Make Retail an Altar of Opportunity
An alliance of church and retail can restore Buffalo, Minneapolis and America
by Burt P. Flickinger III
While watching news reports of the looting and burning of the Lund’s Supermarket and Target store #52 on 2500 E Lake Street in Minneapolis, I couldn't help but think back to inspired Pathmark store #609, which once stood at 160 E 125th St, in East Harlem.
Not long after the Crown Heights riots of 1991, triggered by a car crash that killed seven-year-old Gavin Cato and fueled tensions between police, African-American and Orthodox Jewish members of the community, Pathmark CEOs Jim Donald and Jack Futterman met with the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III of the Abyssinian Baptist Church with the bi-partisan U.S. and New York State support of Congressman Jack Kemp (R), U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D), and Governor George Pataki.
Mr. Futterman was raised in Brooklyn, and as a former president of Whelan Drug, an inner-city drugstore chain, understood the potential of retail in tough neighborhoods, where he'd lost his basketball-star brother to drug addiction. Two years earlier, Rev. Butts had founded the Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC), a not-for-profit arm of the church dedicated to economic development in the community.
At the time, there were no supermarkets in inner-city Harlem, only small grocery stores under absentee, or too often price-gouging, ownership. Resistance by these operators delayed construction for about five years. Jack Futterman and Rev. Butts III prevailed, however, powered by a combination of public and private funds and in concert with Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national not-for-profit investment group.
Store #609 cost $15 million to build and had a transformative effect in East Harlem. Not only did ADC and Pathmark cut supermarket prices from the highest to the lowest in the urban United States, but also brought fresh fish, meat, produce and a spectacular range of high-quality goods to the community. It generated more than a million per week in gross sales and $3 million a year in net profit.
This retail/church/spiritual community alliance became the nucleus of an entire city square-mile of economic renaissance, creating jobs and career management opportunities, ultimately employing some 300 local community members from operations to management at Pathmark’s headquarters. They included off-duty police officers, hired as security, creating a meaningful touchpoint of familiarity and cooperation among co-workers, customers and law enforcement.
Every member of the community was invested in the success of store #609. So were the leading labor unions, UFCW and Teamsters who enjoyed important new ADC-Pathmark jobs when major retail employers from Bradlees and Caldor to Grand Union and Twin County/Food Town were filing for bankruptcy.
East Harlem went from” the death of all retail hope” to great hope and prosperity, with Pathmark reinvesting 10 percent of its profits back into the community in partnership with the Abyssinian Church & Development Council, providing funds for arts, education, and medical assistance. It enabled commercial real estate and affordable housing that supported Abyssinian’s 13,000 members and tens of thousands more residents who had counted on Abyssinian for more than a century.
Jack Futterman didn’t finish with store #609; he and Jim Donald, along with Pathmark / Supermarkets General Company co-founders Herb Brody, Alex Aidekman, and Milt Perlmutter created a “600 Series” of food-Rx super stores in the South Bronx, as well as East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville in Brooklyn.
The success of Store #609 was personal to me, too. At the time I was a young retail management consultant. Jack Futterman brought me in as an advisor on development ideas because of my family’s history of applying the power of retail to improve people’s daily lives.
During the Great Depression, my grandfather helped FDR run food redistribution programs before there were food stamps. Later, he created opportunities for a “United Nations” of first-generation Americans and community residents who didn’t have the money to own a store, financing them on a flexible, co-op or co-equity model, anywhere from a single store up to to a whole chain of stores. The businesses were based on the Biblical Golden Rule principle of “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
Store #609 is now history, its demise sealed with Pathmark’s liquidation in 2015, the same year the long-since retired Jack Futterman passed away. However, the magic of Jack and Jim Donald’s inspired partnership with Rev. Butts III, between the most important regional Food-Rx retailer and a church, bringing with it the melting pot of profit sharing, job creation, executive development, dignity and empowerment, lives on.
That legacy should now shine as a beacon and serve as a model for rebuilding and economic development from Harlem to East-Buffalo to Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul, and all across America.