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Voice of Giant Food Says Goodbye

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

Barry F. Scher calculates that he has given roughly 19,680 interviews during his 41 years as the public face of Giant Food. He no longer even waits for the questions. He just doles out answers.

In this, his 19,681st interview, his talking points are scrawled on a sheet of loose-leaf paper: detail his early days at Washington's homegrown grocery store. Mention the time he got to ride on an aircraft carrier in the 1980s. Discuss his grandkids and his golf swing and what he will do with all his free time.

After four decades on the job, Scher retired at midnight Saturday. Now 64, he took his current position with Giant in 1966 as part of its newly formed public relations department and has watched the company grow from a small chain to the region's dominant supermarket, only to be swallowed up by an international conglomerate. Many of the executives who shepherded Giant through its heyday have left.

"I'm the last one standing," Scher said. "It's been a great ride."

Scher started working at Giant when he was 15, bagging groceries for $1.21 an hour in his home town of Richmond. He studied journalism at the College of William & Mary and received a master's certificate in public affairs from American University. He began scouring the classified ads in The Washington Post after graduation. He noticed a posting at Giant and sent in his résumé.

The late Ellie Langsner, former manager of employment, interviewed him, Scher recalled. He quickly scanned Scher's credentials and stopped when he saw Giant.

"We need someone with retail food experience," Scher remembered him saying. "You're hired."

The episode was indicative of the family atmosphere and strong corporate culture that was Giant's hallmark when it was under private control. Giant was founded in 1936 by Nehemiah Meir "N.M." Cohen and Samuel Lehrman. The first store was at Georgia Avenue and Park Road in the District. But it was Cohen's son, Israel, or "Izzy," who is credited with turning Giant into a regional powerhouse.

Izzy Cohen, who died in 1995, ranked among Washington's wealthiest people and was a prominent member of the business community. But he rarely discussed himself or his personal life. That left it up to Scher to field media requests, and he began representing the company at civic functions that Giant's reclusive owners assiduously avoided.

"It fell upon me because there was no one else," Scher said. "Really it was by default [that] I become the contact person for the company."

He has built one of the most enviable Rolodexes in the metropolitan area, including reporters, business leaders, politicians and even Lynda Carter, TV's Wonder Woman.

"He gets the phone calls returned," said Jim Dinegar, chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "But he's also willing to make those phone calls."

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