When I was old enough to go to sleep away camp but too young to have any sense of the size of the world, Silver Spring seemed far away from Bethesda, although truth me told it was just minutes by car. I would hear my friends talk about the wonderful Snider’s Market, then a small, local grocery store, but already special. Twenty years later, his son, Steve Snider, a partner in a major law firm, would become a client. Another 15 years would pass and he would become one of our outside counsel. Through all the years, he would always be a guiding light and friend. In a moving tribute to his 90-year-old father, who just sold the business, a beautiful piece was published in the Washington Business Journal. It is part commemoration, part business guide on the difference great customer and employee relations makes. It will add a lump to your throat and a tear to your eye, not to mention, making you long for a good bagel or corn beef on rye. For the original, longer version, please see below.
Snider’s Super Foods: Locally World Famous
In every industry, there is a golden era. During WWII, manufacturing of thousands of planes and ships for the war effort; post-WWII, the massive expansion of the housing industry as veterans moved to the suburbs; in the 1960’s, the focus on engineering as we prepared for our moon voyage; in the 1970’s, expansion of the defense industry and basic sciences with all of their incredible engineering advances, including many that would later be transformed to consumer products; in the 1980’s, the growth of services industries—from consulting to law and others; in the 1990’s, DARPA’s creation of the internet that ushered in the internet age; in the early 2000’s, interconnectivity with iPhones and advances in biomedicine; and, now, with Covid-19, rapid advances in every industry imaginable.
Through all of these changes, there was a constant—Snider’s Super Foods—a grocery store that proudly served its community—knowing customer’s first names, knowing when certain customers would shop each week and calling if they did not arrive on time, sending Gifford’s fresh strawberries when it ran out while preparing its fresh ice cream, offering unique products that were not available at the time because the two major supermarkets, Safeway and Giant, had a formula focused on the size and number of stores but not product mix. Indeed, Snider’s was the first in Washington to provide home delivery (beginning in the 1950’s), but stopped after gas increased above thirty cents.
There were other local grocery stores—Magruder’s, Cook’s, Chevy Chase Market and Shopper’s, all of which competed primarily against the two major chains, Safeway and Giant, which, at their peak, controlled more than 80% of the Washington area grocery market. As time passed, these local grocery stores passed. And now, the original Snider’s is being sold, ending the golden era of the family owned grocery store.
Snider’s was the “little store that could.” During its tenure, Snider’s grew from serving customers behind the counter to a full self-service supermarket selling some of the finest meat in the area (its original slogan was “Meat That Can’t Be Beat”), organic foods and a unique variety of merchandise. The more things changed, though, the more they remained the same. Every morning, employees prepared fresh cole slaw, potato salad, tuna fish salad (the best in DC), whitefish salad (to die for) and chopped liver (to die for a second time). And, who can forget the Havarti cheese, herring (cream or red wine) and whole white fish.
Snider’s was “locally world famous.” Upon learning of the sale, Gus Bauman, former chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board and a customer for almost four decades, wrote, “Whenever I have traveled over the decades, if I run into someone from Silver Spring, which covers a large area, and we are figuring out if we are near or far from each other ‘back home,’ invariably, I have learned to just say, ‘I live near Snider’s grocery.’ And invariably, they know exactly what I’m talking about. Ah, Snider’s! You have a storied name around these parts.”
Snider’s was founded by Louis Snider, who originally sold fruits and vegetables door-to-door from a team of horses and wagon in Kansas City, Missouri. When Louis and his wife Lena (who were both Ukrainian immigrants) moved to Washington DC in 1922, they opened a small grocery store on Georgia Avenue. Every morning, before dawn, they would drive to the wholesale market at New York and Florida Avenues, now the site of Union Market. Louis and Lena’s two children, Jerry (who passed away in 2009) and David, began working at the small grocery store on Georgia Avenue at the ages of 10 and 8, long before child labor laws were enacted.
By 1938, what was then called Snider’s Market, moved to University Boulevard and Colesville Road in Silver Spring. In 1946, a second store opened at Georgia Avenue and Dale Drive in the Montgomery Hills section of the city. At the time, Georgia Avenue was one lane in each direction, not the eight-lane artery it is today. Business thrived at that location and the family bought a nearby piece of land where the current Snider’s Super Foods sits. That store opened in 1961. The ”new” store, now 60 years old, was originally 11,200 square feet, three times the size of the prior Snider’s Market, but a minnow compared to the 20,000 square foot Safeway and Giant stores of the day.
Business was brisk so in 1990, three decades after the new store opened, Snider’s expanded by adding 1,500 square feet. Gus Bauman recently provided the real scoop on the expansion. He wrote that the annual growth policy at the time placed significant restrictions on where and when development could occur, including severe restriction regarding proposed Silver Spring projects due to traffic and historic preservation. The anti-growth policy made any expansion of Snider’s very difficult to approve given how the law was written. Within Bauman’s committee, however, a novel exception emerged for small grocery store expansions inside the Beltway that had Metrobuses passing within a block.
