Louis Fanaroff’s 2005 obituary in the Washington Jewish Week aptly began, “It might be said that Louis Fanaroff was destined for the grocery story business.” Indeed, he was born above his parents’ Anacostia DGS grocery store in 1921. His father Nathan ran the mom-and-pop shop for nearly 30 years.
In 1946, after serving in the Army during WWII, Louis Fanaroff bought his own grocery store in the Wardman Park Hotel. At the time, this Woodley Park hotel was inhabited by a who’s-who of Washington’s elite. These politicians, socialites and Supreme Court justices enjoyed access to amenities like Fanaroff’s grocery story as well as a post office, salon, florist and dressmaker.
Fanaroff’s children recall that residents who hailed from abroad often asked their father to find products and brands that reminded them of home. One result was that he started selling yogurt before most Washingtonians had heard of it.
Fanaroff left the Wardman Park after several years and bought Spund’s Market, a Cleveland Park establishment, with his brother-in-law, Stanford Steppa. After selling Spund’s in 1965, the pair purchased Magruder’s a couple years later and changed Washington’s grocery landscape forever.
Magruder’s had a long history in DC. In 1875, 26-year-old John H. Magruder purchased the grocery store at 1417 New York Avenue NW, where he had worked for 10 years. Over the next decades, Magruder opened a branch location just north of Farragut Square and consolidated his other stores.
The Washington Post described the store as known for its “fine groceries and table luxuries.” In 1926, John Magruder died, and the business was passed onto his children. By then, his store had become a city institution, celebrating anniversary after anniversary.
In 1967, after 92 years of ownership, the Magruder family sold the business, including its two locations in Georgetown and Chevy Chase Circle, to Fanaroff and Steppa. A few years later, the pair decided to cut prices to appeal to a broader patronage and compete with the bigger chains.
Over the next decades, a time when many family-owned businesses were closing because of competition from major grocery chains, Fanaroff and Steppa continued to expand Magruder’s across the metropolitan region. Renowned for their produce, some shoppers thought Magruder’s had their own farm!
There were 10 to 12 Magruder’s locations at any one time, and the stores became a favorite shopping spot for many area residents from Annandale to Annapolis. When the Chevy Chase Circle location temporarily closed due to fire damage in 1984, Northwest Current reporter Gertrude S. Cleary wrote of her affection for the store: “I never have out-of-town guests leave without a trip to Magruder’s.” She also declared that she “wouldn’t think of buying mushrooms anywhere else.”
This customer loyalty helped keep the business strong into the twenty-first century. Then, in January 2013, with increased competition from newer chains like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, Magruder’s announced they were selling most of their stores. Only the flagship store in Chevy Chase, with Steppa as president, remains as one of the oldest family-owned grocery stores in DC.
Top photo: Nathan Fanaroff’s grocery, 1601 Good Hope Road SE. JHSGW Collections, gift of Magruder’s.