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."
Scher sits on the board of about a dozen local nonprofit groups, including the Capital Area Food Bank, of which he was one of the founding board members, and the Greater Washington Board of Trade. After one of his sons was diagnosed with a hearing problem, he joined the board of the Treatment and Learning Centers and helped it lobby for nearly $2 million in matching grants from the state of Maryland.
"He's probably the best networker in the business," said Jeffrey Metzger, publisher of trade magazine Food World. "Barry's real value is that nobody's got a contact list like he does."
Scher pulled out a red leather photo album that his wife, Olga, made titled "Olga and Barry's Celebrities Album." There are pictures of Scher with former vice president Dan Quayle, former president Gerald Ford, former president George H.W. Bush and former Maryland governor William Donald Schaeffer.
There is a letter from former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1994 -- before every checkout lane had a credit card machine -- after she was turned away from Giant for not having enough cash to buy daughter Chelsea a snack on the way to a soccer game at Sidwell Friends. (Scher explained to her that the White House has an account with Giant that she could charge anytime.)
There are shots of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, TV personality Mr. T, news anchor Katie Couric, musician John Tesh and a woman who looks vaguely, famously familiar. "We can't remember who she is," he said.
Those were the good times. Giant has been on the rocks in recent years, squeezed between competition from discount supermarkets and high-end grocers. Employee morale has eroded under distant management and painful layoffs. Scher has had to remain Giant's one-man band, though he acknowledged it has been a struggle.
"I had to be a good cheerleader," he said. "There's no turning back. We have to make the best of it."
Three years after Izzy Cohen died, Giant was bought by Dutch conglomerate Royal Ahold. Though it promised few changes to the chain, Ahold was plunged into turmoil after a financial scandal at its Columbia food distribution unit, U.S. Foodservice. Ahold merged Giant in 2004 with its sister chain, Stop & Shop, based in Quincy, Mass., and eliminated more than 600 positions at Giant's headquarters in Landover.
Scher, of course, remained.
"I know where all the skeletons are," he said.
During the merger, someone discovered a neglected vault that held two $100,000 Israeli bonds. No one knew where they had come from or what they were for -- except Scher. He explained that N.M. Cohen had bought them decades ago and petitioned to have them deposited into the now-defunct Giant Food Foundation. He won.
Scher will remain as a consultant to Giant for an undisclosed sum, handling government affairs for the next two years. After that -- cue talking points -- he said he plans to spend time with his grandchildren and perfect his golf swing, closing a chapter in his life and in Giant's.
"I think he cares. He's not doing it just for Giant Food public relations. He becomes invested," said Richard Pavlin, executive director of the Treatment and Learning Centers. "I can't believe he's reached this point. He's the last one of the Cohen dynasty."