This Is How Mamma Planned It

Ida Steinberg had five sons, $200 and an idea. Now her boys have 28 groceterias which are among the best on the continent, and gross about $60 millions a year. None of which would have surprised Mamma in the least

EVA-LIS WUORIO July 15 1950

This Is How Mamma Planned It

Ida Steinberg had five sons, $200 and an idea. Now her boys have 28 groceterias which are among the best on the continent, and gross about $60 millions a year. None of which would have surprised Mamma in the least

EVA-LIS WUORIO July 15 1950

This Is How Mamma Planned It

Ida Steinberg had five sons, $200 and an idea. Now her boys have 28 groceterias which are among the best on the continent, and gross about $60 millions a year. None of which would have surprised Mamma in the least


WHEN the Aluminum Company of Canada decided to build the new town of Arvida on the upper reaches of the Saguenay they invited Steinberg’s to come along, too. The reason for the invitation was that so many of the engineers’ wives had become accustomed to shopping at Steinberg’s in Montreal that they were reluctant to move to a town where their favorite provision merchants didn’t have a store.

Steinberg’s, the grocery chain with such a firm grip on the heartstrings of these housewives, consists of 28 (30 by the end of the year) ultramodern, de luxe, self-serve groceterias, all but two of them in Montreal and its environs. (The others: Ottawa, Arvida.) This vast successful enterprise, which today has about $2 millions worth of groceries on hand daily, was started with $200 worth of them, 33 years ago, in a small Main Street shop in the Jewish section of Montreal, by Ida Steinberg, then the 28-year-old mother of five sons and two daughters.

Today Steinberg’s does a larger volume of business per square foot than any other self-service store and, according to the five boys, that’s due to Mamma.

The boys took over the business when Mamma died in 1942. Sam, second eldest at 44, blond bantam-size dynamo, is president. Jack, 46, is in charge of maintenance. Nathan, 42, ebullient and conversational, is in charge of meats and foods. Serious Max, 38, is in charge of construction. The youngest, Morris, 35, is the grocery buyer. (Father Steinberg, a baker in Hungary, died in 1927. He never took an active part in the grocery business.)

Ida Steinberg was an energetic small woman with a handsome strong face and wide-spaced brown eyes. The $200 with which she started her grocery wouldn’t pay for one cash register in one of the new stores today.

The Steinbergs won’t divulge any figures on their turnover or profits, but Sam (sometimes called Cautious Sam) allowed himself to be trapped one day.

“It’s been reported that you do about $30 millions worth of business a year,” he was asked. “Is this correct?”

Sam permitted himself a smile. “We don’t give out figures,” he said, “but if I didn’t do at least double that amount I’d begin to worry.”

In the first little shop Mamma would only buy the best French Bordeaux walnuts and when she sold them she’d give away a handful for good measure. When Mamma sold apples from the barrel she’d never fail to add a few extra ones to the customer’s bag. Perhaps the Arvida wives (and the wives in Verdun, Lachine, Thetford Mines and other towns in Ontario and Quebec who have asked for a Steinberg store) didn’t know about Mamma, but they’d heard of incidents that derive from that first barrel of apples and that strict choice of the best walnuts.

Such as the time Nathan Steinberg figured out how to get corn on the cob from the fields into the customers’ shopping bags before it could get dry

and tough. On the outskirts of Montreal he interviewed a group of farmers and offered them bonus prices if they would pick the com at night and deliver it to Steinberg’s for morning shop-opening.

The first night he went out to watch the ghostly scene of corn-picking by truck lamp beams along the St. Lawrence shores. But by the third day he was told the farmers were not going to work at night any longer. The dew was too heavy in the high cornfields.

Nathan rubbed his hand over his balding head, loosened his loud tie and wondered what Mamma would have done. In a minute he had it. Steinberg’s presented all the corn-picking farmers with raincoats and high boots. And fresh corn kept flowing into the shops.

Then there was the time last Christmas when Montreal faced a turkey shortage. Nathan found a lot of turkeys out in Calgary, but time was getting short. He took the plunge and had two carloads sent to Montreal at express rates.

“Those turned out to be pretty expensive birds, but our customers had turkeys. We didn’t make any, but we didn’t lose any,” he reports. Mamma had always drummed it into the boys that the customer has to be satisfied.

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Just as good business were the big ads the Steinbergs ran when, a couple of years ago, they began to fly fish from Yarmouth, N.S., to Montreal. There’d be the maritime picture of a fishing fleet setting out at 5 a.m., landing with the catch at the home port at 11 a.m. Then in the salty sunlight the Montreal-bound fish were filleted, refrigerated, put on the plane, and less than 24 hours after they were hauled out of the sea they’d be in Steinberg stores selling briskly.

