Nancy Cohen Schaffer makes shopping a memorable event at Eddie's


October 25, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

The tourists are restless. Twenty-two of them have come to see the posh new Eddie's supermarket on North Charles Street. They're curious, but this show-and-tell with a misshapen squash just isn't cutting it.

Although they have limited buying power and wouldn't know arugula from radicchio if their lives depended on it, their opinions matter -- most of all to owner Nancy Cohen Schaffer.

The tour group -- her first, incidentally -- happens to be her son Andrew's kindergarten class at Park School.

She senses she's losing their interest (the more unruly are swinging the metal produce scale) and picks up the pace.

They whiz back to the seafood counter. She gestures toward a butcher to hold up a rockfish. Ooooohs from the crowd. Is it a piranha? Can you eat the eyes? How much does it weigh? 100 pounds?

She can do better still. At the meat counter, a butcher hauls two legs of lamb from the back -- a move that silences them all and seems likely to make vegetarians out of a few. In the kitchen, she points to men mixing salads large enough to feed the class for a week. By the gourmet coffee, she quickly grinds up beans for them to smell and touch.

Forty-five minutes later, the production ends with a parting gift from Eddie's -- a small pumpkin, a magnet and a chocolate coin -- for each of the children. They clamor to get their bags, and even the teachers seem vaguely interested in the contents.

As they board the bus, Nancy Cohen Schaffer waves and smiles. If there's one thing she's good at, it's knowing how to make shopping an event. She's been doing it since joining her father's store, Eddie's of Roland Park, more than a decade ago.

With her broad grin and energetic demeanor, she looks younger than 42. At 5 feet 3 inches, she's a slim 112 pounds -- even with her Ferragamo shoes on -- thanks in large part to daily running or swimming.

Then there's her laugh. Employees say they always know how to find her: They just listen. The first time you hear the sound -- it begins like a hiccup and ends like a sigh -- you're not sure #F whether to laugh along or administer the Heimlich maneuver.

With the trend toward no-frills shopping warehouses, she knows that grocery stores with iced cinnamon cappuccino, in-house charge accounts and employees who know shoppers' names are an anomaly. Yet she remains true to her father's belief that personalized service is what separates the little guy from the big chain.

"Lots of people hate grocery shopping. I want them to come in here and like it. . . . Service is everything. We try to make shopping fun and as easy as possible," she says.

When a longtime customer has a baby, she gets the store to send a card. When it rains, she instructs employees to escort shoppers to their cars, carrying their groceries and an umbrella. There are other extras: employees who will shop for you, the acceptance of credit cards, home delivery.

The stores often attract a clubby crowd. Women put on lipstick to stroll through the aisles here, their cars (BMWs and Mercedes dot the parking lot) sport private-school bumper stickers, and coupon clipping seems a hobby, not a necessity.

"In today's economy, she's bucking the trend," says Dennis Graul, manager of Graul's Market in Ruxton, whose father owns Graul's four stores in Maryland. "As money gets tighter, people are looking for more value for their food dollar."

Ms. Schaffer says her prices are competitive, but basics like laundry detergent were found for as much as 80 cents less at nearby supermarkets last week.

"These are very difficult times," she acknowledges. "But you need to be able to pamper yourself. . . . People are sophisticated in their taste buds. No matter how many items we have in here, people come in asking for more."

Growing up with groceries

Nancy Cohen Schaffer never imagined she'd wind up here. But from the time she could snatch apples off the produce counter, she was visiting her father Victor Cohen at his store. He provided an impressive example for his daughter: A Russian immigrant, he entered the grocery business at age 15 and never left. In 1944 he opened Victor's Market in the Morgan Millard shopping center. Years later, he opened Eddie's Supermarket a few blocks north. Eventually he joined the two in an expanded space at 5113 Roland Ave. He is now retired, dividing his time between Baltimore and Florida, and she runs both markets. (The other area Eddie's are independently owned, although Edward Levy initially created the cooperative chain.)

Growing up in Pikesville, the only child of Victor and Rose Cohen, Ms. Schaffer planned on being a psychologist. But after graduating from Adelphi University in New York and getting her master's from Loyola College, she decided to yield to family pressure and give the business a try.

"I said, 'I'll give it a year.' Then I came in and got hooked," she says.

Still, making the transition from grocer's daughter to president and owner was sometimes difficult.

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