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February 6: Giant Food’s First Supermarket

February 6, 2016

giantstoreNehemiah Cohen and Samuel Lehrman opened the first Giant supermarket in Washington, DC on this date in 1936. “At a time when most grocery shopping was done at small stores that specialized in meat, vegetables or canned goods,” writes Anthony Ramirez in the New York Times, “Giant Food helped pioneer large stores that offered a wide variety at low prices, making them especially attractive to cash-strapped customers during the Depression.” In 1995, just under sixty years after opening that first supermarket, the company had nearly 200 stores, at which, according to Ramirez, nearly half of the residents of the nation’s capital shopped for their groceries. Nehemiah Cohen was a rabbi who had emigrated from Palestine after World War I and opened a kosher meat market in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. Samuel Lehrman was a food distributor who provided the financial backing for Giant. According to, the chain was “criticized for bypassing predominantly black neighborhoods, [but] by the mid-1960s Giant did begin to open stores in the inner city. In the rioting that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968... Giant took a leading role in providing food for those made homeless... Giant’s then-president Joseph B. Danzansky also directed a food drive, in which local and national businesses supplied food for demonstrators camped in ‘Resurrection City’ in Washington during a two-week protest to call attention to the poor in America.” The Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation, established thanks to the the success of Giant, makes over $4 million in grants annually in support of peaceful coexistence between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel, reproductive choice and health, environmental preservation, education, and social justice.

“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.” —Former employee, reported by Claire Uziel

Update 8 February 2016 3:20 p.m.: Edited to correct the year in which Giant had 200 stores in DC (1995, not 2016).