Grocer still holding his own after 50 years of running store

Even at 90 years old, Ben Rich continues day-to-day operations

Ben Rich prepares a display of the cards in his grocery store, in St. Joseph, Mo., March 31. Rich said he had received birthday cards for his 90th birthday from people he had not heard from in years. Rich's store has been in business for more than 50 years.

? Ben Rich held his ground. He hadn’t flinched once in more than 50 years and he wasn’t moving now. No matter what one of the workers from the Speedy’s convenience store down the street said.

“When Speedy’s opened up down here, one of the fellas that worked there came up and said, ‘Well, you better close up ’cause we’re moving in down there,”‘ Rich said from behind his Formica counter. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve been here a long time. Safeway was only two blocks away from me and they’re gone and I’m still here. I’m not worried about you and what you’re doing down there.”‘

And so Rich’s Food Store & Liquor stands on the corner of 19th Street and Mitchell Avenue as it has for more than half a century. The winds of five decades worth of change blow right over the small green building with the red and white sign.

Rich still makes sandwiches. The sign in the window reads “Sandwiches $1.25 with cheese $1.50.” He’ll still cut you a steak and sell you a pound of hamburger from his butcher counter. He still makes homemade ham salad.

And he still wraps everything up in white butcher paper.

What he doesn’t do is think about leaving.

“I’m not working that hard, it’s just something to do,” he said. “I enjoy meeting the public and the people that come in and I feel I’ve made a lot of friends.”

In the beginning, Rich wasn’t this tenacious about holding on to the store. In fact, he was a little tired of the food business.

His mother and father, Jake and Jennie Rich, both Russian immigrants, ran a grocery store on South 10th Street when he was a child. And as soon as he turned 12, he went to work at Ben Magoon’s delicatessen. He stayed at Ben Magoon’s until he left for the service at 27.

After serving a three-year hitch in the Army, he and his young wife, the former Lillian Friedman, thought about moving to Colorado. Lillian’s brother lived out there and invited them to come out and find work.

“I didn’t want to go back to work for Ben Magoon. I didn’t want anything to do with the food business,” Rich said.

But Lillian’s parents, David and Esther Friedman, had run a small store called the Mitchell Avenue Grocery on the corner of 19th and Mitchell since 1909.

Esther Friedman took ill not too long after Rich got home from the service. Still wanting to keep the business in the family, she asked her daughter and her new husband to take over.

“To keep her happy, I told my wife, ‘OK we’ll take it over and in a couple of years we’ll just close up and go to Colorado,”‘ Rich remembered. “Then it became a challenge to see if I could make a go of it.”

In January 1948, the business became Rich’s Food and Liquor Store. He later changed it to Rich’s Food Store and Liquor after a Missouri liquor inspector had advised it.

It sold liquor, meat and many more groceries. And every Sunday they sold more than 100 dozen doughnuts and other fresh baked goods.

“There would be times through the years and holidays when the big stores closed, I would have to lock the doors,” Rich said. “Sometimes there were too many people in the store and I was afraid the floor might give way.”

Lillian Rich died in 1995. She worked side by side with her husband in the store for 47 years.

Rich’s doesn’t stay open until 10 p.m. anymore. It closes at 5:30 now.

And Rich has just celebrated his 90th birthday. He doesn’t know how long he’ll keep the door open to Rich’s Food Store and Liquor.

“If I get to feeling sick or something, I’ll lock it up. I wouldn’t even sell it to an enemy,” he said. “But it makes you feel pretty good that you’ve held out.”