Wrote Gus Bauman, “At the public hearing that I subsequently chaired, every civic group in the Snider’s area testified. Please give them whatever they want. Every member of my Board (they lived in Garrett Park, Chevy Chase, Potomac, Bethesda) readily agreed. Each Board member noted in supporting the motion to approve the Snider’s expansion that they often stopped there to shop when in Silver Spring. Special mentions were made about the deli, meats, and produce. One Board member expressed some envy that ‘the Chairman just walks to the store.’ The vote was a very rapid 5-0.”
When Jerry passed away in 2009, the only major competitors were Safeway and Giant. The greatest threat was the reopening of the Safeway in Kensington. After Whole Foods, Costco, Aldi’s and others arrived in the area, the little guys started to close. First Food Fair, followed by Best Buys, Cook’s, Magruder’s, Chevy Chase Market and Shopper’s.
David’s kids worked in the store throughout high school and college but they ultimately pursued other careers. From the outset, Jerry’s kids were not interested in the business. Jerry had enjoyed the golden era with his brother, David, but never could have survived the tsunami that was on the way.
Competition now includes Safeway stores in downtown Silver Spring, Wheaton and Kensington; Whole Foods in downtown Silver Spring; Giant stores in Silver Spring and Wheaton; Amazon, Peapod, Instacart and other home delivery services; and Aldi’s, which recently opened a store in the Seminary Place Shopping Center across the street from Snider’s. The greatest impact on Snider’s was the opening of Costco at Wheaton Plaza Shopping Center. Costco provided access to very low prices, a significant positive for the community. But it was an example of the government picking winners, in this case for Costco, a company that grossed $100 billion in gross revenue in the year Montgomery County provided a grant of $10m to lure Costco to Wheaton Plaza, $6m for a new garage and $4m as an outright grant.
But Snider’s stayed the course, still providing fresh, high quality foods, value, service and variety. It continued to give 5% of its gross sales to local schools when customers returned their receipts to the store, a practice that started years before social investing was in vogue and continues to this day. Snider’s also continued to be a retail outlet for local bakers, farmer’s, cooks and craft beer brewers to test their products in a grocery store. Snider’s was among the first to sell Silber’s baked goods from Baltimore, New York Bakery bagels, Hebrew National hotdogs, Utz potato chips, Peter Luger’s steak sauce, Greek Table dinners, Berger cookies, Kava humus and tzatziki, milk and eggs from a local dairy in Frederick, turkeys from the Pennsylvania Amish country, fresh peaches, corn and cantaloupe from the Eastern Shore and Souper Girls soups. It also now boasts one of the widest selections of craft beer and wine in the area.
Snider’s hired neighborhood kids to bag groceries–for many, their first jobs. He took pride as these kids moved up the ladder at the store–to become a cashier or stocker. He took greater pride when they “graduated” from Snider’s to attend college, become orthodontists and lawyers, start their own businesses, become officials in Federal, State and local governments and more. Wrote local accountant Abba Blum when he learned of the store’s sale, “I have many fond memories of trudging in the snow when Snider’s was the only store open or visiting my brother as he was stocking produce.”
David was fiercely loyal to his employees, a feeling that was reciprocated. Alex Xenochristos, the General Manager, arrived in Washington from Greece 49 years ago unable to speak any English. He started bagging groceries and rose through the ranks to his current position. Terry Sweet, a manager of the front end and the self-proclaimed spokesman for the store, has worked at Snider’s for over 19 years, dressing as Santa Clause at Christmas and frequently attending customer birthday parties. Ali Farzaneh, the produce manager, has worked at Snider’s for over 25 years; Delano Thomas, who began as a bagger 22 years ago now manages the beer and wine section; John Teran, who rose from stockman to grocery manager, has 36 years of tenure; and Jose Hernandez, the deli manager, Marcos Sosa, the meat manager, and Emmanuel Berhe, a front end manager, have over 50 years of experience.
Jeff Metzger, President/Publisher of Food World and Food Trade News, recently wrote, “What has made Snider’s so unique in an era that is now dominated by corporate chains and big box stores, is its ability to still evolve as a creative merchant, but stay loyal to its roots as a true community supermarket. Need to find a bialy? How about terrific whitefish salad? Throw in excellent customer service and you realize that with only about 12,000 square feet of space, Dave and his late brother, Jerry, found a way to differentiate their store from almost all other retailers in the entire Washington, DC area. Snider’s is like the ‘Cheers’ of supermarkets—it’s a place where everybody knows your name.” Stanley Pearlman, owner of Congressional Seafood, noted, “I love Snider’s and have been shopping there for over 47 years. It never disappoints.”
David was one of the last in a generation of grocers, a 90-year old man who looks back with fondness and pride over a career well spent, a business he loved and community that meant everything to him. David lived and thrived in the golden era of the local, family grocery store.
And now, a new era begins. Streets Market, a Washington-based company founded in 2014 with seven grocery stores in the Washington metropolitan area, will take over Snider’s at the end of August. They will keep the name, the staff, the service, the value and all of the other aspects that have made Snider’s great. David, the ultimate class act who has entered “early retirement” at 90, said, “I loved the business and believe that Streets Market with their youth, energy and experience will be a good steward of Snider’s.”
As we look forward, though, let’s not forget the New York-style pickles in the barrel. It was, indeed, a golden era.