Immigrant grocer went first class in Roland Park

March 31, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

In the old days, the wealthier patrons of Victor's Market in Roland Park only accepted fresh money.

"We'd cash checks for the richest people in Baltimore -- judges, doctors, bankers, lawyers and little old ladies who pulled up to the store with their chauffeurs," remembers longtime dairy manager Morris Lipsitz, who used to run to the bank for crisp currency. "They all wanted clean, new bills. They didn't like dirty money."

Victor's Market, now celebrating 50 years in business, became Eddie's Supermarket of Roland Park. And through those years, the money of North Baltimore's Roland Park allowed an immigrant Jewish grocer named Victor Cohen to become the high-class merchant he always wanted to be.

In Roland Park -- an enclave of wealth and social prominence where the average price of a single-family house was $246,732 last year -- people were willing to pay for premium quality and pampered service.

Upon that logic, a man folks know as "Mr. Victor" built his success, using prime cuts of meat and fresh produce to lead the way.

"The way to hold good customers is to do everything for them," says the semi-retired Mr. Cohen, 81, from his winter home in Florida. "You stand at the front door and give them a smile, say hello, find out their names. At check-out, you unload the basket, bag it, and take it out to the car. You can't do it all by yourself, so I made sure every employee in the store was exactly the same way."

He says: "To be pleasant is not a false thing."

Today, that legacy rests on the shoulders of Nancy Cohen Kaplow, his only child.

"When I get an idea, I won't let go of it," says company president Ms. Kaplow, whose earliest memory is of looking at the world from Victor's front window while nibbling oatmeal cookies.

Ms. Kaplow, 44, joined the business in 1981 and opened a second store at 6213 North Charles Street in 1992. With a staff of 75 employees at the Roland Avenue store alone, she plans to run Eddie's into the 21st century using her father's devotion to service -- combined with an in-store bakery, natural foods, and take-out gourmet dinners for the upscale and harried.

In the segregated Baltimore of 1944, when Mr. Cohen established Victor's Market in the Morgan Millard shopping center at 4800 Roland Avenue, it was unlikely that a Jewish family would have desired or been permitted to live in Roland Park. The Cohens lived in Pikesville.

Fifty years later, Mr. Cohen marvels that his daughter sold 162 Passover dinners out of the old neighborhood store this year.

He says: "That is something I never thought I'd live to see."

Born in Kiev on May 2, 1912, Victor Cohen landed in Baltimore from the Ukraine at age 12, graduating from City College in 1929. Working his way through the ranks of the A&P grocery chain -- known as 'grandma' to employees -- young Vic learned to cut meat during the Depression and made store manager at 19. By 1940, he owned small markets under his own name on Park Heights Avenue near Pimlico and in Windsor Hills.

In those neighborhoods, Mr. Cohen was beholden to the bargain. Yet he longed for a store where customers wouldn't mind paying more for fresh raspberries, good chocolate, aged beef, home delivery, and ultra-attentive employees.

He found it while taking a Sunday ride along Roland Avenue.

"In no way could Park Heights Avenue and Windsor Hills support what I had in mind. Roland Park could afford it, so I decided to have the best," says Mr. Cohen, who became friends with the likes of Ogden Nash and Milton Eisenhower along the way. "Oh, it was exciting. Our sales nearly doubled every year."

Even if they can afford it, not everyone will pay Eddie's prices for everyday items.

"We use Eddie's to entertain," says Vivienne Wilson, a longtime resident. "But the Giant is cheaper. It's that simple."

Compared with Pimlico, Roland Park was uptown.

And compared to the Kiev of the Bolshevik Revolution, it was the Garden of Eden.

Mr. Cohen remembers: "My father was a successful lumberman but that went in the revolution. Then he became a baker, but there was terrible hunger. One day I had to go home with a loaf of bread and all of a sudden there was a mob of people chasing me for it. I hung on to it for life, running like crazy. Finally I made it to our apartment house -- like a fortress with big iron gates. I slipped inside, safe with the bread."

Victor's Market, a small grocery specializing in fresh meats, remained next to Morgan Millard from 1944 until 1976.

In 1953, he expanded by buying Eddie's Supermarket a few blocks north at 5113 Roland Avenue. In 1976, Victor's left its original address for an honored spot inside Eddie's, where discriminating palates find Leo Denisuk behind the meat counter.

"The average American can't recognize a good cut of meat anymore," says Mr. Denisuk, who began his apprenticeship in 1939 at age 10 in Dundalk. "Everything is wrapped in plastic and forced on you.

"I'd say more than 60 of our old customers have died in the last couple of years. The new generation doesn't know how to cook, but if you show them and it works out, you've got them for life."

To ensure there will always be a good man with a blade behind the counter, Ms. Kaplow intends to apprentice young people to Mr. Denisuk and his colleague, Charlie Hatfield, 76, who recently returned to Eddie's after a 10-year retirement.

Forty years ago, Mr. Hatfield taught newlywed Margaret "Lou" Pine, a Roland Park native, how to prepare meat. Years later, she helped organize an in-store retirement party for Mr. Hatfield that included a $2,500 check from customer contributions.

"He literally taught all of us young brides to cook," says Mrs. Pine. "I think he's the one who put up the sign: 'Our meat is aged, our fish is fresh and our butchers are both.' "

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