Leon Stapleton owns a Thriftway supermarket franchise located at 4400 East 39th. Street in Kansas City, Missouri. Mr. Stapleton is a spritely, 90-years young, and shows up to work at his store everyday. Leon Stapleton purchased his franchise in 1968, after it was destroyed by a Molotov cocktail that was thrown inside during the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Prior to owning his own franchise, Mr. Stapleton worked at a Safeway supermarket, where he was the first Black person to be hired by a franchise grocer. His hiring made it possible for other Black people to be hired by other major chain stores in the Kansas City area, such as Kroger’s, A&P, and Milgram stores.
Mr. Stapleton got into the grocery business by pure chance. Upon returning from World War II, he thought he would chase women and do a little gambling to pass the time, but at the urging of his pastor, Leon decided to get a job at the local Safeway. He worked his way up to becoming a store manager and learned all aspects of the grocery business. During the riots, the store he managed was in the path of the rioting, so he got a lounge chair and sat out front of the store to protect it from vandalism. That store was spared destruction but the store he would eventually buy was badly damaged by a Molotov cocktail. After seeing his dedication, a group of grocery store owners approached him about owning his own grocery franchise. Mr. Stapleton told the group, “I don’t have any money,” but they told him they would assist him in getting a SBA (Small Business Administration) loan.
Leon Stapleton and his wife, Willosia, had a total of seven children. Since owning his Thriftway chain, all of his children have worked at the store at some point in time. It’s truly a family business because all of his grandchildren have worked there at some point as well. Although the day to day operations of the business is ran by other family members now, Mr. Stapleton makes it his duty to stop in every day and check on the store. The store was in the process of going out of business towards the end of 2015 but was kept open at the urging of people within the community. The grocery store is absolutely needed by the community because a huge amount of the store’s customers either get there by walking or taking the bus. Because of being limited by how much groceries they can carry at one time while walking or on the bus, some customers are at Leon’s Thriftway store several times per week. When the weather is bad or a person buys more than they can carry, Mr. Stapleton makes it his duty to drive his customers home himself.
Leon Stapleton and his family are a rarity in the grocery business because approximately 99% of all the groceries stores (places that sell non-perishable foods, fresh produce, butchers, delis, and bakeries) in America are owned by non-blacks. At the time of this writing, there is only 5 known grocery stores in the country that are owned by a Black person. Mr. Stapleton battled through racism, poverty and competition from bigger supermarkets, to keep the doors of his family’s grocery store open and we hope that Leon’s Thriftway market will continue to serve the needs of the Kansas City community for many years to come.