It’s not often that people refer to their former workplaces as “family.”
Oh, but they do at Budwey’s Market.
Such talk was commonplace Saturday when grocer Frank Budwey welcomed past employees to the North Tonawanda supermarket for “Alumni Recognition Day.”
“Budwey’s is an extended family,” said Frank DiBernardo, who met his wife Patti there. “Everybody in North Tonawanda knew everybody, and this is where we all worked and started our lives together.”
“This was like family,” said Toni Capello. “We loved it here. You couldn’t find any place like this.”
She worked alongside her mother, Dora Spaziana, in the 1960s. Daughter Sue Stefanski worked there, too.
“Frankie is generous, loving, caring -- honestly, he’s a wonderful man,” said Capello, adding that he always gave people a second chance.
In April 2015, Budwey announced he was giving ownership shares of the store to 33 full-time employees, along with a $1 million loan for upgrades. Budwey, 67, plans to remain involved another nine years.
At the time, retail expert Burt Flickinger III praised his act of generosity.
“Frank Budwey should be on the retail equivalent of Mount Rushmore for this,” Flickinger said. “That kind of generosity is unprecedented in North American retail history, and in business history.”
Budwey’s grandmother began the business in 1927 at a different location on Division Street. His father then took it over. When he died unexpectedly, it left Budwey’s 29-year-old widowed mother, with four children, to run Budwey’s, which had expanded to three supermarkets.
Budwey grew up in the business, and after serving in the Army during the Vietnam War, he returned in 1974 to take over the reins.
A few years ago, Budwey sold two of the stores but ultimately couldn’t let go of the one in North Tonawanda. But he needed a succession plan.
That led to his decision to give the business to longtime employees, and provide a low-interest $1 million loan to put in new wooden floors, upgrade dairy cases and produce displays and add some “paint and powder” to give the market a refreshed look.
While the books for the first year aren’t complete, Budwey said it looks like the employee-owned store outperformed the previous year by about 10 percent.
Capello said she wasn’t surprised by Budwey’s generosity.
“I thought, ‘That’s Frankie. That is Frankie,’ ” she said.
To Budwey, the formula for good employees is pretty basic.
“You just treat people the way you want to be treated. It’s really simple,” Budwey said. “It doesn’t cost you anything to say good morning, to give them a little hug, or kiss.
“We don’t have any sexual harassment lawsuits, but I hug and kiss all of my employees, except the guys,” Budwey said. “And we hug and kiss a lot of the customers.”
Ernie Green worked in the meat department as a senior in high school in 1977, and met his future wife Cindy when she asked him to open a Krakus ham.
“Those were some of the best times of our lives, you know, looking back now,” Green said. “I spent 22 years as a police officer in North Tonawanda, and that job paid a lot better, but it wasn’t as much fun.”
About 60 former employees turned out, but Budwey said he expects a lot more will attend the summer picnic he’s already planning.
“We want to keep it going because it was just so joyful seeing people reminiscing and, ‘Hi, How are you? I haven’t seen you,’ ” Budwey said.