It sure seems like the Mid Atlantic states have more than their fair share of Giant supermarkets. No, I’m not talking about anything on the scale of the one I blogged about in Fairbanks, Alaska a few years ago; that was a Fred Meyer (now a subsidiary of Kroger, the nation’s largest grocery chain), and it was far bigger than any of the Giant supermarkets I’m covering today. The devil is in the details: it’s not an adjective; it’s a proper noun. Or two companies, more specifically. Well, kind of two companies.
Both named Giant.
It’s hard to imagine two other businesses that also operate in heavily overlapping regions, feature a similar number of branches, and opened their first location at relatively similar points in time. But that’s the case with Giant supermarkets. One is headquartered in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and has the official name of The Giant Company (having changed from the name Giant Food Stores in 2020).
The renaming included a minimal retooling of the logo, though it retains the unusual red typeface for the word “Giant”, with a subtle leaf forming part of the A.
The Giant Company began in the same town in which it is headquartered today, starting as Carlisle Meat Market in 1923, though its founder David Javitch decided in 1936 to explore a grocery store concept in Lewisburg (35 miles from Carlisle) that placed produce/perishables and durable goods under one roof—generally unheard of at the time. The Lewisburg concept was a success, so the owner converted the original Carlisle Meat Market to a multi-departmental grocery store (Carlisle Food Market), then replicated it at other locations, growing little by little, eventually shifting to the Giant Foods name, which became the primary brand by the time it reached 18 locations at its fiftieth anniversary in 1973. The Dutch-Belgian wholesale conglomerate Ahold Delhaize (formerly Royal Ahold) purchased Giant Foods in 1981, prompting much more rapid growth. The Giant Company (which I will refer to as Giant-Carlisle from this point onward, for each of distinction) now offers 190 stores, mostly in Pennsylvania, though locations in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia operate under the name Martin’s Foods, a smaller grocery brand that Javitch purchased in 1969. Martin’s Foods is The Giant Company.
Meanwhile, just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, N.M. Cohen and Samuel Lehrman founded Giant Food Shopping Center in Washington DC in 1936. Growth occurred rapidly, as the nascent company seized the opportunity to locate in more automobile oriented “shopping centers” (hence the name), primarily concentrating in Maryland. In the late 1950s, about the same time it changed its name from Giant Food Shopping Center to Giant Food Inc, it went public, moving the headquarters and distribution hub for its 50+ locations to Landover, Maryland. (Again, to distinguish from Giant-Carlisle, I will refer to this Giant supermarket in Maryland as Giant-Landover from this point onward., though let it be known that its official name is Giant Food of Maryland LLC.) Cohen, one of Giant-Landover’s founders, lived all the way to 1995; three years later, this company also accepted a buyout from Ahold Delhaize, thereby making the two Giant supermarket names (Carlisle and Landover) sister companies. Giant-Landover continued expanding at much the same pace as Giant-Carlisle, reaching a current count of 165 stores, mostly in Maryland, but also Washington DC, Virginia, and Delaware. Until 2010, the logo featured the name superimposed over a giant letter “G”.
It has since shifted to what I’d call an “orange slice motif”.
If the thematic overlap between these two Giant supermarkets seems confusing so far, it only gets worse. Giant-Carlisle’s terrain is a bit more northerly than Giant-Landover, but both coincide in Maryland. The epicenter of Giant-Carlisle’s dominion is eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. To avoid confusion, the Giant-Carlisle operations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and even some in central Pennsylvania use the name Martin’s Foods. Therefore, while Giant-Carlisle has more bricks-and-mortar operations under its leadership name, the brand is less visible since so many operate within the Martin’s Foods skin suit. Meanwhile, Giant-Landover has fewer stores but is more concentrated, particularly in the densely populated DC-Baltimore corridor. Both companies target the same middle-income demographic and fundamentally share an aestheticl. The only other major difference is that Giant-Carlisle is primarily non-unionized; Giant-Landover allows unions. More importantly, due to the Ahold Delhaize acquisition, the two Giant supermarkets are less distinct entities now than they were a half-century ago. Though they may still claim two separate management structures, both Giant supermarkets fundamentally report to the same board of directors within a massive, global, publicly traded company.
More than anything, the existence of two overwhelmingly similar companies—up to and including the name—is probably more a testament to how much weaker copyright and other intellectual property laws were in the first half of the previous century, when one Giant supermarket emerged during the 1920s boom and then another came into being just one hundred miles to the south, barely a decade later. And the two Giant supermarkets operated in general harmony and friendly competition for decades after that. Companies today tend to flex their litigation muscles if even a vaguely similarly named company tries to capture part of their market. And now, nearly a century later, it doesn’t really matter much that there are two Giant supermarkets, since they fundamentally share the same conglomerate parent. Outside of logos, promotional tools, membership rewards (I belong to both), and a few subtle details regarding how they display their merchandise, the Giant supermarkets are indistinguishable to the average customer. And easily confused. I was vaguely aware that two companies existed, but I didn’t understand precisely how they sift their services or locations until researching this article.
This branding fuzziness makes one particular old and established location of the Giant supermarkets brand(s) that much more interesting.
