Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The decline and fall of a favorite market

This story was conceived as simple salute to a well-known store that went under. In reporting it, however, I found a story that hadn't been told: the store's misfortunes were the result not of bad weather and a bad roof, as everyone thought, but of bad management.

Fallen King's Market to be auctioned

For some, this is final indignity for the gourmet grocery that had ruled supreme

Date: Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Edition: Palm Beach Section: Local Page: 1B
Dateline: Boca Raton
Byline: By Howard Goodman Staff Writer

The building stands empty, stripped of its name and streaked with graffiti.

And now a further indignity: A billboard proclaims that the building and grounds of the former King's Gourmet Market -almost 2 acres at

a high-profile Boca Raton intersection -are up for auction.

Bids start at $3.9 million. Principal owner Jeff Sussman is telling all comers that the site, on Military Trail just south of Glades

Road, is perfect for high-end retail, a restaurant, an office tower.

"It's a unique situation," says Sussman, who sports the longish hair of a 1980s rocker and the eternal optimism of a serial entrepreneur.

But to people connected to King's Market in its heyday -- when gleaming fruits and vegetables piled irresistibly in perfect pyramids, when fresh-made loaves of bread filled the bakery counter, when the meat and fish departments groaned with tantalizing cuts and catches -- the auction denotes heartbreak.

King's shut down a year and a half ago, when broken trusses in the ceiling prompted city officials to order the 29-year-old market closed at once.

Seventy-five people lost their jobs.

Yet there's more to this regicide than a broken crown. Some ex-employees and others say that King's was on a crash course ever since the founding Costa family sold it in 2005.

"It took a year and a half to put a $15 million business out of business," 20-year employee Arnold Levine said with bitter wonderment.

It was a store known for quality and good prices.

"You can ask anyone," said Levine, now meat manager at Kosher Marketplace west of Boca. "If they wanted something good, they came to King's: A roast. A cake. An apple. Any perishable."

Founder Sam Costa was a Cleveland grocery magnate who came to Florida to retire, but couldn't stay idle long.

"Sam was extremely passionate about his store," said Larry Ikerd, a King's manager for almost 10 years.

Costa brought in his sons, Sam Jr. and Carl, and the staff grew large. Even at 84, he worked the produce section every day, personally weeding out the bruised pieces, Ikerd said .

"Some of the produce was just phenomenal," said Ikerd, who manages Doris Italian Market across town. "I have not seen anything like it since."

But in July 2005, Sam Jr. died of a heart attack at age 49. The bereaved Sam Sr. and Carl didn't want to continue.

Sussman, a restaurant broker, was brought in to engineer a sale. He ended up finding partners and buying King's himself.

The new group made quick changes, former staffers say -adding more prepared and packaged foods, but without the Costas' discernment and low prices. Said former produce manager, Jay Shapiro, a 17-year King's employee: "It was not a specialty store any more. It was more
like a 7-Eleven."

The public began to turn away, the King's staffers said. "For years, the store would never do less than $250,000 a week," Levine said.

When he left in November 2006 "they were doing less than $200,000 a week."

Sussman disputes this. He said changes on King's shelves were minor -and for the better.

"We did add some more prepared foods," he said. "That's what people wanted."

Customer traffic "basically stayed the same," Sussman said. "It was maybe 10 percent down." The customer base went higher-end. "It

looked like a Mercedes dealership out here in the parking lot," he said.

The former workers say the building's condition was no secret. "Everybody knew the state of that roof when they [the new ownership] bought it," Ikerd said. "I worked there almost 10 years, and it leaked like a sieve."

Sussman says he fixed the roof. But the trusses? Another story. He says water damage occurred after the purchase and went undiscovered until too late.

After the city shut the market, it was too expensive to bring the 30-year-old building up to current code, he said.

A plan to relocate west of Boca Raton fell through. Too little cash, Sussman said: his group was hampered by insurance complications.

An expansion to Delray Beach also fell through.

Sussman loves to talk up the glories of King's -how Boca Raton treasured its meats, produce, wine selection. "A day doesn't go by when someone doesn't ask me, `When's King's going to open?' "

And he swears it will reopen -somewhere, sometime. "King's will rise again," he said.

That is to be seen. What's certain is the King's name, instead of adorning a working store, is now the shorthand for a property headed for the auction block.

"Whatever goes here -an office building, whatever it is," Sussman said, "people will drive by forever, and they'll say: 'That's where King's was.' "

Sun-Sentinel photo / Robert Mayer: Jeff Sussman outside the empty King's Market.

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