Monday, November 30, 1998

The King of Kosher bounces back with Loblaw

Joeseph Anthony returns to a tough food industry


The image of a well-heeled Hollywood impressario comes to mind as Joseph Anthony's sleek, steel-gray Jag Sovereign glides to a stop in the parking lot of a local steakhouse. As he swings his size 9 tan cowboy boots onto the pavement, Anthony looks like anything but a bruised entrepreneur who got baffed by the Big Boys of the Quebec food industry four years ago when he dared challenge them as an independent operator under his own banner at Decarie Square.

Beneath the tanned skin, bushy eyebrows and gray-tinged mustache beats the heart of the proverbial riverboat gambler.

In January, 1994, he sank "hundreds of thousands of dollars" of his own money into opening a supermarket at Decarie Square, a west-end mall which has experienced trouble attracting shoppers in recent years.

Within two months, he had introduced his Passover Warehouse concept at the mall.It was an instant success with Jewish shoppers. The King of Kosher was on his game - a definite threat to the west-end operations of Metro, Provigo and IGA. At about the same time, Anthony began experiencing difficulties in obtaining his supplies at a competitive price from the distribution arms of the local supermarket chains. Sales stalled and his TD banker began to grow nervous as Anthony negotiated furiously behind the scenes to make a deal with National Grocers - the distribution arm of Loblaw - to supply him.

By the time the realtionship with National Grocers had been cemented in the fall of 1994, the die had been cast.

The TD recalled his line of credit in December, 1994, putting an end to the heroic venture.

Metro, Provigo and IGA thought they had seen the last of him. But this guy is tougher than Rocky I, II, III and IV combined. Within one year he was back at Decarie Square - under his own banner, once again - at the behest, and with the support, of mall owner Canpro, which is well aware of Anthony's strong bond with west-end shoppers. He is the guru of kosher - a critical element in garnering success among the predominantly Jewish clientele in the west end.

Nine months ago, Anthony left his namesake at Decarie Square to join Loblaw in their new Quebec ventures.He helped with the opening of the first Loblaw supermarket in Longueuil, after which he was enlisted to work at the new St. Laurent branch on St. Croix Road.

Loblaw, Canada's biggest retail and food distributor with $7.7 billion in sales in 1997, knows it pulled a coup in recruiting Anthony from under the noses of the local Quebec supermarkets. During the opening day ceremony at the St. Laurent store, John Lederer, executive vice-president of Loblaw Companies Ltd., was overheard telling CEO Richard J. Currie: "He (Anthony) is a local entrepreneur and we got him."

After more than 30 years in the supermarket industry with Steinberg and Provigo, Anthony - a disciple of the late Sam Steinberg - is one of the best-known and hardest-working food industry executives in Montreal.

He routinely puts in more than 60 hours a week on the job.

His customers know him as the congenial "boss" who mingles with them on the floor, garnering input and making note of their requests for speciality items.

What many of his clients don't know is that Anthony also enjoyed a distinguished career in the music industry between stints with the Steinberg organization in the 60s and 70s.

As he digs into his rib steak, Anthony reminisces about the years he managed the career of his kid brother, pop star Andy Kim. He's dressed like he's just stepped out of a recording studio in L.A. An 18-karat gold choker dangles nonchalantly around his neck inside the open collar of his blue, denim Guess T-shirt. He wears matching blue jeans.

"I knew he had the Royal Jelly," he says, recalling his younger brother, Andy, as a teenager in the 60s.

"He had the look, the voice. And, boy, could he write songs."

Joseph - the eldest of four boys in the family - was already a district sales manager in the Steinberg chain at the time, with 22 stores under his supervision. But his entrepreneurial drive didn't stop at the checkout counter.

He sent his brother, who was 16 at the time, to live with their uncle in New Jersey. Every week, Joseph would fly to the Big Apple and take Andy to visit the big record studios with demo tapes in hand.

They finally cut a deal with Paramount. Less than a year and a half later, Andy Kim had his first big hit: How Did We Ever Get This Way. Within a short period, he was churning out one blockbuster after another: Shoot Em Up Baby; Sugar Sugar; Rock Me Gently.

During his vacation time, Joseph and Andy would pile into Joseph's black Cadillac Sedan de Ville and hit small-town radio stations between New York City and Detroit to promote Andy's records.

Joseph, who was single at the time, recalls the mobs of fans who greeted curly-haired, 6 foot, 2 inch Andy at each stop. "People freaked out to see this pop star pulling up to the local radio station in their town. He was the show. I was the biz. The royalities were rolling in."

In December, 1969, Joseph quit the Steinberg organization to work full-time as his brother's manager out of New York. One year later, they followed the recording industry to L.A. European tours ensued after the release of Sugar Sugar, which sold 25 million records.

The good times rolled - trips to the glamour spots of Europe, euphonious jam sessions, wild parties, beautiful women, pelf. A beatific smile creases Anthony's tanned face as he recalls past glories. A short laugh; a terse summary of those long-ago ambrosial nights: "It was too much. It was all just too much."

The road veered back to Montreal in 1976 when Joseph's elderly father fell ill. He moved back to spend the last months with his dad, who died six months later. Joseph decided life on the road was no longer for him, opting instead to stay in Montreal "near the people I loved."

He married his long-time sweetheart, Edie, and accepted an offer from the Steinberg organization to develop a new-concept grocery store for the Westmount carriage trade. The result was Cinque Saisons on Greene Avenue - an innovative prototype aimed at shoppers seeking speciality items.

Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.