There is a traditional American story and it goes something like this: Immigrant father starts to work in an industry. First he’s a clerk, then he’s a manager, then one day he buys a store. Then he buys another store. And another. Now he is wealthy and successful. He has a son. Maybe the son wants to go into the father’s business. Maybe he doesn’t. But eventually, the inevitable occurs. The father gets old—or dies—and the son take his rightful place in the family hierarchy.
But that’s not this story. This is a more modern story—the story of a father and a daughter. The father, Victor Cohen, did all of those things we described above. He emigrated from Russia to Northwest Baltimore in 1924 when he was 12. He got a job as a delivery boy for an A&P. At 19, he became the store’s manager. A few years later, he opened up a supermarket on Park Heights Avenue and another one in Windsor Hills. In 1944, he did something daring: The Jewish immigrant sold both his stores and bought a store in Roland Park, then an almost exclusively Gentile neighborhood. He felt strongly that if he provided the best quality meats, the best quality produce, and the best customer service, his customers wouldn’t care if he was white, black, green, or yellow. He was right. The store bearing his name thrived. In 1953, he took over another store, a few blocks up, called Eddie’s. Meanwhile, he took a wife, Rose, and had one child, a daughter, whom he doted on. The daughter didn’t really grow up around the stores—her father rarely talked about work at home. Instead, young Nancy Cohen was fascinated by the ways people communicated with each other. She had an interest in clinical psychology or working with the deaf. Going into the family business was not something she ever seriously considered. It certainly wasn’t the life she was groomed for.
“It was,” says Nancy, “the life I was never going to have.”
So how did it start? It sure didn’t start when Nancy was 15 and she decided she needed a job. Her father put her to work in the back of Victor’s, doing the “extensions” (using an adding machine to figure out the price of bulk items). After an hour and a half of sitting in the cramped quarters, Nancy was spent.
“I’ve had enough!” she told her father. “I need lunch and I need to go home.”
So her father bought her lunch and took her home and that was the end of it.
“Girls didn’t go into the grocery business,” explains Nancy.
She went to Adelphi College and majored in English. Then she came back to Baltimore and went to Loyola College and got her Master’s in Clinical Psychology. This was 1973. Nancy got a job working for the state doing “vocational rehabilitation,” essentially helping the developmentally disabled find and keep work. But it was at that time that some close cousins began pressuring her to join the family business.
“What are you going to do when your father retires?” they asked. “Who’s going to take over the business?”
Nancy just sort of shrugged. Her father had lots of responsible employees, some in managerial positions. Surely one of them could take over the work. She went on with her life. She even applied for a psychological testing job at the Maryland School for the Deaf and got it. But the cousins—the late Irv Melnick and his son, Jonathan—were persistent, relentless.
“It is your duty as his only child!” they said.
Eventually, she succumbed. Although she doesn’t offer the phrase herself, she nods when asked if her cousins were laying on the proverbial Jewish guilt.
“This went on for a year!” Nancy says.
So, in 1981, Nancy went to her father and said, “I’ve come to work.”
“Okay,” her father said. “You can greet people.”
“I have a master’s degree!” Nancy exclaimed. But, of course, greeting people was essential to the Eddie’s ethos. By this time, her father had closed Victor’s (the result of an infamous dispute the Roland Park Shopping Center tenants had with their landlord) and was focusing all of his attention on Eddie’s. Greeting people was an important way of conveying that this was a family-friendly, customer-service-oriented, one-of-a-kind store. Nancy reluctantly agreed. After all, it sure beat doing extensions in the back.
In no time, Nancy was adapting to life at Eddie’s. She found that she liked the atmosphere: The convivial relationship with the customers and the staff, the never-ending search for the top quality foods, the daily mini-dramas that cropped up along the way. When Victor took his trademark long vacations to Florida, he left the store in her hands.
