Retiring owner Joe Lueken, who owns three separate Lueken’s Village Foods in Minnesota, is transferring ownership of his stores to his 400-some employees, at no cost to his workers.
Citing his employees for any success he’s had in his business, the 70-year-old business owner has brought holiday cheer to his staff.
Joe Lueken, who has run the two Village Foods for more than 45 years, is a beacon in the community of Bemidji, Minnesota, offering aid to anyone he can, and is famous for his generosity.
He’s financially backed small business owners so they can get up and running, and has funded students’ college educations through scholarship programs. And starting on January 1, he’s leaving his stores to his employees.
Joe Lueken told the Minnesota Star-Tribune that he was approached multiple times by large supermarket chains offering to buy his stores from him.
Though he could have turned a larger profit by selling to a chain, the store-owner said it wouldn’t be right not to share his wealth with those who had helped him the most.
“My employees are largely responsible for any success I’ve had, and they deserve to get some of the benefits of that,” he told the paper.
“You can’t always take. You also have to give back.”
He said that his parents, who grew up in the Great Depression, taught him a motto that has shaped his life philosophy: “Do the right thing.”
Joe Lueken owns two supermarkets in Bemidji and another in Wahpeton, North Dakota. He will begin transferring ownership of his three stores beginning January 1.
His workers will receive possession of the stores through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), based on their salary and length of service.
The ESOP allows the store’s employees to form a trust and contribute to it, letting profits go back into the community. Publix Supermarkets is another U.S. grocery store that operates under this model.
The idea was planted when Joe Lueken realized his four sons had no interest in taking over the family business.
His adult children live and work on the East and West Coasts, and agreed that giving back to the community was the best option.
Joe Lueken also suffers from Parkinson’s Disease and was diagnosed in the 1990s. When he was about to undergo surgery, he realized his physician had been the recipient of one of his scholarships.
That, Joe Lueken told ABC News, put him more at ease for his operation.
The real-life story of Joe Lueken’s generosity echoes a Hollywood holiday classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, by famed director Frank Capra.
The movie depicts James Stewart as Good Samaritan George Bailey, who sacrifices his dreams of traveling the world to ensure the dreams of others are realized.
In one poignant scene, George and his new wife Mary give the money they had saved for their honeymoon to a local bank after there was a run on the money.
While it ensured the bank’s future, it meant that the Baileys would not be taking a honeymoon.
But Joe Lueken’s act of kindness will allow for peregrination.
With only a month left at the helm of his stores, Joe Lueken is planning to travel the world with his wife, Janice, and visit his grandchildren.
The son of a baker, Joe Lueken spent his childhood greasing pans for his father. According to the Bemidji Pioneer, he was paid 26 cents a week.
He worked at his first Lueken’s store in 1966. At the time, the grocery store was owned by his brother, but Joe Lueken later bought it from him