"Santa Claus"-like Bemidji man gives away his business, gets national attention

This is no puny grocery store.
This is no puny grocery store.

Bemidji may be the town worried about beaver sculptures painted like genitalia and profanity in Newsweek, but it's also the town of small business owners with hearts of gold.

Joe Lueken, a 70-year-old soon-to-be-retiree and 46-year grocery store veteran, offers an antidote to Black Friday corporate madness this holiday season. Instead of driving his employees to, say, strike in the parking lot in protest of crazy Thanksgiving work hours, he's giving his business away to them.

There aren't any catches to this fairy tale. Employees won't pay a cent, and the businesses aren't in debt; they're doing well. Starting January 1, Lueken's 400-ish employees will begin receiving ownership of two Lueken's Village Foods supermarkets in Bemidji, and a third in Wahpeton, North Dakota, via an Employee Stock Ownership Program.

Lueken had offers to sell his stores, but he wanted to keep profits in the community and give back to employees. "We could have hired a gunslinger from Minneapolis," his son, Jeff, tells the Star Tribune. But "the whole move revolves around people, not things or money."

For their part, Lueken's employees seem to love the guy, painting a picture of a manager who gets to work at 3:30 in the morning and reads the paper in the break room. "He's rockin' awesome," one said to the Strib.

The move is getting national attention. "We no longer have to lie to kids about Santa Claus," begins a post on Gawker-owned site Jezebel this morning. "The kind-hearted giant is alive and kicking in Bemidji, Minnesota."

Lueken's generosity is enough to inspire the Jezebel author to start, um, fantasizing. "Does this man have a grandson?" she writes. "Because I'd like to get it on with him and create a million little Luekens. And, considering my familial nickname is "Lu", I think it's a sign -- we'll name our first child Lu Lueken and he'll grow up to become the king of the great nation of CanMexica. And I will be his queen."

Target, your move.

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