The Tenement Museum stands as a monument to the notion that immigrants built America. Without immigrants, we would never have had Google, Santa Claus, . . . or grocery shelves where Asian dried noodles and sauces share space with Andean quinoa, Italian balsamic vinegar, Israeli couscous, and Moroccan anchovies. “American” food today is a delicious blend of flavors gathered from across the world, thanks, in part to Roland Foods – a company founded and run by immigrants.
Roland Foods was founded by Bruno and Suzanne Scheidt, immigrants who fled Germany in 1933 and settled in Paris, only to flee yet again on the eve of World War II, arriving in the U.S. in 1939. Roland Foods grew gradually over the years to become the leading branded specialty food importer in the United States. Today, Roland Foods imports over 1,700 different products from across Asia, South America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
Rachel Feinmark sat down with Charlie Scheidt, CEO of Roland Foods for over 40 years until his retirement, to talk immigrant stories, immigrant food, and immigrant values.
- Tell us a bit about how your parents got to New York and how they came to start Roland Foods.
My parents were originally from Frankfurt, Germany, where they met in the late 1920s, probably 1929. My father was an entrepreneur from the age of 19, when he started in business for himself. He began in the chemical and pharmaceutical business, but after a few years switched to buying and selling food products. In 1933, at the time of the April 1st boycott [Nazi boycott against Jewish businesses], my father fled – literally out the back door across the railroad tracks, and got on a train to Switzerland. After the initial crisis had passed, he returned to Frankfurt and made arrangements to have someone else run his business. By August 1933, he had founded Etablissements Roland in Paris with a minority partner. He had done business under his own name in Germany, but in France he decided that the family name sounded far too German and that Roland, the noble knight in the “Chanson de Roland,” would be a better name for the company. The firm specialized in imported food products. My parents married in Paris, as did my aunt and uncle later on. They were joined by other refugees from Nazi Germany, eventually including my grandparents.
The signs for refugees in Europe, including in France, were increasingly dangerous, and the winds of war were blowing too strong. So my parents decided to give up the good life in Paris and were fortunate to have applied for US visas early enough. They left friends and family behind, arriving in New York at the end of March 1939 with their young niece in tow, thereby saving her life. Things got off to a rough start: you know how things often are for immigrants – there are many plans and things don’t always work out as hoped. They were supposed to be met at the pier in New York by a distant cousin, but when they got there, there was no cousin to pick them up. This became a family joke – how unreliable he was, a version of standing them up at the altar. It turned out he was in the hospital having an emergency appendectomy! But there was no end of teasing about excuses.
My parents were the first family members – of the immediate family [to come to the U.S.]. My father’s brother and sister-in-law and his mother and her husband remained in France, unfortunately. Other family members were caught in Holland and Germany.
Despite being stood up at the pier, my parents figured out where to go and what to do on their own . . . My father had to make a living, and within a month of arriving here, he contacted one of his old suppliers. He told him “I’ve moved to New York, and I’d like to buy some of those good French dried mushrooms I used to buy from you.” And that’s how he started in business in America – with the one supplier. And Roland still buys dried mushrooms from that supplier!
A sequel to the story of the Roland brand, this time in the U.S.: My father went to an American bank to open an account and asked the banker, who had been in America for a while, “Is ‘Roland’ an okay name? Is it offensive or some kind of cuss word in English?” After being assured that it was perfectly fine, he said “Well, it worked for me in Paris, so let’s go for it.”
There was a short window in which my father was able to import these French mushrooms to the U.S., maybe a year, and then that window closed due to the war. Once the war started, there was not a lot he could import from Europe. . . so my dad bought and sold domestic and Canadian foods. But after the war, he exported food products for a few years. I still have a jar of Roland brand Vitamin D Malted Milk powder from those years! Given the war’s devastation, much of the world needed American food products. But my father was able to return to importing in the late 1940s, maybe ‘48, ’49, sometime in there.
- And he eventually branched out beyond French mushrooms, even Asian foods?
Well, one thing leads to another – whenever my father needed to hire somebody, he always understood and identified with other immigrants and refugees, and to [Holocaust] survivors. One of the men he hired was Kurt Lang. Though Kurt was a survivor, most of his family had been murdered. He started off as a file clerk, and being ambitious said to my dad one day, “Let me go and try my hand at selling.” The company had gotten a phone call from a Chinese company that wanted to buy our French canned mushrooms – again, that was one of my dad’s old French connections. Kurt offered to go to Chinatown, and Dad said “sure, go! Good luck, but do it during your lunch hour. Make sure you come back here to finish the filing!” So Kurt walked the few blocks over to Chinatown, and either made a sale or at least met the potential customer, and one thing led to another, and gradually Kurt spent more and more time in Chinatown, and my father had to hire a new file clerk. Knowing my father, that person probably was also an immigrant.
