On June 24, 1975, almost 40 years ago, Leroy King, Sr. was the founder/owner/operator of King Supermarket. This African American family-owned grocery store was located at 2005 Plymouth Avenue North in Minneapolis.
Currently, that space is occupied by the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC), and its new address is now 2001 Plymouth Avenue North.
King, Sr. is currently 79 years young and grew up in Jonesville, Louisiana, born the fifth of 19 children on October 14, 1935 to Dennis and Mamie King. Dennis King fathered all 19 children, but only 10 of the 19 siblings are both his and Mamie King’s. The other nine siblings Dennis King had with his second wife.
Leroy King attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and majored in education. In 1959, he graduated from college and got married. He and his wife Minerva were invited by his sister, Louise King, to join her in Minneapolis. The Kings accepted the invitation and began their Minnesota experience.
Many people who have lived in Minneapolis between 1975 and 1992 — both North and Southside — remember Mr. King and his family-owned grocery store. But they may not be acquainted with the backstory of how it all happened for him.
The MSR spoke with Leroy King, Sr. about Minnesota’s African American community and his Minnesota journey from a former business owner’s point of view.
After arriving in Minnesota, King enrolled in a six-month grocery management training program at a place called the Market Institute in downtown Minneapolis. Once that certification was complete, King had additional training sponsored by MEDA. That eventually led to getting into the Red Owl Grocery Store management training program.
“At that time, Red Owl was number one in the Twin Cities,” says King. They had stores in Robbinsdale, Coon Rapids, South Minneapolis and other cities. King says that in spite of the barriers for most African Americans during that time, working for Red Owl was a great experience. His first store to manage for Red Owl was on Olson Highway, where Summit Academy OIC is located now.
John Waters of the Plymouth Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) wanted a store in North Minneapolis. After making a good name for himself over a 15-year period with Red Owl stores, King was chosen to be the new store owner, which included approved financing, management assistance and bookkeeping support.
“Yes, it had my name on it, but I was operating as a Red Owl franchisee.’” says King (LK). Red Owl was also King’s supplier until he sold the business in 1991.
MSR: So what made you decide to close King Supermarket?
LK: The neighborhood changed. Over 15 years, time changes things. You know, they say the life of a small business on average is one to five years. I was there for 16 years. It wasn’t profiting so I said it was time to sell. Then I went back to work for Red Owl.
MSR: How long did you do that?
LK: Well, after they eventually sold to Rainbow Foods, around 1994, and [I] worked for them until I retired in 2005.
MSR: Which Rainbow was it?
LK: I started with one on Highway 55 in Plymouth, then to the one off of County Rd. 9 in Plymouth. After that, I went to open up the one in Wayzata, MN and then finally was sent to manage the front end at the Lake Street store, where I stayed. I was employee of the year two times for Rainbow Foods.
When asked if more funding would have kept King Supermarket open, King says, “No, my wife and I decided we had enough and wanted to relax because her health was fading. I served the community and accomplished everything I never thought I would.”
MSR: What role did your wife play?
LK: She was the bookkeeper.
MSR: Did you have any problems with family working for you?
LK: I didn’t have any problem with it. As a family, the children [Leroy Jr., Kenny and Sonita], [my] wife [Minerva] and my sister [Louise], we knew what we had to do and did it. One time it snowed so bad, I couldn’t get the car started. We caught the bus to open the store and had one of the best sales days we ever had.
MSR: What advice do you have for a young African American going into the grocery business?
LK: If you are going into the supermarket business, you have to be committed — the time, dedication and integrity. What I tell everyone if you are going into any business: Do it the right way. If you don’t want to do it right, don’t do it. You can’t fake it.
For example, if you say you’re going to open up at eight o’clock, then open up at eight o’clock.
MSR: When you finally decided to sell the store, what was it like for the customers you told?
LK: Many were heartbroken. Even now, after all these years, people still come up and say, “Come here, Mr. King and let me give you a hug. You were so nice when you were in business.”
They still talk about how good their experience was. We believed in thanking everyone for calling or coming by the store because they can get a loaf of bread anywhere, but to get it with a smile and a thank you makes a difference.
So I tell anybody, there is a way to do business and a way not to do business. You can’t be two people. That’s the advice I’d give anyone. It’s not the money. You can have all the money you want. If you start being nasty to the customers — don’t respect the customers, don’t open up on time and don’t keep your store clean — your business operation will have a short shelf life.
MSR also spoke with Shirley Sanders, who was a store manager for King from 1980 to 1991. According to Sanders, “Mr. King is a good and fair man to work for. Even though his wife, sister and children worked there, it didn’t matter to him because fair was fair with Mr. King. Anybody saying anything different is wrong.
“Also, Mr. King helped a lot of people. The great thing about it, few people knew it and he didn’t want any credit for it. I knew from seeing it firsthand. When some customer’s had no social services, Mr. King was their social service provider.”
King also had keen intuition according to Sanders. She recollects the time when she lost her job but walked into King’s Supermarket to shop for food. Though she was not looking for work, King stopped her and said, “Hey, Shirley have you ever thought about working in a grocery store?” According to Sanders, his timing was perfect.
King is a member of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in North Minneapolis, where he serves as a deacon and is very popular. You can still hear King greeted with, “Hey, there goes my favorite grocer. Good morning, Mr. King!”
James L. Stroud Jr. is a contributing writer and photographer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.