By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Over the years, Budwey’s stores have been all about change.
They’ve been located on Oliver Street, on Division Street, in the City of Tonawanda, in Amherst, in Kenmore, in Newfane. They’ve been called Bells, Foodliner, Super Duper, Jubilee or Budwey’s the Best. They’ve expanded and consolidated and adapted and expanded again.
But the biggest change is yet to come.
Store owner Frank Budwey, 64, announced Oct. 15 he plans to sell his three grocery stores in North Tonawanda, North Buffalo and Newfane to Olean Wholesale and retire from the supermarket business, bringing an end to decades of Budwey-owned stores in the community. For a man who’s seen a lot of changes in the supermarket business over the years, this is just one more.
“All the time, the changes ... they’re just what you do,” Budwey said during a recent interview at his office at the Division Street store. “They were easy to adapt to it, because that’s what we do.
“It’s alway change, in our business.”
The early years
The first store to bear the Budwey name was opened in 1922 at 452 Oliver St., North Tonawanda, by Saltonia Budwey, who had immigrated to the United States from Lebanon with her husband and young son.
“She didn’t even speak the language. It was a little difficult for her running it, but she was making money,” Frank Budwey said of his grandmother. “In that time, the men were working at the factories, some of the women ran the little stores.
“On Oliver Street, you had all different nationalities there. You had bakeries ... you had the McCarthy fruit market, Anastasi meat market. We were just one of them. You’d go down the street and buy everything you needed. They didn’t have the big freezers like they do now. People would buy daily.”
In 1936, Saltonia Budwey’s son, James Budwey, took over the store. An ad from the grand opening that year proclaims “meat specials including tender cut chuck roast” for 14 cents per pound, “Golden Krust” large bread for 5 cents — and cigarettes (including Camels, Luckies and Chesterfields) advertised for 11 cents a pack.
James Budwey eventually moved the store to Rumbold Avenue, then 393 Division St. Over the next years, he also opened two more stores (in the City of Tonawanda and Amherst) and a restaurant.
An article in the Nov. 21, 1946, edition of the Tonawanda Evening News — headlined “Hometown Budwey Chain to remodel Old P.O. Bldg. Into Largest Supermarket” — told how the new store would be built at the former post office at Seymour, Fletcher and Main in the City of Tonawanda.
“I certainly want to thank all the people of these hard-working, prosperous and friendly Tonawandas, for giving us the opportunity to grow,” James Budwey was quoted as saying. “We’re going to try to operate these stores so as never to let the hometown folks down, and to give the Twin Cities stores they can be proud of. We’re always open to hometown suggestions, and hope always to get a lot of them — and act on them. What helps the Tonawandas, and what pleases Tonawandans, helps us.”
The growing Budwey’s chain, however, soon dealt with a tragedy that changed everything.
On March 25, 1952, James Budwey died at his Goundry Street home at the age of 39. Surviving him was his wife, Flora Pallota Budwey, 29, and four children — Frank Budwey, then 3 years old, and his siblings Rodney, 10; Sally, 9; and Cathy, 1.
Rather than sell the stores as many advised, Frank Budwey said, his mother took on the challenge. As a Jan. 22, 1959, News article later said, “In a matter of days, she changed from the role of a housewife to executive of a million dollar business.”
The family moved to Geneva Street, where grandparents and aunts and uncles were available to help with the children. Flora Budwey gradually consolidated down to one store, the location on Division Street, although the future would see her expand that store and eventually add another, the Budwey Bells in Midcity Plaza, in 1962.
“She’s my hero,” Frank Budwey said of his mother. “Back then, it was a man’s world in business. She stepped up and kept the stores running.
“After my father passed away, we kids grew up in the store. If we wanted to see Mom, we had to see her at work. We enjoyed it.”
In 1959, Flora Budwey married Edward Arnst — who used to deliver bread to the store — and he joined her in running the business.
She remained very involved, however. In March 1965, the Business & Professional Club of the Tonawandas named her 1965 Woman of the Year. Later that year, the same organization named her “Career Mother of Erie County.”
According to an article in the May 7, 1965, Tonawanda News, “She received the citation for combining homemaking and raising six children with a career.” With the honor, she also was given a plaque, a bouquet of roses and a Mother’s Day dinner at Park Lane Hotel.
Decades later, another tribute was added: Flora’s Café at the Budwey’s store at Division Street opened in 2004.
