I grew up working in our family’s small chain of grocery stores in Indianapolis — appropriately named Richard’s Market Baskets, because my father was Richard Blankenbaker. My jobs included cashier, bagger, produce packager, stocker, fruit basket maker and eventually head night cashier. I even returned from college, work as a US Congressional Aide, and law school every holiday to fill in wherever I could be most helpful.
I loved the stores and the prestige of being the oldest of Richard’s five children. Dad was a beloved civic leader, serving as Methodist Church Lay Leader, Director Of Public Safety for the Indianapolis City County government and on boards for a major hospital, the Indianapolis Community Foundation and sundry other organizations too.
Dad grew up in extraordinarily challenging circumstances in Southern Indiana. His father was an abusive alcoholic, who abandoned his family; his mother developed myasthenia gravis after that. At age 17, Dad had to drop out of high school, give up a basketball scholarship to Butler University and move his mother and younger brothers to Indianapolis for her medical treatments. He worked in grocery stores to support them, where his smarts, heart and work ethic quickly moved him up the management ladder and eventually allowed him to start his own business. Because Dad wowed everyone who worked with or knew him, our family business seemed invincible. I envisioned my generation eventually taking over the stores, adding organic, specialty and cooked foods, and elevating the business to become more like Wegmans Food Markets on the East Coast.
But, we make our plans and God laughs.
The industry changed and my father made many mistakes, including not paying enough attention to the day-to-day operations. Big-box grocery stores, like Cub Foods and Costco, eroded the market share of smaller ones like ours. “Slip and fall” lawsuits were filed and settled with increasing frequency, because word got out that Dad never fought erroneous claims. Store managers robbed us. Truckloads of meat “disappeared” at night — petty cash and occasional bank deposits did too. Dad was too busy serving others through his civic responsibilities, or just to disheartened, to reengage in the hands-on management activities that could have stopped the bleed.
No one knew how bad business had gotten — not my mother, my siblings nor me until the stress of it killed Dad. He died suddenly of a stroke at age 58, leaving a mess that my youngest sibling, Jim, and I tried to clean up.
Pregnant with my fourth child, charged with being the executor of Dad’s estate because of my legal training, wracked with grief and concern for my mother, I had to put Richard’s Market Baskets into bankruptcy and run interference with for mom. Jim dropped out of college to run the stores.
We couldn’t save them. So 32 years ago, we liquidated everything to pay off creditors, watching our family business dream slip away through newspaper headlines chronicling the stores’ demise and our misfortunes.
Since then, it has gotten even harder for family businesses to survive and thrive. Big-box stores and e-commerce continue to squeeze small, local retailers. I care passionately about fighting those trends, helping locally owned and family owned as much as possible. That’s why Better prioritizes recommendations that support community businesses and holds our annual “Best Of” contest, celebrating the local businesses and organizations Better readers name best in their communities. That’s also why Better publishes our annual list of outstanding family-owned businesses.
Like our “Best of” awards, we invite your help lifting up your favorite family-owned and locally owned businesses — and the people that make them great. Please help us shine a light on these local treasures by nominating your favorites for our consideration and support the outstanding businesses we have featured in the past as well as the winners of our “Best Of” contest.
If you have your own story about a family-owned business, please share it with us. Your voice and insight are important. These submissions will be included in our March content, celebrating outstanding family-owned and local businesses.
Thank you for helping us celebrate and support the businesses that make our lives and communities better.