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Billionaire's Secret: "My Mother Peeled My Grapes!"
Plus! A giant cookie delivery!! A Special Deal!!!
Welcome to Issue #64 of CAFÉ ANNE!
Readers who memorize newsletter content will recall how in Issue #62, I wrote about Strawberry Planks, a strangely-named cookie I found at my local bodega that was shaped nothing like a plank.
I managed to get on the phone with Bud Cason, the 86-year-old founder of the manufacturer, Bud’s Best Cookies, in Birmingham, Alabama. After Mr. Cason explained the odd name, his son Al—who now serves as company president—generously offered to send me some other varieties to try.
I was expecting they might send few packets of Stage Planks, the original plank cookie. But a week later, a giant box arrived at my door. Inside there was not just an entire carton of Stage Planks, but bags of just about every cookie the company makes including Vanilla Wafers (“New Size!”), Peanut Butter n’ Graham Cookies (“Real Peanut Butter in Middles!”), Bite-Size Oatmeal (“Made with California Raisins!”), Ginger Snaps, Birthday Cake, Chocolate Chip (“Lots of Real Chocolate Chips!”), and Strawberry Creams.
I’ve already sampled the Stage Planks, of course, and can report that they are very tasty. But there is no way I am going to eat 14 bags of cookies, no matter how delicious. So going forward, anyone who opts for a Founders level subscription to CAFÉ ANNE will not only get the standard two surprise items in the mail, they will receive a random bag of Bud’s Best Cookies! Those opting for a standard paid subscription, meanwhile, will get a packet of Stage Planks. This offer is good through the end of the month!
My Planks investigation also prompted an email and photo from Rob Walker in New Orleans who writes one of my favorite Substack newsletters, The Art of Noticing. He described his own Planks encounter:
“Below are the Planks we’ve had in our kitchen for several years. I can’t remember which of us bought the original Stage Planks, but it was because it was such a funny concept. Who wants to eat planks? (And why stage planks specifically?). Later I saw the Banana Planks and bought those. It was exciting to see them branching out, but I was disappointed they didn’t keep going in the direction of built-environment materials — like Wood Screws, Slab-On-Grade, or Caulk.
We’ve never considered eating our Stage Planks. They are basically decor.”
Enough cookie talk! I am very excited about this week’s issue. We’ve got a Q&A with billionaire supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, one of those only-in-NYC characters who’s been around for decades, and someone I’ve wanted to interview for a loooong time. Please enjoy.
PS Huge CAFÉ ANNE shout-outs to new paid subscribers Jaime, Hannah, Pianolust and Brynn! Your generous support helps keep this newsletter free for everyone.
Billionaire’s Secret: “My Mother Peeled My Grapes!”
I first met John Catsimatidis in 1998 while reporting for a little community newspaper in Lower Manhattan. The neighborhood was furious about conditions at the local Gristedes grocery store, and Mr. Catsimatidis, who owned the supermarket chain—along with 300 gas stations and an oil refinery—came by to hear their complaints.
I remember thinking it strange that this busy billionaire was attending this little meeting. I was even more intrigued when he showed up in a rumpled suit, took a beating from the grumpy crowd and yelled right back at them for not understanding the supermarket business. He was, clearly, enjoying the rowdy proceedings.
I've interviewed him a couple more times since then—when he ran for NYC mayor in 2013 and most recently for a column in the Wall Street Journal in which I asked him why the prices at my neighborhood Gristedes were so high compared to Trader Joe's. I'll never forget his response: "Trader Joe's has got you fooled!" It was so funny.
I've always wanted a longer interview with this fellow, so I was happy when a publicist emailed recently to say that Mr. Catsimatidis, who is 74 and worth an estimated $4 billion, had an autobiography coming out: "How Far Do You Want to Go? Lessons from a Common-Sense Billionaire." Would I like an interview an interview for CAFÉ ANNE? Hell yeah!
The book was an interesting read, and our Zoom chat was a lot of fun. I hope you enjoy it too! It has been edited for something approaching brevity and clarity.
The cover of your book is not a picture of you—it features the New York City skyline.
The publisher said, “If you looked better, we'd have put a picture of you on it.”
Why do you call yourself a “common-sense billionaire”?
Because I hate extremism. I hate extremism to the right, I hate extremism to the left. I think we gotta run the world on common sense. If we don't run the world on common sense, we're in deep doo-doo.
What's it like to be a billionaire in New York City?
New York City is the greatest city in the world, I love New York City! We're trying to save it. [Here, Mr. Catsimatidis went on little ramble about why he lost the NYC Mayoral race in 2013 and how his daughter married Richard Nixon’s grandson.]