Any idea where this beautiful neon sign might come from? Based on all the information I’ve offered, it’s time to apply some deductive reasoning. One thing’s for certain: it’s safe to assume that this link in the chain of Giant supermarkets (Carlisle or Landover) didn’t break ground five years ago. Or twenty years ago. Probably not forty years ago, even. Neon signage had already peaked in the early 1970s, as I’ve noted before, So this neon is almost certainly old—from a time period before Ahold Delhaize had acquired either of the two competing chains. Scanning online for a history of the various logos might offer some insight. So would zooming into the license plates of the cars to see which state pops up most frequently. But, gosh darn it, I stood in a place where no state tags are obvious. It really comes down to the subtlest of details: the absence of a plural indicator in the second word. Giant Food, not Foods. Only one of the two Giant supermarkets has consistently avoided plural: originally Giant Food Shopping Center, then Giant Food of Maryland, LLC.
Yes, this neon sign presides over a Giant-Landover location—specifically one in Laurel, Maryland.
Here’s a “Shopping Center” that helped give Giant Food Shopping Center its original name. The integration of a supermarket with other strip-oriented storefronts is a concept that Giant-Landover largely pioneered. And the “Landover” community of Giant-Landover is only about fifteen miles south of Laurel—elsewhere within the same Prince George’s County just outside Washington DC.
It should go without saying that the brown gateway signage in the photo above is a wee bit more recent than our Giant Food neon. That’s because most of Laurel Shopping Center has undergone at least one or two face lifts over the years, helping it retain viability as a major shopping node to the city of Laurel, a municipality conveniently situated almost equidistant between the downtowns of Baltimore and Washington DC, while being even closer to all the jobs of booming exurb Columbia, MD. Much to my surprise, it’s not hard to find details on the history of Laurel Shopping Center—a pretty conventional strip mall that has demonstrated unconventional durability over six decades. Opening in 1956 on the southern edge of the historic town’s grid, Laurel Shopping Center originally served as the biggest commercial node for quite a radius. It earned a Hecht’s Department Store just a few years later, a DC-based institution the endured across the region for over 150 years, until the Macy’s mergers of the mid-2000s gobbled it up. Hecht’s formed a centerpiece to Laurel Shopping Center until 1981, when Laurel Mall opened just to the south, and it relocated. (Incidentally, Laurel Mall barely survived thirty years; its 2012 closure prompted the development of a more open-air Towne Centre at Laurel where it once stood.) Laurel Shopping Center has survived all this time, even despite earning some notoriety as the locus for two important events: an assassination attempt on presidential candidate (and former Alabama governor) George Wallace, and the site where 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta wired $5,000 to one of his co-conspirators—in none other than the Giant Food.
Today, Laurel Shopping Center looks pretty run-of-the-mill: a medium sized car-oriented shopping node with medium-income stores. The Giant itself looks like every other one that belongs to the Giant-Landover brand. Visible from a distance in the photo below, it retains the orange slice motif that the chain has used since 2010.
In fact, the only major distinguishing feature to Laurel Shopping Center is that glowing indicator of its endurability, standing tall there in the parking lot.
Melvin and Wolford Berman, who developed Laurel Shopping Center with their partner Arthur Robinson, were as big of risk-takers as the Cohen/Lehrman partnership that developed the first Giant Food Shopping Center in the 1930s. (Not so innovative with naming, of course, since Giant-Carlisle came first.) But I must give credit where credit is due; Berman Enterprises, the company that experimented with a shopping center in the semi-rural outpost of Laurel back in 1956, found a perfect tenant with Giant Food Shopping Center—an original tenant that has been here more or less through the entire life of this still-thriving strip mall. And the big neon sign, which almost certainly is nearly as old as the entire shopping center itself, is a testament not just to how long Laurel Shopping Center has survived, but how many years one of the Giant supermarkets has served as an anchor tenant.
It’s hard to imagine in 2023 a similar alignment of stars. Strip malls come and go; conglomerates purchase regional grocery chains and often eradicate everything about them that gave them a familiar, local flair. And I can’t believe that the escalating litigiousness of contemporary American enterprise would ever prompt two competing companies to tolerate sharing a business name. Maybe the fact that one of the two Giant supermarkets was Pennsylvania and the other was Maryland/DC helped to obviate copyright infringement or other IP considerations; state lines mattered a lot more back during the Depression, when one hundred miles was still a considerable distance. As the two Giant supermarkets stretched past their limbs, encroaching into one another’s turf, they both earned legal rights to their brands (and the “Giant” name) through the grandfather clause.
But I’m speculating here. Only one of the Giant supermarkets can claim a 60-year-old neon sign. Yet somehow it remains a testament to the survivability of two separate brands, now sister companies, prevailing amidst corporate acquisitions and dramatically shifting consumer buying patterns. As confusing as their coexistence might be, the two Giant supermarkets have maneuvered around this enough that their customer base really just doesn’t care. Most probably don’t think that hard and don’t scrutinize whether the Giant they go to uses a big red G or a series of orange slices. Unless there’s some weirdo who writes a 2,000-word article about it all. And let’s not even start with another grocery chain, also founded in the Depression, also from Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh): Giant Eagle. That might deserve a whole separate story—if they’ve got a neon sign.