Joe Lueken could have sold his business for a fortune, but there was something he valued more.
The Bemidji grocer made international headlines two years ago when he passed up an opportunity to sell his thriving Lueken’s Village Foods stores to a national chain and instead gave the business to the employees who helped build it. Lueken died at home on July 20 after a long battle with cancer, leaving behind loving family and friends and a wealth of stories and fond memories.
He was 72.
“My employees are largely responsible for any success I’ve had, and they deserve to get some benefit from that,” Lueken told the Star Tribune in 2012, when he was getting ready to retire after 46 years as a grocer and community philanthropist. His four sons lived far away and had jobs outside the family business, so rather than sell his three supermarkets to a stranger, he set up an employee stock ownership program that transferred the company to his workers and paid him a share of future profits.
“You can’t always take,” he said at the time. “You also have to give back.”
Lueken gave a great deal. The Bemidji community had helped his business thrive for almost 50 years, and he wanted to return the favor. He established college scholarships, raised money for Bemidji State University and countless community causes, supported public television, stocked the community food shelf and helped launch anti-bullying campaigns at the public schools. With Janice, his wife of 52 years, he set up the Lueken Family Foundation to continue that benevolent work.
“Any success that we had in this community, he wanted to return it to the community,” she said. “He’s left a huge void.”
But when people in Bemidji trade Joe Lueken stories, they don’t talk about how much he gave. They talk about his everyday acts of kindness, his sense of humor, his honesty, his work ethic. They talk about a man who was decent to his very core.
“Joe touched so many lives,” said Brent Sicard, one of those Lueken touched. Sicard, who started his career as a night janitor at the grocery in 1998 and today serves as president and CEO of Lueken’s Foods Stores Inc.
Sicard has heard plenty of Joe Lueken stories. There was the employee who returned home from visiting her husband at a distant hospital to find that her boss had mowed her lawn for her while she was out of town. There was the sign painter who not only got seed money from Lueken to start his new business but who came home one day to find $200 worth of groceries waiting on the front porch.
On the Lueken’s Facebook page, his longtime employees posted their fond memories of a boss who read the newspaper in the break room with everyone else and who would show up for work at 4 a.m. to start stocking shelves.
“He was a stocking machine,” said Barry Bowar with a laugh. Bowar started working at Lueken’s 25 years ago and now runs its store in Wahpeton, N.D. His trust in Lueken was so complete that he moved his family to Bemidji, without knowing what he’d be paid once he got there. He knew Lueken — a boss who braved prairie blizzards to make the weekly trek to his North Dakota store — would take care of him.
Joseph “Joe” Anton Lueken was born Dec. 10, 1941, in Ainsworth, Neb., and grew up working in his father’s bakeries. He moved to Bemidji in 1966 to manage his brother Hank’s lakeside grocery store, which he later bought and expanded.
“He conducted business with a handshake,” Janice Lueken said. “If he gave you his word, it was written in stone.”
“Most of us choose to be honest,” Sicard said. “I think Joe was incapable of being dishonest.”
He is survived by his wife; sons Michael, Jeffrey, Joseph Jr. and David Lueken; three grandchildren; and brothers Lloyd and Michael.