Reporting Rachel Slavik
BEMIDJI, Minn. (WCCO) — It’s a situation that would make any employee nervous; the boss is selling the company. Four hundred workers of a Bemidji-based grocery store chain wondered their fate when the longtime owner decided to retire.
But they soon found out that owner, Joe Lueken, would take care of them in a way no one expected.
Be it habit, convenience or just plain loyalty, we all have our preference for where we buy groceries.
“I’ve been shopping here ever since I moved to Bemidji a long time ago,” said Sylvia Wildgen, a customer.
In Bemidji, Lueken has his store of choice for grocery shopping.
“I usually come in about once a day,” Lueken said, former owner of Lueken’s Village Foods.
But before he ever picks up the grocery basket, Lueken is picking up throughout the building.
He’s more than your average customer. Lueken is also the man who started Lueken’s Village Foods.
“One thing about groceries, when it’s in your blood, you just love it,” Lueken said.
Ever the owner, Lueken can’t stop a routine for tidying the store and shelving misplaced food.
He moves so swiftly through the aisles that his speed nearly shields his reasoning for retirement, last year.
“I suffer from Parkinson’s. My boys didn’t want to come in the store with me, and I was getting to the point where it’s getting difficult just to do the work,” he said.
Left with a decision for the store’s future, Lueken had no shortage of offers.
“I had three offers to buy the store from different corporations,” Lueken said.
But Lueken had a different deal in mind.
“The only option left was to have the employees take it over,” he said. “It’s hard, but it was the right thing to do, because it’s good for the employees and good for the community.”
Lueken’s was always a place where a job could become a career.
“1998 was when I started. I was the overnight janitor,” said Brent Sicard, CEO of Lueken’s Food.
But, no one expected Lueken to sell to his employees. In January, employees started the process of taking full ownership of the five stores belonging to Lueken. The plan is for it to become 100 percent employee-owned within five years. They’ll pay for the store in profits.
“This, financially, was a hit for him. But he never hesitated, never blinked. It wasn’t a question of whether he’d sell it,” Sicard said.
The biggest benefit from the purchase agreement was a stock option for all employees.
“When we retire, we could have hundreds of thousands, even millions, in our account,” Sicard said.
Yet, it’s not the money that inspires this workforce of 400 and keeps people like Barb Erickstad around for years.
“When you see him, he lights up and you light up, and it just makes you feel like you want to do a good job for him,” said Erickstad, who works in the frozen foods section.
It’s the man who led by example for 46 years.
“You just realize that you’re in this community, a family of Luekens,” Erickstad said.
That sense of community is part of the reason why Lueken can’t seem to stay away.
“Someone said, ‘shouldn’t he be in Tahiti?’ I said for Joe, this is a vacation,” Sicard said.
There are some who measure success in money, but for Lueken, you can’t always put a price on the return.
“If I did everything over again, I’d do exactly the same thing. Wouldn’t change a thing,” Lueken said.
Lueken’s employees said the best way to honor him is to grow the business through innovation.
They are working on plans to become the first grocery store to grow and sell their produce on site.