They have flown in strawberries, too. They tell of a woman who turned up at the Belanger Street store one day, sampled a strawberry, and declared in Prince Edward Island drawl that she knew the very patch where that berry had come from—just outside Charlottetown. For curiosity’s sake Nathan tried to check on this and found out it could easily have been possible. Some of the berries had been bought from that very grower.

One January the apple market was deader than Julius Çaesar. Steinberg’s had encouraged the apple growers to build cold storages for their fruit. These were packed, but people didn’t want apples. So the 28 Steinberg stores baked and displayed giant apple pies (later donated to hospitals or charitable groups) and offered a peeling knife of good steel free with every basket of apples. They gave away 27,000 peeling knives, which meant 27,000 58-cent' baskets of apples sold, and the cold storages of Montreal emptied of their last apple.

This year the Steinbergs turned their minds to promoting the British Columbia Newton apple. They baked a giant pie again. It was 49 inches across, weighed 150 lbs. and required 10 lbs. of flour, 7 lbs. of shortening, 90 lbs. of Newton apples and 20 lbs. of sugar.

Montrealers were encouraged to bake their own pies of less heroic proportions and write to explain why they liked Newton apples in a pie. The prizes for best letters were bags full of groceries and apples. Again the crop was sold out and the storages emptied.

When the Steinbergs were looking for suitable homes for their first batch of giant pies they ran into somewhat suspicious opposition. The sisters at

the Ste. Justine Hospital for Crippled Children were asked if they’d accept a pie as a treat for the kids. “What do they want us to do for it?” they asked hesitantly.

They were assured it was just a gift. Warily the nuns accepted.

Next time there were pies to give away (and ice cream to go with them) the reception at Ste. Justine’s was entirely different: fluttery, warm and gay-

Things are very different now for the Steinbergs from the time Sam quit school at 14 to deliver groceries for Mamma. He was a wiry, small, curlyhaired kid with a handcart and a memory which made him recall, at a Westmount party the other day, the address of an early customer.

“You used to live at 1523 Esplanade, didn’t you?” he asked a fellow guest.

“Yes. How did you know?”

“I delivered groceries there for you 30 years ago,” said president Sam.

Carriage Trade Came By

The family lived in two rooms above 4423 Main Street where the first store, a deep and narrow little place, was located. Mamma’s two maxims were cleanliness and superior goods. She was lucky having five boys.

Nathan Steinberg laughs: “Scrub-

bing every inch of that store with soap and water on our hands and knees every Saturday was as inevitable and unavoidable as a Saturday bath.”

“Mamma,” Sam said once in those early days, “you’re selling those expensive French walnuts for the same price people down the street sell the cheaper

“That’s why people keep coming back,” Mamma said.

“But where’s the profit?”

“We don’t lose any on them,” Mamma said.

Those were the days when half the fun for a customer used to be bargaining. Thirty minutes for the sale of a pound of coffee was par on that con versational course.

“Why do you waste so much time with those people who always buy only one thing?” Sam would protest.

“They go away satisfied,” said Mamma. “You must keep the customers happy.”

Ida Steinberg and her sons, almost hidden by huge shopping baskets, were a familiar sight at the Bonsecours market, in those early Montreal mornings. .The tradition of the careful Steinberg shopping and the willingness to pay top prices for top goods has grown with farmers to the point where, these days, they wait until a Steinberg buyer appears and let him set the prices.

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At first by word of mouth the news about a good little shop on the Main got around. Many of the supplying farmers had relatives in the city who knew that the goods at Steinberg’s were first-class quality. Through the kitchens the word reached the parlors and carriage trade from Westmount began to arrive. Mamma Steinberg bought the store next door, then another one in 1926 on Bernard Avenue. By 1930 there were four Steinberg stores, deliveries were made by horse and cart, Jack and Sam were working full time and young Nathan, Max and Morris were at high school.

A Giveaway in Ottawa

“Mamma’s idea was that we should work together,” Nathan says. “Of course, there was the normal family squabbling. Whichever of the boys got up first snitched the best shirts and ties—that sort of thing. But we’ve always worked together and we all still like getting together in the evenings, though we’re married now and all have families.”