You didn't answer my question!
What's your question?
What it's like to be a billionaire in New York City.
I never go out and spend money like a crazy person. I don't buy $40 million yachts. I don't buy $60 million airplanes, $50 million mansions. I live in the same place I lived 35 years ago, in the same apartment.
Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park...
I used to tell my friends I have a 300-acre front yard—Central Park!
Is there any difference between having $1 billion dollars and $4 billion dollars?
The truth is probably not. That's why I haven't gone crazy so far. According to Forbes magazine, I'm worth $4 billion-something. But they take conservative attitudes on private companies. On public companies, they value it at whatever the stock market is. And if the stock market's full of crap, they value those people up to the moon! Even though they don't belong there. "Oh, I got a billion dollars worth of Bitcoin!" Big f-ing deal! That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard of. You have to be really stupid to believe in Bitcoin.
You grew up in West Harlem. Your dad was a busboy and a waiter. So you've seen both sides of things. What would you say is the connection between wealth and happiness?
I firmly believe in family and friends. From grammar school, I still have a lot of friends I call all the time. A lot of friends from high school. I believe in long-term friends who don't really have an agenda.
What makes me happy is not wealth, it's my family, my kids, my friends. If I was worth $10 billion instead of five, I couldn't give a crap!
A lot of very smart New Yorkers work very hard and they're not as successful as you. What makes you different?
You start in life and you'll reach many, many forks in the road. You have to make sure you're in the right fork, most of the time.
How do you do that?
Common sense! I opened up supermarkets in the early 1970s. By the age of 23, 24, I had ten supermarkets, I was making a million dollars a year when a million dollars was really a million dollars.
Then I came to a realization. When your leases are up, if you don't own the real estate, you don't have a business. In 1977, real estate in New York was going down the crapper, all the way down the sewer. I started using the excess cash flow from the supermarkets to buy real estate. I spent about $5 million. I said, "Worse comes to worse, I'll put a new supermarket in it." Then I wake up one day, maybe 1981, all the sudden it was worth $100 million. That was the first $100 million.
You were an only child. You wrote about how your mother, a Greek immigrant, doted on you so much that she peeled your grapes for you.
And when I lived on 135th Street, the garage on the block was $48 a month. I didn't have $48 a month. But you couldn't leave your car on 135th Street, it was rough. My mother went to work sewing, to pay for the garage. I said, "Mom I'm not going to let you do that!" I made her quit.
That anecdote in your book really struck me. You also wrote about how your dad cashed in his life insurance policy to buy you a Buick when you went to NYU.
With a V-6 engine! That's the car that I needed the garage for!
Right! So was it this crazy support from your parents that gave you confidence—that made you so successful?
The love of your parents is very important. But also, failure was not an option. I didn't want to show my parents that I was a failure. I don't know. It's hard to understand that. It was quite an experience.
You made money in college selling phones and aftershave out of the trunk of your Buick.
I did whatever I had to do. Working for Tony at the supermarket, I was only making 90 cents an hour. I had to put gas in the car. What was the famous aftershave? English Leather? I was selling Russian Leather! I used to buy it for $3 a bottle and sell it for $5 to $10 a bottle. One friend of mine bought it, he said, "John, I hated it! I had to take three showers to get it off!"
When you see street hustlers now in New York City, do you feel an affinity?
No! We have street hustlers all over the city right now. Guys selling fruit in front of our stores. It hurts our stores. They're paying no rent. There's no health inspections. What I tell the city council and mayor—I don't mind the fruit stand. But have them some place where it’s needed. Common sense! Don't have it in front of my store. Put it some place where there's no food!
You left NYU eight credits short of an engineering degree to buy into a supermarket, and worked crazy hours. All through your 20s and 30s, you worked 12 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Is that what it takes to really succeed in business?
Failure is not an option. You do what you have to do to win. That's the other thing I wanted to get across in my book—and I don't think I managed to get it across. You can be successful in business with the attitude of failure not being an option, but you pay for it in many other ways. My friends used to go away and ski on weekends. They used to go to football games. I never became a big football fan, you know why? I was working on Saturdays and Sundays and never got to watch football games! So I did make sacrifices.
Why was it so important to you?
I didn't want to take a chance on not succeeding. You work as hard as you possibly can, so you don't look at yourself in the mirror and say, "I'm not succeeding because I’m not working hard enough.”
You wrote about how at the first supermarket you opened, the Red Apple, you had a cat named Meeps...
I loved Meeps! She had about 140 kittens! We gave them away to the customers to keep them buying cat food.
Do you think any of the city's bodega cats today are related to Meeps?
A lot of them are! One of the cats in one of our stores has to be the grand-grand-granddaughter of Meeps. The exact same look.
In your late 20s, you got your pilot's license and flew solo for the first time. You wrote, "I always loved to fly, but no matter how much flying I did, I did not want to fly alone. The truth is, I didn't like doing anything alone. I didn't like eating alone, I didn't like being in the apartment alone." As you've gotten older, have you gotten better about being alone?
No! I love people. I don't want to be alone. When I was young my mother had to put her arm around me until I fell asleep. I did that for my son and my daughter.
Another part of the book I enjoyed is where you bought tiny Capitol Air in 1983 and really expanded it, and then PEOPLExpress came along with super low fares, and things did not go well after that. It sounds like you went through a period of self-doubt.
I had to sell the airline because I saw the writing on the wall. Running the airline was like running the whole world. Coming back to New York to run 30 supermarkets was a downer. I had to come up with a new reality.
Within a year I bought an oil company. It was in bankruptcy. I took full control of an oil refinery, 300 gas stations, the whole works. I bought 50 Gristedes stores in New York, and I bought Pantry Pride [supermarkets] in Florida. So now all the sudden I'm doing a few billion dollars a year!
You had to be big.
I had to do something. And I learned new businesses. When the creditors asked me, "What do you know about running an oil company?" I said, "Well, olive oil, Mazola oil—it's all oil!" They weren't happy about that answer. But I did well with it. And I paid them in full.
You ran for NYC mayor in 2013. Was that fun?
I didn't have any fundraisers, I had friend-raisers. If you wanted to have a party, I didn't need any money from you, I'll pay for the party. Let me meet all your friends, and that was it. Friend-raisers!
How much did you spend?
Did that seem like a lot to you?
I made it back.
How would NYC look different now if you had won?
It'd be a safer city. It'd be a great city. Instead of floundering now the way we're floundering.
I remember you campaigned on giving free pet food for life to anyone who adopted a shelter dog.
Absolutely! I love animals. The biggest thing that hurts me that the ASPCA and other shelters do is they execute the animals. I think there's got to be a better way. Those animals deserve to live.
You've developed a lot of housing in recent years, in Downtown Brooklyn and Coney Island. Where are you looking to develop in New York City now?
We're building a large project and looking for additional locations in Florida. You want to know why? I love New York but we have to see who New York belongs to. Does it belong to the common-sense New Yorkers? Or does it belong to the crazy New Yorkers who want to make New York into Venezuela?
What are your favorite places in NYC?
I love theater, I love Central Park, the zoos, I love animals. Sometimes when I want a nice Saturday afternoon I go to Central Park and feed the pigeons.
Do you get back to Greece much these days?
I don't have many relatives left there, but I like to take my kids to the Greek Islands because they’re beautiful and relaxing.
I love that there's a Greek postage stamp with your picture on it.
I wasn't going to do it and then I said my forefathers would be happy about it.
That same year they did one of me, they did one of [George] Stephanopoulos and one of, I forget—there were five of us. But mine was the most used! It was the most popular stamp for three consecutive years!
More recently, you bought and reprogrammed a big talk radio station, 77WABC. That sounds like so much fun, to buy a radio station and decide who goes on the air.
And took it from number 28 in the community to the top two or three. I hired Cousin Brucie! He's 87 years old. I gave him a thirty-year contract!
You also launched a new minor league ball team, the Staten Island Ferry Hawks.
When the Yankees call you up and say, "We want you to be our partner,” who'd be dumb enough to say no?
We'll be working on it harder this year. We hired a new manager who used to be a New York Yankee, and we're looking to win the World Series of the Atlantic League.
Who's the big rival this summer?
Maybe the Long Island Ducks.
What's your next project?
More fun! Maybe we should make movies. I enjoy movies that either make you cry or make you laugh. If a movie makes you laugh at the end or cry at the end, I think it's a successful movie.
The last question I wanted to ask—there are 107 billionaires in New York City, so I want you to help me write the headline for this interview. It would be, "John Catsimatidis is New York's Most what Billionaire"? Fill in the blank.
The Most Common-Sense Billionaire!
That's already your book title. I need something fresh.
Fresh. Let me think. “Down-to-Earth Billionaire”?
I don't think that's very catchy.
Well, let me think about it a few seconds. “Family-oriented?” You got a challenge, kid. Text me later, I'll think about it.
When I texted Mr. Catsimatidis the next morning, he still didn't have a good headline. But he did answer my one follow-up question which was, "Who peels your grapes now?"
"I eat them as is," he replied. "Only green grapes. Seedless when available."
And ever the grocer, he added: "Now grapes almost all seedless. 53 weeks a year."
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