“She said, ‘If the food isn’t good, you have to take my name down,’” her son, Frank Budwey, said. “I did ask her for permission, because we wanted to use her name and to put her picture up there.”
Flora Budwey Arnst died at age 82 in February 2005. Her picture still hangs over her namesake café at the Division Street grocery store.
Growing up around the Budwey’s store, it was perhaps inevitable that Frank Budwey would work in the family business. He started as a “bottle boy,” making 50 cents an hour during the 1960s at the store on Meadow Drive.
Among his tasks: Collecting bottles, giving refunds, sorting the bottles and checking in all the beer and pop vendors. He still recalls many of the brands, including Simon Pure, Hornell, Iroquois, Black Label, Schlitz and Utica Club.
“That was when we used to hand-unload every piece of stock off the truck and put them on rollers,” Budwey recalled. “Everything is (on pallets) now.”
By age 16, he started working the register; at 18, he started in the grocery and produce department. The trend came to a halt, however, when he was 19, as he was drafted to serve during the Vietnam War — but it was only a temporary setback.
In 1971, Frank Budwey returned and took over the reins of the business his grandmother first started almost 50 years earlier.
Even for someone who grew up in the business, it was an adjustment. A year later, in 1972, he left the Bells chain, took the store independent and joined with Canton Market of the City of Tonawanda, whose owner, Arnie Weinstein, he credits with teaching him the ropes of the grocery industry.
“He was Jewish, I was Lebanese. What a pair, huh?” Budwey recalled. “He took me under his wing, helped me learn how to write ads. I was 21, 22, what did I know? He helped save our business.”
By 1974, Budwey’s moved from the 393 Division St. store to 535 Division, where it currently stands, after Frank Budwey purchased the old Harvest the Best store and renamed it Budwey’s the Best.
In 1977, Canton Market became a Bells; Budwey’s split off again and became a Super Duper. The store was expanded and remodeled, then became a Bells again in 1983, when it was expanded and remodeled again. The same year, Frank Budwey and the store were honored by the Chamber of Commerce as business of the year.
By 1995, however, things had changed — again.
“We were losing money. Bells went bankrupt, our supplier went bankrupt and I didn’t like the new wholesaler,” Budwey said. He sold the store to Jubilee — making it the first time since 1922 there hadn’t been a Budwey-owned grocery store in North Tonawanda — and left the business for a while, opening a laundromat in the plaza and running a real estate business.
By 2000, learning that the company was going to shut the store down, Budwey bought it back and ran it for two years as a Jubilee before returning to independence and the Budwey’s name in 2002. The same year, he joined Olean Wholesale Grocery Cooperative.
As things settled, the expansion started. In 2005, a Budwey’s store opened on Kenmore Avenue in North Buffalo, followed four years later by a Budwey’s in Newfane. In November 2005, Frank Budwey was chosen as citizen of the year by the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas.
For the most part, the hand of controversy has touched lightly on the Budwey family and its stores over the years, but a few things brought them into the news.
In 1960, two Budwey’s employees (including Edward Arnst) were arrested for allegedly violating the “blue laws” of the time by selling fresh meat to a policeman. The case was dismissed in 1961.
A labor dispute with five members of Local 212 Retail Clerks Union AFL-CIO stretched from 1980 to 1981, with a handful of picketers at the front of the store. Members, who complained in a Tonawanda News article at the time of little support for their cause, later called for a boycott of the store.
In 1981, a proposed game room for the Division Street location ran up against opposition from residents concerned about children congregating at the site. The game room was never built.
Frank Budwey admits, though, that nothing brought him into the limelight quite like the years-old, sometimes vicious war of words and legal proceedings against retail giant Walmart’s coming to North Tonawanda. He opposed the store from 2006, when the chain officially expressed interest in an NT site, up until the Niagara Fall Boulevard location opened in 2012.
Budwey still firmly believes in the fight, calling Walmart “a killer” of local jobs, but declined to comment further on the issue, saying he doesn’t want to be full of “sour grapes”
“Did it have an effect? Yes, it did,” he said of the world’s largest retailer setting up across town — and he left it at that.
Along with the grocery stores and the war over Walmart, the Budwey name has also been connected through the years in NT with community involvement and contributions — so much so at times that Frank Budwey joked his accountants have taken him to task for all his donations.
