By Seth Daniel
Vic Leon Sr.’s family has a web of businesses spread out all over the Greater Boston area, but Leon and his son, Victor Leon Jr., owners of Foodie’s Urban Market, have roots in the South End that go back to the days of horse drawn carriages.
“This is where I’m most comfortable; this where I’m happy to be,” said Leon Sr. on Monday afternoon sitting at the outdoor tables in front of his popular market on Washington Street. The interview came just prior to the Boston Main Streets program dropping by yesterday, June 28, at the Foodie’s to present them with the Washington Gateway Main Street (WGMS) ‘Business of the Year’ award. In a twist this year, Mayor Martin Walsh and the Main Streets program decided to do a trolley tour through the neighborhoods and present the awards on site rather than at a downtown function facility.
“We’ve been here more than 20 years – 22 years to be exact,” he said, noting they took over the location from the ABC Market, which at the time was on a steep decline. “We’ve always been around the neighborhood with different family businesses for the past 60 years. Prior to that, my grandfather kept horses on Albany Street. They had stables there and he had a cart and would go to the market with them and bring back supplies…That’s probably where the grocery business began.”
While the stables burned down and, like many in the once-burgeoning Syrian and Lebanese community in the South End, the family moved out to West Roxbury and Roslindale. However, they continued to return to the neighborhood. Most were married and baptized in the churches here, and ties to the area were never broken.
Few can produce a pedigree that goes back to the days of horse stables on Albany Street, but Leon can and through that connection to the neighborhood, he has built a loyal community around his store that withstood the entrance of a national chain a few years ago. The products range from low-cost aspirin to expensive gourmet olive oils. Many of the employees are the face of the South End, whether from the nearby housing developments or elsewhere, his employees tend to be loyal and to come back – always giving him a loving smile and an embrace.
“The idea we had was there was this kind of a neighborhood that was in transition and also had a diverse group of people,” he said. “We kept a very diverse produce line while retaining most of the Spanish product lines and the cuts of meat. We wanted to offer better products and more choices. We like to keep interesting things that we can offer and the national stores cannot. They can’t do that because they have to put them in every store. We went from doing $30,000 to $40,000 a week and took it to into something that does a couple $100,000 a week. That’s beyond our break-even point and profitability.
“It’s not a revolving door here for our employees,” he continued. “We’re committed to people and they have benefits and if they have a baby we give them time off, and if there’s a death in the family, we understand. We’re human beings and not a human resource department.”
Foodie’s now also operates stores in South Boston, Duxbury and a new store in Belmont. Leon also has interests in restaurants up in Maine, and keeps real estate throughout Boston. The restaurants, he said, have provided the experience for Foodie’s to provide great prepared foods, using chefs to prepare and come up with recipes that are very good. One won’t find tubs of chicken salad or tuna fish salad shipped in to the store, but Leon said they still make their own – boiling the eggs every day and making it fresh. Likewise, fruits are cut up in the store, and things are done on site almost exclusively.
It’s taken time, though, and Leon remembers sitting around a table 20 years ago when late Mayor Tom Menino launched Washington Gateway Main Street (WGMS) – one of the first districts. At the time, there wasn’t much to celebrate on Washington Street like there is now, and Foodie’s was one of the anchors to the program, recalled Randi Lathrop, a current Board member of WGMS. She said that’s one of the reasons why they chose Leon and Foodie’s, as they are the first to give back and have been doing so for generations.
Beyond that, Leon said the business has just come through a tough stretch over the last few years when the new Whole Foods at Ink Block challenged the business, as well as others in the area like Morse Fish and the pizza parlors and the wine shops.
“There was a little dip after Whole Foods opened because they were so big and afforded advantages like getting to sell beer, wine and hard liquor right away,” he said. “It took us four years to get our beer and wine license. That’s the old story. When we came in there were certainly things we wouldn’t do, unlike Whole Foods. For a long, long time, we wouldn’t sell fish because Morse Fish is here and they’re the oldest fish market in the city. We still only offer a little fish. It’s a complicated equation. We tried to be neighborly. We’re in a neighborhood. That kind of consideration is just being neighborly and not trying to beat each other’s brain out for a small piece of pie that doesn’t amount to much. We’ll never have a fish fry or a pizza parlor like Whole Foods did.”
That’s seemingly because Leon and his son enjoy the business. It’s their passion. They like to eat the food, not just move it from one location to the other in more of a distribution company than a food seller. They like the people, relishing relationships with employees and customers. Anyone who spends a few minutes around Leon will easily see that much.
On Monday, after just returning from a trip to Portugal, he was raving about a display of Sardines that he saw while in Europe. It was something he liked and wanted to try out in his stores; whatever he can do to make his store experience positive for his customers. At the same time, a group of young women wanting to sit outside at the tables were lacking one chair. He offered his own chair to them and stood for the rest of the interview.
“Whatever money I have is here, and whatever heart and soul I have, are here,” he said.