BUSINESS
How I Made It

Grocer is on a natural growth path

By Ronald D. White

The gig: Tony Antoci, 40, is president and chief executive of Erewhon, the Southern California natural foods grocery mini-chain that traces its roots to a tiny Boston market founded in 1967. A Los Angeles branch opened in 1968. Erewhon was a pioneer in the natural foods business that eventually foundered amid internal strife, over-ambitious expansion and bankruptcy. Antoci and his wife, Josephine, bought the Beverly Boulevard market in 2011.

Useful experience: Antoci was president and chief executive of food distributor Superior Anhausner Foods, which was sold in 2009. A health food grocer "is a completely different business," Antoci said, "but it's easier. You don't have a lot of people owing you money." After the sale, Antoci earned a real estate license and began to acquire property.

Smarter growth: Now, in a highly competitive region that includes well established brands like Whole Foods, Bristol Farms, Gelsons and Trader Joes, Antoci is on a growth path. But he doesn't intend to make the same mistakes as his predecessors at Erewhon. "We opened our Calabasas store in 2014 and it was profitable in six months," Antoci said. "If it's not making money it's not fun." He plans to have a total of 10 markets.

Millennial path: The location of the third store was carefully selected. The 10,000-square-foot space is due to open in March on Venice Boulevard near trendy Abbott Kinney Boulevard. Abbott Kinney, with its fashionable clothing stores, popular restaurants and coffeehouses "is very popular with the millennial generation. They are definitely our target audience," Antoci said.

Youthful struggles: "My father died when I was 15, at age 43," said Antoci, who dropped out of high school after 10th grade. His mother died when he was 20. "It was tough, being 20, with both parents already gone. It was a quick awakening into adulthood."

Paternal drive: Antoci grew up in Los Angeles, watching his father rescue one business after another. "The first was a liquor store," Antoci said, "then he was importing live Maine lobsters. Then he was a distributor of German auto parts. He died when he was in the potato processing business." The son soon learned he had a similar enthusiasm for success. "If you have a sense of responsibility and you are determined, you can do anything," Antoci said.

Numbers guy: Antoci's mother, realizing that the second of her three sons might not go far with his education, taught Antoci at age 13 how to write checks, pay bills and handle the financial details of running the family's household. "It was great training for me," he said, noting that schools seldom teach such fundamentals at an early age. "I was never a scholar. I just felt like working was where I needed to be."

The partner: Antoci had no heroes or mentors to speak of, but at 17 he met the most important person in his life: his business partner and future wife, Josephine. She is in charge of procurement for Erewhon. "I don't know how to work without her being involved," he said.

First business: "I started a company in 1992 with one of my brothers when I was 21, selling private label mineral water to restaurants," Antoci said. From there the business grew into providing bar and nightclub supplies. Josephine brought in a large order for food items, which the company didn't stock at the time. Antoci recalled. "At first, it was, 'How are we going to do this?' It was pretty darn scary, but we got it and delivered it." The same restaurant called the next day with another large order, Antoci said, and "we figured out that the food distribution business was pretty cool."

Leadership style: When he wanted to buy Erewhon, Antoci had trouble getting a call back from the store's previous owner. Undeterred, he showed up and persuaded the owner to sell. "I'm very hands on," Antoci said, which means learning every job in the business. "I never wanted an employee looking at me thinking, 'He doesn't know what he's talking about.'"

Advice: "You have to be willing to do whatever it takes. This was very hard work," Antoci said.

Team builder: "You have to surround yourself with good people," Antoci said, "then treat them well enough that they want to stay."

If it ain't broke: Erewhon's motto is "If it's here, it's good for you." Erewhon isn't just a market; it includes a cafe and a tonic and juice bar. Antoci said he knew it would be important to stay true to the business' core beliefs. "What we do is sell healthy organic foods to many Southern California communities, and that remains our goal," Antoci said.

Personal: Antoci lives in Southern California with his wife of 23 years, Josephine. They have three children. In the little free time he has, Antoci likes to spend it with his family. And he's not keen on his children following his educational example. "They are all going to college," he says.

ronald.white@latimes.com

Twitter: @RonWLATimes

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 31, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Grocer is on natural growth path - HOW I MADE IT: TONY ANTOCI" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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