Over the years, Kurt became the company’s main salesman, not only in Chinatown, but around the country. He was nicknamed “Mr. Mayor” by some of his Chinese customers and attended customers’ weddings and family events. He learned enough Mandarin and Cantonese to communicate with everyone . . . We actually filmed him for a day or two in Chinatown and you couldn’t walk a block without someone yelling “Hey, Lang, Lang! Come see me! I have order for you.” He was famous there. He worked for the company for almost 60 years – until a few weeks before he passed away, long after my dad and my mom had passed. He and I worked together for several decades, and he became a mentor to others as the firm grew.
So that’s how Roland got into Asian foods, long before any other firm. Customers trusted Kurt and told him what they wanted. And since he was not a competitor, he was just a supplier, they felt comfortable asking him to try and get them not only products which eventually became mainstream, but also exotic items like dried shark fins, dried sea cucumbers, dried oysters, and dried scallops. Very exotic items, which, of course, Kurt knew nothing about. He had to learn about them, but they taught him and told him what they wanted, and my father found the right products in Asia.
- It’s such the quintessential American story – all the outsiders get together and bring in foreign foods, and eventually it becomes so routine that everyone forgets they were once the outsiders.
Yes, and outsiders from different origins getting together and finding common ground. Gradually things they introduce become mainstream – just look at ramen noodles. We started importing them 30 or 40 years ago, and then it became such a big business that they are manufactured here.
The story of imported foods in the U.S. is a story of how they start off as “ethnic,” exotic or gourmet foods and then, very often, go mainstream. And that was really part of our company’s success – to be part of that. But not everything successfully made the switch – and we still kept some products that had a smaller ethnic following. For example, most Americans have no idea what “sprats” are, nor would they enjoy smoked cod liver, but there are Jewish and European customers who know and love spats and cod liver. So we kept importing them.
- I saw an old picture of canned grasshoppers on your website . . .
That was one of those crazy party items that had its moment in the sun and then quickly disappeared. But the funny thing is that there’s now lots of interest on the part of many people to see if insects could be food sources. So . . . maybe.
- Your father made a point of hiring immigrants and refugees. How do you think that impacted the company’s culture?
Well, if you hire people from different cultures, if you’re surrounded by people with different ideas and different backgrounds, you open yourself up to different ideas and ethnic products. Certainly for any immigrant group, for any immigrant, you look for things you know that can help you make a living in a new place. And what experience, what knowledge do you have that’s unique? It’s the culture you came from, and the foods that you and other people from that world, from the old country, would be looking for. So it’s interesting that many food importers before and after World War II were immigrants, often Jewish immigrants, who settled here and used their knowledge and sometimes their connections to start a new businesses, and to bring products here that had not been available.
People who visited our offices often commented on the diversity, people from all over the world and from very different cultures, a real United Nations. And I was always comfortable with that, because that was the world in which I had grown up at home. It was a very diverse and interesting group of people. It facilitated our doing business all over the world, and eventually, as a company, to buy and sell all over the world. To have an international perspective was a real asset.
I was always open to and excited by new products, products I hadn’t thought of and had never heard of. We welcomed new ideas, and we were known for that. People would send us their ideas for new products, from whatever part of the world they came from. And since we had contacts across the globe . . . that was always very exciting. We would taste foods from all over the world, and ask ourselves “could this be of interest in the U.S. market?” Speaking to people from different parts of the world about their ideas and what products they would like to introduce into the U.S. market was always exciting and fun. Food is such a cultural lynchpin.
I wish that more people today would realize there is no need to feel threatened by people from a different culture. We need to realize the opportunity in welcoming the new perspectives they offer us, and to share our perspective – to be enriched, rather than threatened by “them”. How do you teach that? I can just say that, in my own company, it was obvious. We worked together no matter anyone’s accent, ethnic or racial identity, and whether they observed Muslim, Jewish or Christian holidays; whatever anybody wanted to observe or was important to them was respected. Period, end of sentence. It’s their right, and we work together and we respect each other for what each of us brought to the joint enterprise, both the company and the larger American enterprise.
- What Roland products do you always have at home?
Mustard and vinegar and capers and sardines – all kinds of vinegars. Red wine, white wine, balsamic, sherry wine vinegar . . . and the list goes on and on.
- But no grasshoppers?
Not for me. Yet…
- Post by Rachel Feinmark, Strategic Communications Manager at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum