The Johnny I Knew 

A writer reflects on his relationship with a grocery maverick.

Johnny Johnson let me go.

Laid off is probably the more accurate term — if I was fired for cause, they didn't tell me so — but it was jarring nonetheless. Dreams of writing a book, or working in one of his stores as a manager to learn the business, disappeared like two-for-one Butterballs.

About midmorning, maybe 10:30 or so, Johnny's top lieutenant, Jim Lackovitch, called me into his office at the Market at Tobacco Row, my training ground.

“I'm really sorry, Scott,” Jim deadpanned. They reworked the numbers and couldn't keep me on the payroll. I should get my things and go. They'd pay me through the end of the week. And, oh, Johnny still wanted to do the book.

Stunned, I wandered downstairs, grabbed my coat, managed a few bewildered goodbyes and headed for the parking lot, the same one I cleaned at 6 a.m. It was a warm, sunny day outside, but I can't remember which day of the week, or even the month. I think it was early June, but it could have been May.

On the descending drive on Main Street, through the Bottom toward the expressway, I recall passing my old office at 19th and Franklin streets where I'd been laid off six months earlier. Sadly, it's where I peaked as a journalist, a business editor no less, working for a paper that never made money. I had worked at the market only four weeks, but I needed that job.

Getting laid off once is easy to justify. The second time you start wondering, “What's wrong with me?” As a business reporter for seven years, I don't recall many companies pink-slipping their best employees. More often than not, they tended to keep their shining stars around. And I couldn't cut it bagging groceries.

But that's not what bothered me. Where was the Johnny I knew 15 years ago? This would have never happened when I worked for him as a frozen-food clerk at Farm Fresh (remember “The Grocery Store?”) on Midlothian Turnpike. I was still in high school when I first met Johnny. I was in my late teens; he was in his mid-20s. Although never close friends, we connected. I was one of a few clerks allowed into his after-work circle. We played basketball together.

Years later, Johnny gave me access. As a reporter for Inside Business, I wrote about his first foray into the suburbs when he purchased three local Rack & Sack grocery stores. I remember feeling sick that the story — it bluntly detailed his rocky relationship with Jim Ukrop — would end our friendship, however superficial. On his cell phone one afternoon, Johnny broke down when I asked about the $700,000 Jim Ukrop gave him to start Community Pride. “What are you doing to me!” he moaned, his voice cracking.

It took longer and longer for him to respond to my calls. Then he stopped returning messages altogether. I ran into him at a luncheon in the fall of 2002, a couple of months before losing my job at Inside Business. After bleeding more red ink than ever, the paper would shut down that November. He was beaming about his new store in the Bottom — his baby — and he joked that I should work for him.

Nervously, I chuckled that I'd give him a call.

In the spring of 2003, I called. He answered. I'd become an assistant store manager, learn the business and then I'd write the Johnny Johnson story. For someone struggling to pay bills freelancing, it sounded great. He took me to his house, his fancy mod house with the pool, the personal gym, the giant garage with the convertible inside. I was back in with Johnny, the man. But my reporter's instincts failed me. I ignored the giant bags under his eyes. The long, stressing sighs during phone calls. The cold shoulder he gave his mother, who takes every opportunity to heap praise on her son.

That was the last time I connected with Johnny. I worked all the shifts. I counted the tills at night and in the morning, built grocery displays, ran the cash registers and bagged groceries. Those four weeks I saw Johnny once, maybe twice.

There was pride-swallowing pain, the kind that makes you grind your teeth when a customer looks you up and down. My secret to working retail? Convince yourself you're better than the customers. You are taking their money, so that means you win. During my days at Farm Fresh, Johnny nearly fired me for forgetting this. During a price check, a customer disagreed with the price I reported to the cashier for a box of frozen peas. Angrily, I slammed the peas on the conveyor belt and yelled at the customer. I probably should have been fired. Johnny gave me a second chance.

There were no such instances at the Market. But I got the boot anyway. I was glad he let me go instead of someone else who'd been with the company longer. Still, something was amiss in the magical land of Johnny — the Lincoln Navigators, the motorcycles, his fancy house in Woodlake — and once again I was oblivious. I had no idea the business was in trouble. Employees there told me about the massive cutbacks shortly after the store opened — one said half the front end was eliminated within a few weeks — and there were a lot of nervous managers.

I didn't put it together. I was duped by the big-screen TV in his office, the boxes of expensive cigars. (I also remember seeing a copy of Playboy on his coffee table, the “Girls of Enron” issue). And the stories of triumph.

Johnny's urban grocery chain had allowed him to launch a successful consulting career. Big companies such as Pepsico and Anheuser-Busch hired Johnny to teach them the mysteries of inner-city retail. The consultancy netted more money than the grocery chain, he once told me. The grocery stores, in effect, were his incubators.

Ever since my stint at the Market, I took myself off the Johnny Johnson beat. Impartiality is critical in the newspaper business, and I ‘d gotten too close to a subject. But earlier this month, I managed to make my way down to a Saturday morning pep rally for Johnny. I took my notebook and my camera.

A week after news broke of his legal fight with grocery distributor SuperValu, his employees threw him a party. His company, Marketplace Holdings, which consists of three Community Pride grocery stores and the Market, is in serious trouble. His failed attempt to acquire Camellia Foods, an 18-store chain in Hampton Roads, according to the lawsuit, means he can't generate enough buying power to stay in business. The margins in the grocery business are razor-thin, and Johnny always felt he had to grow to survive.

The suit claims SuperValu sabotaged his growth plans, introduced another buyer to purchase Camellia and overcharged his existing chain, souring his reputation with other vendors within the industry. Much of it was racially motivated, the suit claims. He's suing for more than $25 million, claiming as injuries a plethora of health problems including depression, seven bleeding ulcers, chest pains and even impotence.

At the heart of the suit lies Johnny's business philosophy — grow, merge or die. It's been Johnson's mantra even before his days at Community Pride, when he was working his way up the ladder at Farm Fresh. He worked and still works tirelessly, heading into the office at 4 or 5 in the morning and regularly working until late at night to make his money, grow the business, do whatever it takes.

But somewhere along the line, the Johnny I knew disappeared. At the pep rally, it was strange to see Johnny in tears, his eyes and face pink from sobbing. Maybe the Rev. Al Sharpton broke the dam with his fire and brimstone. I'm sure Ray Boone, the sleepy-eyed publisher of the Free Press, didn't help with his hugs of endearment.

Some think this is Johnny putting on a show, gasping for straws in the 11th hour. But I'm not so sure. Fifteen years ago there were no tears. Perhaps I've become too partial, but I would have never dreamed Johnny would call in celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran and Al Sharpton to declare a race war against his supplier.

Back in the day, skin color didn't matter. I remember shoplifters who were black getting rejected by the man. ‘Help a brother out?' fell on deaf ears. Jim, who was white and extremely muscular, once told me he'd do anything for Johnny. At Community Pride, they saved lives. They gave jobs to people who never get the chance anywhere else. But he had to bring the streets to his stores, or vice versa, depending on your view.

When Jim first started working there, Johnny went out and bought him a Glock. For the few weeks, Jim wore the pistol in a shoulder holster, on full display. After that, everyone knew. That was the deal: Steal from Johnny and there'd be hell to pay. There is a code, however. Stealing bread meant you were hungry. Stealing steaks crossed the line.

At the pep rally, I could almost hear sneers from the business community in the distance. Johnnie Cochran, Al Sharpton, racially induced impotence.

But I keep wondering — where's Johnny? S

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