They’ve based their job of selling groceries on Mamma’s maxims and on research, psychology, and shrewd acumen of opportunity. It’s paid off. Last month they opened their Queen Mary Road Store, the largest self-serve shop in Canada. American chain-store operators send observers to look at Steinberg methods. At a recent international food conference Gerald Huxley, British head of the International Tea Bureau, judged them the world’s finest merchandisers.

The Steinberg brothers, looking up from their poached eggs in the bleak employees’ cafeteria at the Hochelaga Street warehouse, any workday noon hour, will smile modestly and say they’re only trying to do their best.

Their best includes a lot of firsts in Canadian marketing. They were first in 100% self-service in meats; first to put in a conveyor bejt in getting merchandise to the cashbox; first to have music piped into the stores; first to introduce a self-service coffee grinder and the day-by-day fresh eggs. Their parking lots beside the stores were an innovation in their day; their advertising is novel to the point of winning awards regularly.

Constant promotion keeps Steinberg’s in the news. Sometimes these stunts have an unexpected extra twist. Such as the surprise end to the Steinberg’s cooking school in Ottawa. There were daily raffled prizes, including toasters, bags of groceries and fruit, for the housewives attending. On the fifth day two plain-clothesmen turned up. “It’s illegal,” they stated, “to raffle for prizes.”

“Is it illegal,” asked the Steinberg’s man, “to give them away?” The detectives didn’t think it was. So the 750 women attending the class lined up and the prizes of toasters, as well as the display of groceries, canned goods, flowers and fruit, were handed out. Everyone got something. It was quite legal. And it did nothing to harm the Steinberg name in Ottawa.

In 1938 the Quebec Government congratulated Steinberg’s for raising the quality of egg production in the province and pointed out that Steinberg’s had sold more eggs in the year than the whole Dominion had exported. This year Steinberg’s will sell more than 25 million eggs.

Even in the depression years between 1931 and 1934 the Steinbergs opened

11 stores. Their program includes five new stores each year. They go about this with scientific precision. No longer will there be headaches such as the Masson Street store, which was built out upon fields which seemed a likely place for a building boom. The boom didn’t materialize and for years the store was a total loss until the city finally grew around it.

Steinberg researchers now pore over a huge map of Montreal figuring on population centres and population movements. Then the construction department under Max (Interviewer to Max: “Did you study architecture?”

Sam answers: “No, he studied delivering groceries by horse and cart.”) sets to work. The new Steinberg stores look like the newest movie theatres: full-

view, aluminum-trimmed glass fronts, shiny bright façade, columnless interiors in fluorescent-lighted pastel shades, wide aisles.

The counters are at eye level, spotless, all open. The selection is based on Sam’s maxim, “The secret of self-service is that the item must be on the counter or you lose the sale.” Each month each store manager gets a bright sales promotion booklet which advises on everything from how to stack his celery most attractively (many vegetables are packaged; all are trimmed and washed; same price) to what to expect in way of sales (“Be geared for heavy traffic—cake sales in May have always jumped 20 to 25% over April”).

All baked goods, meat pies, cakes (made in Steinberg’s own kitchens) are dated. A day-old item is reduced by five to 20 cents.

During the war when refrigerator counters could not be exported from the U. S. the Steinbergs began to build their own. They also evolved bigger and better shoppers’ carriages, with a decorated child’s seat attachment.

In a Steinberg store the shopper moves about to the soft strains of music while the staff, in starched uniforms, is ready to help to pick up the personally picked out order for home delivery.

The Customer Is the Boss

Sam was showing a visitor through the warehouse recently. A young man in overalls looked up at the “Hallo, Jonesy,” and greeted the president of the company with a cheerful “Hi, Sam.” In the Steinberg laundry the Italian foreman was equally informal. “When’s our new quarters going to be ready, Sam? With all our new stores we’re getting crowded here.”

The possessive pronoun “our” slips out easily and is noticeable everywhere. All the more so to a visitor, perhaps, because of the knowledge that friends had advised Mamma Steinberg to change her name—and she hadn’t.

For their 2,000 employees, besides benefits, welfare funds and employment insurance, the Steinbergs have a night school where any who wish may complete gaps in their education. An employee who shows particular promise in a particular line may be called up by personnel manager Sidney Caplan any day. Caplan will say: “Would you

like to become a manager one day? If you would we’d like to shift you through various counters and give you experience in other stores, in merchandising, in English or French, whichever you need, and in management.”

Caplan also will tell a new employee: “It’s not only the way you talk to customers and the way you look at them that’ll make them feel good and welcome—you must want to help

The customer is boss at Steinberg’s; that’s how Mamma planned it. ★