Minnesota grocer gives company to his faithful employees

Nadine Kalinauskas
Good News

Joe Lueken, 70, is ready to say goodbye to the successful grocery store chain he spent 46 years building.

Instead of selling Lueken's Village Foods to the highest bidder, however, Lueken is transferring ownership of his three stores, two in Bemidji, Minnesota and another in Wahpeton, North Dakota, to his 400 workers through an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP).

His generous decision won't require the employees to pay anything for their shares, based on length of service and salary, in the company.

"My employees are largely responsible for any success I've had, and they deserve to get some of the benefits of that," Lueken told the Star Tribune earlier this week. "You can't always take. You also have to give back."

"He's rockin' awesome," said employee Maria Svare, 41, who started at Lueken's in 2009 and worked up to front-end manager.

"He chose to protect his people," she said. "Being owners will make us care more about our work. It gives you something to call your own and gives you a more comfortable retirement to look forward to."

Lueken's son, Jeff, told the Star Tribune that the move best reflects his father's heart:

"The whole move revolves around people, not things or money," Jeff said. "It's about allowing people to grow with the business and send their kids to college and have a great retirement, and even to express themselves at work."

In 2010, on his 81st birthday, Bob Moore of Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods gave his company to his employees through a similar stock-ownership plan.