As the world's largest grocer, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. sells one out of every seven cups of coffee in the U.S., one out of every 14 pounds of butter, and one out of every 28 eggs. Of every dollar the U.S. spends on food, about 10¢ is passed over A & P countersa massive yearly total of $2.9 billion. Next to General Motors, the A & P sells more goods than any other company in the world.
In 3,100 U.S. cities, the familiar red-front A & P store is the real melting pot of the community, patronized by the boss's wife and the baker's daughter, the priest and the policeman. To foreigners A & P's vast supermarkets are among the wonders of the age; to the U.S. middle class, they are one of the direct roads to solvency. "Going to the A & P" is almost an American tribal rite.
But despite this bigness and despite the familiarity which reaches down to almost everyone's dinner table, very few Americans know the A & P's masters. They are shadowy figures, who have wrapped themselves over the years in such deliberate obscurity that even some of A & P's 120,000 employees are not sure who they are. Recently, at an A & P supermarket one of the checkers whispered to a customer: "See that white-haired old gentleman over there? That's the owner of the company John D. Rockefeller."
It wasn't John D. It was John A. (for Augustine) Hartford, 78, who with his 86-year-old brother, George L. (for Ludlum) Hartford, forged the links in the A & P's nation-girdling chain. The A & P is one of the great American family empires still bossed by the men who built it. The Hartfords and their kin still own 99.1% of the stock.
Mr. John & Mr. George. The Hartfords are more than millionaires, expansionists, bosses and experts on longevity. They are perhaps the most unusual business team in U.S. historyand a tribute to the thickness of blood. "If I were asked to name the two men who seemed least likely to agree on anything," said an A & P associate, "I'd pick John and George Hartford."
Both brothers are widowers; both live only for the A & P. But there the similarity ends. John is thin, George is plump. John is bold and expansive, George cautious and conservative. John is gregarious and full of quips, George shy and sobersided. John stands and talks; George sits and listens. Plain and unpretentious George, in his drab black suit, sedate tie and stiff collar, could easily be taken for a retired motorman dressed up for Sunday.
Nobody would make that mistake about John, who looks the merchant prince from the tip of his elegant shoes to the top of his wavy-maned, handsome head. He dresses as fastidiously as a latter-day Beau Nash. A symphony in greys, he orders as many as a dozen suits at a time from exclusive Manhattan Tailor James Bell (other customers: James Farley, Harry Truman). He always sports a deep red carnation in his buttonhole, tucks an expensive handspun, monogrammed linen handkerchief in the pocket beneath it. His silk and poplin shirts are custom-made (by Sulka) with a special high, soft collar. His oversized, flowing bow ties, supposedly copied from those worn by Elbert (Message to Garcia) Hubbard, give him a faintly poetic air.