It was at that point that an almost comical trend began: Victor would go to Florida. When he was gone, Nancy would put in a three-tiered produce case. He would go to Florida, come back, and Nancy had changed the store’s logo. He would go to Florida, and she would start printing circulars, alerting customers to the weekly specials.
“It seemed like every time he went away, I did something different,” Nancy says, her large brown eyes dancing mirthfully. She found that it was easier to make these changes when her father was gone. “I don’t like confrontation. Once I did it, there was really nothing he could do about it!”
Nancy had also become a keen observer of the store’s books. She kept scrupulous records, noting how many customers came through the store on a given day, how much they bought, what they bought the most of. She began noticing a disturbing turn of events: While Eddie’s longtime customers remained fiercely loyal, the store wasn’t generating a whole lot of younger customers. You have to remember: This was the fast-paced, me-first, Yuppified early ’80s. People wanted short-cuts. They wanted convenience. And that convenience was personified by the Giant, just a few blocks down the street.
The Rotunda Giant, which had opened in 1971, may seem small by today’s megamarket standards, but it was quite the Goliath compared to tiny Eddie’s. Cheap, fast, brimming with almost every name brand product under the sun, customers found the Giant to be an all-too-suitable alternative.
And Nancy had to reluctantly admit that she saw their point. By then, she had gotten married and had given birth to Michael, the first of her two sons (Andrew would arrive three years later). She related to the pressures of being a working mom who didn’t have time to prepare elaborate meals, who needed quick, healthy alternatives. So she decided that what Eddie’s needed was a “gourmet to go” counter, where customers could pick up restaurant-quality food and bring it home after work. At first, her father balked. It was madness. Eddie’s was just fine the way it was. This wasn’t a restaurant, it was a supermarket.
“We would have heated debates,” Nancy admits.
So she did it again. Victor Cohen made the mistake of going to Florida and when he came back, she had gotten rid of the so-called “freezer coffin” and put in a gourmet-to-go case. She offered crab cakes and turkey burgers and Caesar salad and mashed potatoes, among other things.
Her father just shook his head.
“I hope you know what you are doing,” he said.
Turns out, she did. The daughter had absorbed a lot of know-how, growing up in proximity to the grocery world. She had excellent business savvy. The gourmet counter was a hit. Sales started to go up. Customer count increased. The all-important younger customer was beginning to find the store. Victor was pleased. Little did he know, Nancy was just warming up.
To put the following story in its proper perspective, you have to understand that Nancy Cohen hates to fly. Loathes it. She says that she’s gotten a lot better in the last few years, but in the early ’90s, she would rather drive, take the train—heck, hitchhike—anything to avoid getting on an airplane. So when Victor Cohen saw his daughter standing in front of him in his Florida vacation home, still slightly flush from the plane ride, he knew this was not about adding a deli counter.
This was about that store.
The store in question was on North Charles Street, just a five minute drive from the Eddie’s on Roland Avenue. It was significantly bigger than the Roland Avenue store and it had—oh joy!—a parking lot. Nancy was in love with the property. Her father wasn’t quite as convinced. They had discussed buying it but—at least in Victor’s mind—no final decision had been made. Nancy saw things differently. Riding one of her famous hunches, she went ahead and signed the contract without him.
“Well, un-sign it,” was what her father basically said. He wanted her to tear up the paperwork. To stop what she had already started.
But Nancy dug in her heels. “I’ll buy it myself,” she said. “I’ll call it Nancy’s. And I’ll prove you wrong.”
Her father saw the determination in her face. Maybe it reminded him of another determined young entrepeneur who bought a store once despite everyone’s misgivings.
“Okay,” he said, repeating the words he had said so very often in the past few years, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Nancy had been so sure of herself—and so determined to convince others of her absolute certainty—that she never allowed doubt to creep into her mind. But the night before the new store opened in September of 1992, she didn’t get a wink of sleep. Her mind was racing: What if no one shows up? What if the Charles Street store drains customers from the Roland Park store? What if the upscale grocery store concept doesn’t work on such a large scale?
By the time she arrived at the store, she was almost paralyzed with dread. That was when she saw it—the line. The store hadn’t even opened its doors yet and a long line was forming outside. Eddie’s had hit the ground running. It was a triumph.
“I’m so proud of you,” Victor said to Nancy. “You’re doing such an amazing job.”
“Dad,” Nancy responded. “That’s because I am my father’s daughter.”
A few years later, Victor—now well into his 80s—finally retired. Nancy became the owner and CEO of both stores. She remains the only female CEO of a supermarket group in the mid-Atlantic region.
“The Charles Street store was sort of Nancy’s coming out into the big leagues,” says Jeff Metzger, the publisher of Food World, a supermarket industry publication. He acknowledges that the food retailing industry is a bit of a boy’s club. But, “after [the Charles Street opening], no one questioned her abilities.”
Still, running a private supermarket remains an uphill battle. “The number of independent grocers has been declining over the years,” Metzger says. And this is not only because the big retailers and chains have deeper pockets. You see, it turns out that Nancy’s cousins—the ones who laid on all that pressure and all that guilt so many years ago—were right on target. A lot of the family-owned grocers are simply dying off.
“If the founder of the store retires or dies, who’s going to take over the company?” Metzger asks. “Nancy is a very rare individual. Not only did she take over the family business, she has the talent and the drive to carry it off successfully.”
Little things have changed at Eddie’s over the years. Nancy, who splits her time between the Roland Avenue and Charles Street stores and keeps an office above the Roland Avenue store, has gotten rid of some products and added some others. Customers have gotten in the habit of bringing back a favorite jam or tea or vinegar from their travels, and Nancy does her best to track it down and carry it in the store. The opening of a nearby Fresh Fields—an upscale grocery chain that caters to the health-conscious set—was unwelcome at first, but now Nancy relishes the competition; she says it keeps her on her toes.
So for the most part, Eddie’s remains the same: An oasis of civility and good taste in a world of corporate indifference and Mc-everything. Nancy still retains much of her father’s old staff, like Dorothy Sherman, a cashier who has worked for Eddie’s for 28 years now: “They treat you well,” Sherman says. “The customers are nice. I’ve watched families grow up. Three, four generations. It’s just a comfortable place to work.”
Then there’s Bob Ward, who has worked in the grocery department for 36 years.
“Best 36 years of my life,” says Ward, without a hint of irony in his voice.
As for Michael and Andrew, they share none of their mother’s reticence about getting involved in the family business.
“I like it here,” says Michael, as he slathers a layer of tomato sauce into a lasagna pan (he’s spending the end of his summer helping with the gourmet counter in the back.) “It’s fun.”
“They both want to go in the business,” Nancy says with a “go-figure?” shrug. “They’ve been coming here since they were little boys.”
In August of 2000, 88-year-old Victor Cohen became gravely ill. Nancy clung to hope, but she knew that he might die. So she went to his bedside and said everything she had ever wanted to say. “I thanked him for all that he had done. I thanked him for his wisdom, his love. I told him how much I respected him.”
And then she told her father—the most maddening, inspiring, and beloved figure in her life—that it was okay to let go: “Whatever you need to do, you do,” she said. “I’ll take care of everything.”
Victor Cohen was so weak, he couldn’t talk. But he was able to tremulously lift his hand and give the “okay” sign. A few days later, he died.
Nancy says that sometimes, even two years after her father’s death, she wants to pick up the phone and ask him for advice. And something else strange has happened: “Without any forethought, my behavior has started to copy him,” she says. “The way he walked around the store, the way he would be with the customers—he just had a more leisurely pace than I do.”
Nancy always thought it was corny when people talked about “feeling the presence” of a loved one after their death. But she says, without a doubt, her father’s energy, his presence remains in the store.
“He is always with me.”
And then the daughter, who followed in the footsteps of the father because it was secretly her calling, even if she didn’t know it at the time, greets a customer by name and begins a leisurely stroll around her store.