O&H Rare Foods

During World War II, Waco provided a place of refuge and hope of starting anew for many seeking refuge from persecution, such as Otto and Hilde Levy. As tensions escalated throughout Germany as a result of Nazi discrimination, Otto Levy and Hilde Rosenfeld were married in May of 1937 in Mannheim. Their wedding was held in a large dance hall, though few of their friends and family attended out of fear of attracting unwanted attention from the Nazis. In the months following their marriage, the Levys watched as “Jews Not Wanted” signs appeared in storefronts and as friends and neighbors began to disappear. The Levys decided to flee their home in Germany at the end of 1937 to seek refuge in the United States.

Strict immigration laws passed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration made it difficult for European Jews to secure visas for passage to the United States during the 1930s. The Levys attempted several times to obtain a visa from relatives and friends who had already fled Europe but were initially unsuccessful. Just as they began to despair, the Levys’ friend Gretel Weiser offered to contact her great-uncle Fred Mailander in America on their behalf. He agreed to help the Levys and wrote a letter to the American consul in Germany in order to obtain visas for the couple.   

The Levys were excited about the prospect of moving to an urban city such as Waco with a university and a population of 55,000. They hoped to begin a glove-making business similar to the one Otto worked in while in Germany. In addition to securing their visas, Mr. Mailander provided the Levys with a house and covered the cost of moving their furniture. Yet the Levys encountered more obstacles as they began their journey to the United States in 1937. The American consul initially denied Hilde’s passage on the basis of health issues but in the end made an exception for the young couple. The Nazi Party prevented the Levys from withdrawing money from their bank accounts, leaving them with eighteen dollars each for the entire trip. The Levys arrived in New York unable to pay their train fare to Waco. After receiving aid from the United Jewish Appeal Help Committee, the Levys finally reached Waco in August of 1938.

The Levys received a warm welcome in Waco from Mr. Mailander and several other Jewish members of the community, but they encountered difficulties in the beginning of their new lives. Hitler called back many of the boats from Germany, including the one with the Levy’s furniture. Their furniture and belongings did not arrive in Waco until October. On top of this, Hilde and Otto spoke only German, making communication difficult. Unable to start a glove business in Waco, Otto began working at Rainbo Bread, and Hilde worked at a women’s department store in order to make enough money to get by.

A few years later, several prominent Jewish women approached Hilde and encouraged her to take over a store on South Eleventh Street in the Bell’s Hill neighborhood and run a small grocery. In 1941, Hilde borrowed $54.50 from Cooper’s Wholesale Grocery and began selling everyday items such as coffee, canned goods, and kosher meats. At the recommendation of two of the first customers, the Levys named the store O&H Foods. The Levys began introducing foods and products that could not be found anywhere else in Waco after traveling to a fancy food convention in Chicago in 1946. Specialty items such as cheeses from Finland, chocolates from Holland, and imported beers from around the world became the staple of O&H Foods. After a devastating tornado tore through Waco in 1953, damaging the storefront beyond repair, the Levys reopened on North Twenty-Fifth Street, changing the name to O&H Rare Foods. 

Otto and Hilde believed that a strong work ethic and good personal relationships with their customers would set them apart from other businesses in Waco. In the early years, the store was open seven days a week, often from seven in the morning until eleven at night. Otto and Hilde knew all of their customers by name and remembered their exact sandwich orders. They treated their employees as family members, and their decision to retire in 1990 was very difficult. Although they could no longer run the store because of Otto’s health, the Levys were comforted knowing that the store was in the hands of long-time employee John Peters.

O&H Rare Foods officially closed on July 31, 1998, after nearly half a century of providing Texans with specialty grocery items. By the end of World War II, nearly 40 percent of O&H’s customers were located outside of Waco in areas such as Austin, El Paso, and Odessa. O&H Rare Foods offered glimpses of culture outside the United States for citizens who never left their small towns, while the Levys’ tireless dedication to customer service and innovation in the food industry made O&H Rare Foods a center of community for Wacoans.

Images

Delayed Arrival (October 1938)

Delayed Arrival (October 1938)

Otto and Hilde came to Waco in August of 1938, but the boat with their belongings was called back to Germany for nearly three months. Here they are pictured with their American benefactor Mr. Fred Mailander upon the successful delivery of their crates of furniture. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Proud Owners

Proud Owners

Otto and Hilde in front of their store on South Eleventh Street. They shared all of the responsibilities of running the store, though Otto often spent more time on the floor as a salesperson and Hilde was better at keeping the books | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Roadside Promotion

Roadside Promotion

A billboard advertising O&H Rare Foods stands at the corner of Sixteenth Street and Austin Avenue. Existing in close proximity to competitors such as H-E-B, O&H Rare Foods distinguished itself by offering customers an opportunity to expand their culinary horizons with imported groceries and gifts. The store's selection appealed to Waco's adventurous gourmets and homesick immigrants alike. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Aftermath of the Storm

Aftermath of the Storm

The F5 tornado that tore through Waco in 1953 damaged the original storefront at South Eleventh Street beyond repair. The Levys chose a new location for the store on North Twenty-Fifth Street and reopened in 1954. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Speciality Gifts

Speciality Gifts

In addition to food, O&H sold gift boxes and party supplies such as those pictured in this display at the Waco Coliseum. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Chicago Fancy Food Show (August 1973)

Chicago Fancy Food Show (August 1973)

After attending their first fancy food convention in 1946, the Levys began to branch out from the usual grocery staples to specialty foods imported from around the world. The Levys relied on contacts made at tradeshows such as the one pictured above to strengthen their business and improve their stock. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: National Telefood Magazine View File Details Page

Quality Wares

Quality Wares

O&H was known for its specialty cheeses and party trays of delicatessen meats. In the 1960s, grocery stores such as H-E-B began offering similar trays of meats and cheeses, yet the Levys's trays remained popular because of the quality of merchandise and attention to detail. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Skilled Salesman (1977)

Skilled Salesman (1977)

Otto Levy sought to build lasting relationships with his store's patrons by matching his stock to their needs and regularly offering personal assistance to shoppers. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

A Lasting Partnership

A Lasting Partnership

Otto and Hilde described the store as their whole life and believed that running O&H Rare Foods brought them closer together in their marriage. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Audio

Arrival in Waco in 1938

Hilde Levy describes how welcoming the citizens of Waco were to her and her husband, Otto, when they arrived in August of 1938. | Source: Levy, Otto and Hilde, interviewed by Rebecca M. Sharpless, August 25, 1993, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Balancing Work as a Married Couple

Hilde Otto speaks of how her and her husband worked together in their store. | Source: Levy, Otto and Hilde, interviewed by Rebecca M. Sharpless, September 8, 1993, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Devotion to the Store

Hilde Levy explains how much time her and her husband devoted to the store every week. | Source: Levy, Otto and Hilde, interviewed by Rebecca M. Sharpless, September 8, 1993, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Coleman Hampton and Amanda Sawyer, “O&H Rare Foods ,” Waco History, accessed July 22, 2017, http://wacohistory.org/items/show/26.
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