The store has sponsored many athletic teams, including Little League, girls softball, soccer and bowling teams. It’s contributed to countless community events; even this past week, as preparations begin for the stores to change hands, fliers for the “Budwey Buddies Adopt-a-thon” for the SPCA Niagara hang in the store windows.
In 2007, after burglaries caused thousands of dollars in losses to the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum, Frank Budwey was one of the first to contribute to the “Help the Horse” fund, writing a $200 donation check to the museum and partnering with the News to sell stickers to raise money for the museum.
“That’s our heritage, the Carrousel Museum,” Budwey said in a Tonawanda News article at the time.
And Budwey proudly recounts how he and Capt. Gabe DiBernado of the North Tonawanda Police Department started the Moving Up day at North Tonawanda High School more than 30 years ago
“I gave Gabe $100, and I told him to go to Tops and say, ‘Frank gave me $100.’ So all the Tops gave him $100,” Budwey said.
“One hand helps the other. The community has been good to us, by supporting us for 86 years.”
In the years Budwey’s has been in business — and the years Frank Budwey has been involved with the business — he’s seen a lot of change. More things are automated. You won’t see meat hung up in the back of the meat department anymore — “Now, the cattle comes in a box” — although he’s proud of the fact that his store still has butchers (and apprentices learning the trade) who can cut meat to order for customers if requested.
“We’ve gone from marking all the prices by hand to having UPC codes for scanning,” he said. “We used to write down in an order book all our items and then drop off our order right at the warehouse. Now, we just go around with a gun, zing, zing, zing, and it orders how many cases you need.”
The biggest changes, perhaps, have been those in the definition of a supermarket itself.
“Supermarkets from years ago were groceries, meat, produce. Now we have bakeries, we have floral, we have restaurants, we have chicken wings, we have pizza. There are pharmacies inside supermarkets,” he said, adding that not only do grocery stores sell more variety, but a greater variety of stores sell groceries.
“Now we have, on every corner, the gas stations selling groceries. You have stores like Dollar General selling groceries. You have drugstores selling beer and groceries. Everyone is selling what you’re selling.”
And that’s where the Budwey family leaves the supermarket game. Frank Budwey has two daughters, both with their own callings. His son, Justin, died in 2009.
“It’s time for me. I think I’ve done everything I could do in the food business. I don’t have an heir to take the business. I’d like to spend time with my grandchildren,” said Budwey, who added that he will probably do something part-time. “I’m not moving to Florida. I’m remaining here in NT. I just want to do a bit more recreation.”
That said, he is going to miss the customers and the employees, even though he plans to stay on as a consultant at the NT store, which is likely to take the Budwey’s name.
“Every day is different” in the grocery business, he said. “Every day, you’re not sure what you’re getting into. It’s not boring.”
And Budwey has stories. Oh, he has stories: The customer who tried to return a bag of ice that had melted (”They wanted their money back”) and the time store employees caught a would-be shoplifter who had concealed a pint of chocolate ice cream under his hat.
“So we talked to him ... for many minutes,” he said with a grin. “And the chocolate started running down the sides of his head. True story.”
From the customers
If Budwey is going to miss the customers, the customers are going to miss him — and the reassurance of having a locally owned store at their fingertips.
Betty Erdei of Wheatfield, who was shopping Thursday at the store on Division Street, said she’s purchased her groceries there for about 26 years.
“You get used to a store being a landmark and then change comes along,” she said. “And you wonder what it’s going to be like.”
Carole Barnard, a volunteer at the Historical Society of the Tonawandas, said that she understands Budwey’s reasons for retiring, but said he’s going to be missed. She recalls Budwey’s helping the “Help a Neighbor” program when she taught at North Tonawanda High School, making donations of money stretch as far as possible when volunteers purchased items for food baskets.
“It’s sad because we know it’s really not going to be the same,” she said. “No matter what.”
On Friday afternoon at the North Tonawanda Senior Center, Marian Szymkowiak, June Kerr, Peggy Hawkins and Barbara Bauerlein discussed the changes coming to the store at which they’ve been shopping for years.
“I don’t want him to leave,” Hawkins said. “Every time I go there I see him walking around and I say, ‘Hi, Frank!’ He’s a sweetheart.”
“We have to go there because we get a big hug and kiss from Mr. Budwey,” she said with a smile. “That’s the only place I go to shop. Nowhere else.”