By John Schaffner
A large old, black-and-white photo hangs on the wall of The Brickery Grill & Bar in Sandy Springs — a photo of a stately gentleman in front of a store with a sign stating L. Alterman & Son. It was the beginning of a family-owned company that dominated the grocery business in metro Atlanta for decades, starting in 1923, when the photo was taken.
The man in the photo was Louis Alterman, grandfather of Brickery owner Bruce Alterman and Steven Alterman, owner of the Horseradish Grill at Chastain Park in Buckhead. They are part of the close family that remains in the food business today, although a different part of the business.
All in the family
L. Alterman & Son, located at 135 Piedmont Rd., started as a wholesale food operation and developed — by the time the company was sold outside the family in 1980 — into a supermarket chain of 110 Big Apple and Food Giant stores, headquartered and operated out of Atlanta.
The son referred to on the sign in the 1923 photo was Isadore “Izzy” Alterman, then 17. He was the oldest son and second oldest of eight children fathered by Russian immigrant Louis, who spoke little English.
The order was Tillie, Izzy, George, Sam, Abe, Dave, Max and Paula. Six of the eight children participated in the family business.
Bruce Alterman recalls that his dad, Max, was three years old when the 1923 photo was taken. Max is the only remaining brother and lives in the Park Place condominiums in Buckhead, the same place where Steven’s mother Sarah lives.
He says the family was so poor back then that his dad grew up with a padlock on the refrigerator and slept with three of his brothers on a sleeping porch, with no heat and in the same bed. None of the brothers went to college; they started in the business while still in high school.
The only brother not involved at the grocery was Abe, who sold pet food instead.
In 1949, the family opened its first retail store on Marietta Street: the Big Apple. By 1968, the company went public on the American Stock Exchange with about 20 stores. “When I came out of college in 1972, they had 40 supermarkets; when we sold it in 1980, we had 101,” Bruce says. Seventy-five to 80 of the 101 stores were in the five-county Atlanta area. They were Food Giant and Big Apple. Then they became Big Apple Discount, a new trend of the times.
”We had a preserving plant, where we manufactured jams and jellies and peanut butter,” Bruce said. “We had an institutional foods division that sold to restaurants, hospitals and hotels. All… in Atlanta.”
At the end of the line in 1980, the company operated out of a 750,000-square-foot facility off Selig Drive in the Peachtree Industrial area. Prior to that, it operated at Whitehall Street and then Lee and Ashby streets.
Learning the family business
“I grew up in the business,” Bruce states. “To get ready for football, I was unloading boxcars. When I came out of college in 1972, my dad walked me down the hall and said Bruce meet Ellis McDonald. Mr. McDonald, teach this young man something about the produce business. He was 62, I was 22 and had just been married. So, that is what I did.”
Steven recalls cutting grass with a swing blade at Lee Street to get ready for football practice. He wanted to go to law school but his father, Dave, gave him a “take one for the Gipper” talking to, saying “I have to have you in the business son.” When Steven left, he was vice president of store operations.
One thing that helped the brothers was that everybody ran their own piece of the business; nobody else told them how to do it. Sam did real estate. Max managed the warehouses and later the stores. Dave did the construction and George was the head buyer for the wholesale division.
There was no organizational chart, but each of the 3,000 employess at the family business had responsibilities. “They called each other by first names,” Bruce explains. “It was a pretty unique culture for a young man like me to cut my teeth. It taught me everything about systems. It taught me how to balance, to separate your life.”
Family was always fundamentally the core, Bruce and Steven agree.
“It is really unbelievable how much of this community is tied to that picture,” Bruce states, referring to the 1923 photo at The Brickery. “They either called on my uncle George, or their mother was a cashier in Riverdale, or….They come in here, or their children do, all the time.”