Julia Waldbaum, left, with her son Ira Waldbaum.

Julia Waldbaum, left, with her son Ira Waldbaum. Credit: NEWSDAY/CLIFF DE BEAR

Note: This story was originally published in Newsday on Oct. 2, 1996.

Julia Waldbaum, whose picture and recipes in advertisements made her the most public face of her family's chain of grocery stores, died in her sleep Monday night in her Floral Park, Queens, apartment. She was 99.

Waldbaum, who was buried yesterday at Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, was remembered as "the first lady of the supermarket industry" who often visited Waldbaum's stores to check on the customer service and greet employees. Often viewed as a celebrity, Waldbaum was approached by shoppers who told her about the success and failure of her recipes.

In the Waldbaum family, said Joan Sierchio of Sea Cliff, one of Waldbaum's 10 grandchildren, "Love is food." To her grandchildren and to millions of customers, Waldbaum passed on this tradition by sharing family recipes for cakes, brisket and other dishes.

"She was the glue that bound us together," Sierchio said. "She gave us unconditional love and support . . . She was someone to admire, and I do, and I miss her desperately already."

She was an unforgettable presence at the stores, also. Stanley Lang said he met Waldbaum more than 30 years ago, when he was a stock clerk in the Waldbaum's in Oceanside and she stopped to chat with him, as she did with all the employees.

"All of the employees would say, Hello, Mrs. Waldbaum, it's nice to see you,' " said Lang, who left the company in 1993 as Waldbaum's president after 37 years. "And she would have a nice greeting and a smile."

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Even after Waldbaum's was purchased in 1986 by the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co., which also owns A&P grocery stores, Waldbaum was consulted by the company on holiday dishes and traditions, said David Smithies, president of the 91-store chain.

"She was really a symbol and the tradition of what Waldbaum's was all about over the years - a family company that related well to its customers and had a lot of Old World traditions," Smithies said.

When the company informed customers that Waldbaum was celebrating her 95th birthday, more than 3,000 people sent cards and letters, family members said.

The daughter of Harry and Anna Leffel, Waldbaum was born on July 4, 1897, in Manhattan. She grew up in a house on DeKalb Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, down the street from the first Waldbaum's store, opened in 1904 to sell butter and eggs, said her only son, Ira Waldbaum of Delray Beach, Fla.

A 50-pound bag of sugar from Waldbaum's led to a meeting between Julia Leffel and Israel (Izzy) Waldbaum, said Ira Waldbaum.

During World War I, Julia's mother asked Izzy Waldbaum if he could get her some sugar, which was hard to come by during wartime. Izzy Waldbaum found a 50-pound bag of sugar and offered to deliver it to the Leffel household and saw Julia, who shopped every day in the store. "He said he was in love with her when he saw her shopping in the store," Ira Waldbaum said.

Izzy Waldbaum, 28, waited until Julia turned 21 to propose, and they married soon afterward, their son said. In 1927, the year Ira was born, the family moved to Flatbush and Izzy Waldbaum opened a store there on Coney Island Avenue.

The Waldbaums eventually had three children, Ira, Phyllis and Shirley.

When Izzy Waldbaum was 55, he died of kidney disease. At the time, Ira Waldbaum, then 20, took over the family business, while his mother continued to nurture the family. A few years later, Ira Waldbaum said yesterday, he decided that his mother's picture and recipes should be used in advertising.

"I just decided it was good for my mother and good for the business," he said. "She was very proud of it, and all of the children and grandchildren were proud of it."

The public relations campaign made her the face of Waldbaum's. After that, most of the mail that came to the company - whether complimentary or critical - was addressed to her, her son said.

In the late 1940s, Waldbaum's added meat and produce to its usual stocks of mostly dairy products and became one of the first supermarkets.

When the company opened a new store, Julia Waldbaum and her children and grandchildren would make an appearance. "Customers loved to say hello to Julia Waldbaum. She had something of a celebrity status among the grocery shoppers of the world," her son said. "They felt it was their store . . . We all felt like the business was part of us."

Even former grocery competitors remembered Waldbaum fondly yesterday.

"I think she was one of the most noble women I've ever met in my life," said Mel Weitz, the founder of Food Town who met the Waldbaums in the 1940s, when he was a stock clerk at another supermarket in Brooklyn.

At that time, there were several grocery stores vying for business in Brooklyn, but Waldbaum's, which catered early on to the Jewish community by stocking fresh lox, whitefish and other products, was the most successful supermarket chain in Brooklyn, Weitz said.

Today, the Central Islip-based chain is Long Island's largest employer, but only two of Julia Waldbaum's family members, grandson Arthur Waldbaum and grandson-in-law Aaron Malinsky, still work with the company.

In 1991, the family's brick house in Flatbush was severely damaged in a fire, and Waldbaum moved to the North Shore Towers in Floral Park, Queens.

For many years, the Waldbaum Family Foundation has donated money to various charities. In February, North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset is scheduled to open the Julia and Israel Waldbaum Dialysis Center for patients with severe kidney failure.

Waldbaum also raised three of her grandchildren, after her daughter Phyllis died several years ago.

As Waldbaum grew older, she went to the stores less frequently and spent more time with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Sierchio said. After Sierchio's father died when Sierchio was very young, Waldbaum called the young girl every day to tell her that she loved her. "That's something that can't be replaced," Sierchio said.

Waldbaum's other survivors include a brother, Alfred Leffel of Syosset; a sister, Sylvia Goldman of Riverdale; a daughter, Shirley Waldbaum Witkin of Clearwater, Fla.; 10 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.

"We were all blessed with a legacy of unconditional love and left very rich in beautiful memories," Sierchio said. "Although we're very sad, we're rejoicing in what she did with her 99 years . . . That's the secret strength of this family. Everyone should be so lucky."

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