Did you hear the one about two immigrants who decided to launch a brand new food shopping idea in the middle of the Great Depression? Believe it or not, that’s just how Giant supermarket began in DC.

Nehemiah Cohen, a grocery store owner, and Samuel Lehrman, a food distributor, met on the job while living in Pennsylvania. They decided to partner in opening a “supermarket,” a totally new concept in the food industry. At the time, going shopping meant telling the shopkeeper what you wanted and then waiting while he gathered your items from around the store. Cohen and Lehrman wanted to try the new concept: self-service and discounted prices.

The first Giant supermarket opened at Georgia Avenue & Park Road, NW, in February 1936. Cohen and Lehrman choose Washington for their business venture, hoping federal workers would provide a strong market even during the Depression. The idea worked.  Food prices dropped by over one third in the first year, and Giant Food soon became one of the leading businesses in the Washington region as well a leader in corporate philanthropy. By the 1950s, Giant Food had grown into a regional chain with more than 50 stores in the city and suburbs.

First Giant store, Park Road & Georgia Avenue, NW, Washington, DC, unknown date. Image Courtesy of Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation.

Giant went on to hire the industry’s first consumer advocate, who worked with government and industry to develop and test consumer programs, including unit pricing and nutrition labeling. It became also the first supermarket chain to have computer-assisted checkout scanning equipment used chain-wide. Giant Food remained a locally owned family business until 1998. Today it has over 170 stores in the mid-Atlantic region.

 

The Giant Difference

Thanks to Giant’s commitment to customer service and a congenial store atmosphere, customers over the years often refused to shop anywhere else, leading to the slogan, “That’s my Giant!” To celebrate Giant’s 75th birthday, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW) gathered memories of the store from community members, who said things like:

  • “Giant took care of its employees in ways its competitors did not. They closed on what would have been lucrative holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, so its employees could be with their families.”
  • “My father was an executive with Giant for 22 years until his retirement…I have many wonderful memories of time spent at the office with my Dad and our Giant family.”
  • “[The Giant founders] were wonderful people who took in many refugees and gave them starts in a new life.”
  • “What a great first impression the Van Ness Store made. We had moved from NY where the supermarkets were grungy, cramped, narrow lanes and the fruit was often less than fresh. The Giant Store had carpeting, wide aisles and was super clean. What a delight!”

 

Preserving the History

Samuel Lehrman (left) and Nehemiah Cohen (right), unknown date.
Image Courtesy of Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation

In 2011, archivists from the JHSGW completed a project funded by the Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundationto preserve the history of Giant Food through oral histories and archival cataloging. In addition to the Giant Food Archival Collection, which includes business records and an extensive set of photographs and negatives, the project also includes 17 oral history interviews with Giant associates, members of the Cohen and Lehrman families and family friends. A selection of the photographs may be seen at the JHSGW online catalog and a video featuring oral history excerpts is on the YouTube channel.