When three young entrepreneurs opened a restaurant in Dupont Circle last year and named it DGS Delicatessen, they were tipping their hats to a DC institution.
The letters “DGS” evoke cherished memories for many Washingtonians—recollections of a neighborhood corner grocery, a friendly shopkeeper and his wife, a bright orange-and-green sign and delicious penny candy.
Before franchises and chains, you could find “mom and pop” shops on many corners across Washington. Shopkeepers often lived above their stores, and their children helped in the store after school. In an oral history, Sidney Gimble remembered that, in his parents’ store, his job was to be behind the candy counter waiting on kids as they came in with their pennies.
Eastern European and Russian Jewish immigrants opened grocery stores in all four quadrants of the city and practiced their English by reading food labels. These families worked hard, long hours, closing for only half a day on Sunday to relax together.
Grocer Joe Muchnick’s oral history recalls, “I didn’t take any vacations for the whole time…8 years…I just had to work.”
Business for the independent grocer was not easy and so, in 1921, a dozen Jewish grocers met in the back of Mike Hornstein’s store to form the cooperative District Grocery Stores, also known as DGS.
DGS secured buying power and fought the discrimination that Jewish grocers often faced from wholesalers. Members also benefited from joint advertising by purchasing full-page ads in local newspapers that featured specials at all DGS stores.
Banquets at hotels like the Mayflower and Willard, Sunday picnics at Hains Point and playing in local sports leagues created a sense of community among the Jewish grocers and their families.
Ruth Compart, whose parents ran a store near Griffith Stadium, remembers, “DGS really became our social outlet…we would get together on Sunday nights.”
When DGS opened a new, modern warehouse in 1940 to meet the needs of its expanding membership, members were better able to compete with new supermarkets. Mrs. Compart recalls that her father looked forward to his early-morning trips to the warehouse at Sixth and C Streets SW. “This was when the men got to see each other and socialize. He really liked that.”
In 1953, The Washington Post lauded the association, saying “DGS has become nationally recognized as one of the largest and most successful cooperative food organizations in the country—a tribute to the cooperative efforts of independent grocers!”
But 20 years later, with the impact of the 1968 riots and supermarkets’ extended business hours, DGS could not afford to stay afloat. In 1972, members voted unanimously to dissolve the cooperative.
When Melvin Jacobson, whose father Isaac was DGS president for 13 years, spoke to The Washington Post in 2010, he fondly recalled that DGS “had a good run and they helped a lot of people who owned the stores. And, of course, it gave the people in the neighborhoods a decent place to shop.”
Today, while “mom and pop” stores are a rarity, DGS Delicatessen brings memories of a Washington dotted with orange-and-green DGS signs.
Top photo: Immigrants Morris and Jennie Vigderhouse ran a DGS store at 1030 North Capitol Street NW. Pictured here are Jennie and two of their children with a shop employee, late 1920s.JHSGW Collections