So, imagine you are doing your Saturday afternoon grocery shopping at the local supermarket. All of a sudden a motorcade pulls up. Out pops the Queen of England and the royal prince. They walk into the store and begin to wander the aisles, indulging in the free samples and chatting with customers. After a few minutes they exit the store, get back in their limo and drive off.
Seems pretty far fetched, right? Well, maybe so, but that is exactly what patrons at the (aptly named) Queenstown Giant Food store in West Hyattsville experienced in October 1957.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip came to the United States to take part in the 350th Anniversary celebration of the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia — the first permanent English settlement in America. (Nice of them to come, considering the subsequent unpleasantness, which resulted in the American Revolution ... but I digress.) After the festivities, they traveled to Washington, D.C. to stay with President Eisenhower at the White House and, it seems, experience a little Americana.
On the afternoon of Oct. 19, the royal party attended the University of Maryland football game where they watched the Terps trounce North Carolina, 21-7. On their way back to the White House they stopped in at the supermarket at the Queen’s request. Acting Assistant Manager Donald A. D’avanzo led them on a tour as surprised customers gawked and trailed behind.
The royal encounter made for a memorable afternoon for all involved as D’avanzo told the Washington Post:
“I’ll never forget it. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I can’t even eat my dinner. I knew Phillip was behind us on the tour but I was concentrating on the Queen so much that I hardly saw him until he left. I was so amazed and scared.”
The royal visitors seemed particularly fascinated by the selection of non-grocery items in the store, which included toiletries, school supplies, and Halloween costumes. They were also intrigued by the fact that customers could select their own items in the store and pay up front. What a novel concept!
Actually, it’s probably fitting that the Queen’s first experience at an American grocery store happened at a Giant. It was the first big supermarket chain to take off in the Washington area (in 1936) and represented a departure from the way earlier groceries had operated. Giant’s founders, N.M. Cohen and Samuel Lehrman strove to replace high price markups with high volume and self-service. That made for a very different shopping experience for customers — and royal visitors, too, apparently!
If you want to learn more about Giant Food’s local history, check out this article by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. JHSGW is working to preserve the company’s historical archives, photographs, and signage – including the "Big G" that adorned the now closed Queenstown store.
“Queen Strolls Into Supermarket, Electrifies Weekend Shoppers,” Washington Post, 20 October 1957: A1.