Here’s a passage from page 35 Michael Ruhlman’s 2017 book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America (link added):
When the great Chicago fire decimated that growing city in 1871, [top A&P executive George] Hartford opened an A&P there (the first outside New York City) – before the bricks had even cooled, according to [Marc] Levinson. That nice turn of phrase, apparently literal, implies a certain ruthlessness in taking advantage of a tragedy. But the city was desperately in need of resources and cash to rebuild its infrastructure, as well as food and, of course, coffee and tea. A&P was there to put up a store, employ people, and send wagonloads of goods into the city.
Ruhlman’s the unjustified description of George Hartford’s actions as ‘ruthless.’ All economic activity aims to ‘take advantage’ of someone else’s desires. And the more intense those desires, the greater are the benefits delivered by those who satisfy those desires. Not only is it no more ruthless to rush groceries for retail to an area struck with tragedy than it is to offer popcorn at retail on any ordinary afternoon in a movie theater, rushing groceries and other goods for retail to tragedy-struck areas is – as Ruhlman correctly recognizes – especially important and worthy of applause.
Long before FEMA or a U.S. government active in such ways, a private firm – one later reviled and attacked for the relentlessness with which it lowered the prices that ordinary Americans paid for groceries – helped to relieve the pain and suffering of victims of one of America’s most famous tragedies. And it did so 146 years ago, when communications and transportation were far more costly and less reliable than they are today.
UPDATE: David Boaz has convinced me that the assessment of “ruthlessness” is that of Marc Levinson and likely not that of Michael Ruhlman.