to 18 percent for Giant

* 1984 buys 10 Basics Warehouse stores and two Grand Unions.

* 1985 sold 48 stores to Super Rite Foods

* 1988 Paul Diamond meets with owners of a new store to open called Seven Mile Market to consult with them

* 2003 Ben Schuster inducted into Maryland Foods Industry Hall of Fame