With the demise, a significant piece of Jewish Detroit history also disappeared.
To say the least, Passover will be different this year. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with social distancing in practice, Jewish families are reconsidering how they will plan for their seders. Indeed, Jewish life is now a matter of virtual bat/bar mitzvahs and Shabbat services. Just the act of gathering matzah, gefilte fish and other Passover groceries will have been an adventure.
I thought about supermarkets and shopping for Passover while cruising the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History this week (while working at home, of course, keeping my social distance). I was especially intrigued by the idea after watching a replay of Sue Marx’s film, “Remember When: The Jewish Community,” which recently aired on Detroit Public TV. In the film, Jerry Cook makes the point that the story of the grocery business in Detroit is also a history of Jews in the city. I did some research and the evidence from the Archive demonstrates that Cook is spot-on.
Today, Kroger, the largest food store chain in the nation, and Michigan-owned Meijer stores dominate the grocery scene in Detroit. There are still independent markets, of course, and a few small chains, but the largest Detroit-based supermarket businesses closed their doors or were bought out years ago. With their demise, a significant piece of Jewish Detroit history also disappeared.
You may remember shopping at Chatham and Farmer Jack or Food Fair, Great Scott and Wrigley’s. All of them were Jewish-owned, family-operated supermarket chains, mostly led by groups of brothers. And they all had grocery items that Jews depended upon.
At Chatham, the Weisberg brothers — Alvin, Peter, Harold, and Bernard — ran the supermarkets. Great Scott was owned and managed by Nate, Leonard, Sam and Zach Fink. There were 53 Great Scott stores when Wrigley’s, a chain operated by John and Nathan Lurie, bought them. Wrigley’s then had more than 100 supermarkets.
The last of the large supermarket chains was Farmer Jack. It was the ancestor of the merged Food Fair and Lucky Markets, whose origins lay in Tom’s Quality Markets, begun by Al and Tom Borman in the 1920s. Al’s son, Paul, was the last Borman in charge of the more than 100 Farmer Jack stores.
Of course, the most famous of the markets in the historic Jewish neighborhood in Detroit was the Dexter-Davidson Super Market — the “House of Foods.” Founded by Norm Cottier in the 1930s, this market catered to the tastes of Cottier’s Jewish neighbors, carrying the foodstuffs they needed for everyday meals and for holidays.
While the chains cited above are long gone, there are still places to shop for Passover. One is Johnny Pomodoro’s, established by Dan Sonenberg and John Taormina in 2008. This market is close to many current concentrations of Jewish households, and it has become a bit of a landmark. It reminds me of the historic advertisements I have found in the Archive for businesses that state, “we are located by the Dexter-Davidson Market.” And, like all the stores cited in this column, it does sell matzah, gefilte fish and other Passover supplies.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.