Shopping for Gracie Mansion

John Catsimatidis wants to be the next billionaire mayor

"Look at the Democratic field," Catsimatidis says. "Quinn, Wiener, and Thompson are all professional politicians. Have they ever run a business?"

Some local political observers give him a chance. "He's counting on the Democrats lining up their firing squad in a circle, as usual," says one. "The Democratic field is a bit unexciting—when Bill Thompson is Mr. Excitement, we've got some problems here."

"What's attractive is the bio," says another political adviser. "He's more in the neighborhoods, more in the streets."

Bradford Noble/

Some noted, however, that if Ray Kelly, the city's police commissioner, decides to run, it's a different story. Whatever you think about his press operation, Kelly is viewed as a strong candidate.

One of Catsimatidis's competitors puts it bluntly: "I don't give him a snowball's chance in hell."

The main challenge for Catsimatidis in any campaign would be selling himself to voters on an agenda that goes beyond "I'm a businessman with a heart-warming life story."

To that end, he says he wants to bring the World's Fair to New York in 2014 and use the project to improve a blighted area of the city. He wants to encourage higher-density development around transit hubs to keep the middle class in the city. He wants cops and firefighters to live within city limits. And, of course, he says New York can't return to its crime-ridden days of old.

While Bloomberg earned his billions on Wall Street, Catsimatidis got rich in a more rough-and-tumble world. The son of a Greek busboy, he grew up on West 135th Street in Harlem. His dad paid $48 a month in rent back then. No one spoke English in the house until he was in kindergarten.

He bagged and delivered groceries at the age of 14, taking payment in empty bottles that he redeemed for two pennies apiece back at the store. He says he despised the work.

His parents cobbled together enough money to send him to New York University, but to their chagrin, he dropped out to help a friend's uncle run a supermarket on 100th and Broadway. He later borrowed $10,000 from the man to become a partner in the store. He says he worked constantly, even sleeping at times in the back.

In 1970, he opened his first Red Apple supermarket a few blocks from the first store and moved himself and his parents into an apartment on an upper floor. By the time he was 25, he owned 10 stores and was grossing $25 million a year.

He expanded, he says, not by borrowing from banks, but by borrowing from his suppliers: "The milk supplier would loan us $50,000 to $70,000 a store, and they'd make it back on the price of milk. The grocer would fill the initial order on credit, and I would pay him back over a year's time."

Catsimatidis claims that he was the first supermarket owner to open his stores seven days a week—an assertion disputed by one of his competitors.

He says that he never had any dealings with the mob, expect for the occasional demand from a garbage hauler. "The guy would come and say, 'Hey, I'm your garbage guy, and this is how much you're paying a month,' " he recalls. "I said, 'OK.' You say OK and you pay it. And there were always a few mob guys in the meat business. But I stayed away from them, and they stayed away from me."

In 1977, he began to buy real estate, and he also expanded into the airplane business. Meanwhile, he continued to build up the Red Apple chain, and acquired a reputation for buying distressed companies and turning them around.

He bought the reeling Gristedes chain in 1986 for $50 million, and the collapsing Sloan's chain between 1991 and 1993. He bought United Refining Company in 1986, saving it from bankruptcy. He's had some setbacks—like the time he bought Capital Airlines, which went bust not long afterward. He still owns a few of the jets, which he's scrapping and selling for parts—except for the one that shuttles the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats to their away games.

Catsimatidis says he's acquired a thick skin over the decades. "The biggest aggravation you have is when you have trusted employees and they hurt you," he opines. "I would never, ever want my kids in the supermarket business—it's not worth the suffering. I had no choice; I took whatever I could get. I had to claw and climb out of the ghetto."

Catsimatidis describes himself as a "nice, easygoing person," but it's clear that he relishes a fight. He once threatened to sue the city's consumer-affairs commissioner for claiming that his stores' employees leaned on their meat scales.

His most high-profile battle erupted when he took on the Daily News after it ran a series of articles slamming his stores for a lack of cleanliness.

Catsimatidis charged that the records used in the story were outdated. He yanked his ads from the paper and convinced other grocery magnates to do the same. He also called on the Daily News to apologize and demanded that it fire the reporter. He claims the move cost the paper $50,000 a week.

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