Family business stands the many tests of time

Nortown Foods has grown from small kosher butcher shop to grocery chain

At 13, he was stocking shelves.

At 16, driving the meat delivery truck.

But if you’d asked Brian Klein back in the late 70s if he thought he’d be helping run his father’s iconic kosher-style deli, he probably
would’ve replied no.

Today, Brian and his father Michael oversee day-to-day operations of three Nortown Foods stores located in Toronto and Thornhill.
Their flagship location on Eglinton Avenue near Bathurst Street is celebrating 50 years in the community.

After obtaining a degree in business administration, Brian went back to help manage the store. What was once a summer job became a full-fledged career.

“I feel that it’s a great business,” said Brian. “I admire my father, I think he’s an incredible businessman and he’s really carved out a niche in the city for this type of store.”

A Holocaust survivor, Michael came to Canada from Czechoslovakia after the war, finding work as a butcher.

He opened his own business in 1960 at the cost of $8,000.

Michael bought the Nortown Foods building in 1965 and expanded it in the early 70s. By 1989, he had opened two more locations — one in York Mills, the other at Promenade Mall in Thornhill.

Though it started out as a small butcher shop, ready-to-eat food soon became a popular product. Today, chicken soup, coleslaw, chopped liver and baked goods are among the food items lining the shelves.

And like the day they opened, Michael can still be found in the store, managing its affairs.

“I love to work, and I take pride in it,” said Michael, who added he has no plans to retire. “It keeps you going.”

The younger Klein credits his father with being an innovative entrepreneur.

Michael had the idea to create a refrigerated display window at the front of the store so all prepared foods were sold directly from that window.

“He always wanted to be progressive and always wanted to be a step ahead,” Brian said. “At our Promenade store we’ve got about close to 40 feet of deli now, which is huge.”

Beyond deli meat and food, Brian said his father fought for his right to do business.

About 25 years ago, Nortown went to the Supreme Court of Canada to successfully argue that the Ontario Retail Business Holiday Act was not in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights of Freedoms, since the act didn’t allow stores to do business on Sundays.

Today, Nortown remains a family affair. Michael’s daughter Marilyn runs the kitchen. Grandchildren can also be found working there.
And it isn’t just the staff that has familial roots with the store.

“I think we can safely say we’re actually into four generations of people,” said Brian. “(Customers) are saying that they’re great-grandchildren of original shoppers.”

About this article:

By: Karolyn Coorsh
Posted: Mar 3 2010 11:11 am
Filed in: Business
Edition: Toronto