[Editor's note: This is an opinion piece, though it is informed by good shoe-leather reporting.]
The recent store by Knapp Foods has raised a that has been heard all across the greater Boston area. The precipitating event is nothing new: a national chain, Whole Foods, has confirmed that it has signed a lease with the Knapp Family Trust, owners of the real estate at the site, 415 Centre St. in Jamaica Plain.
The hue and cry has been generated mainly by two groups: the patrons of Hi-Lo, who are largely Latino, and local activists who have made it their mission to keep JP as much locally-owned as possible. While these groups are not mutually exclusive, it is clear that they are also not necessarily supportive of each other's goals.
Latinos want to continue to call JP home and tend to support businesses that import Latin and South American goods and foodstuffs. They see Hi-Lo's closing as emblematic of both displacement and absorption, while localists want as much industry and commerce in JP as possible to be generated by residents. Both groups are afraid of becoming part of a more homogenized America and don't want to be steamrolled by any business or agency in the process.
Because the Knapp Family Trust is acting in its absolute right and so far has had no reason to petition any regulatory body for anything, and because they have no Web site, have barely commented publicly and apparently keep no regular office hours, they have remained something of an enigma.
President Stephen Knapp did answer some questions from the Globe. He said the company has "acted appropriately" throughout the process.
My questions for them are fairly simple: Who are you? Did you get what you want in this transaction? Do you own anything else in JP?
Of course they don't have to answer, they obviously cherish their privacy and their rights, but I suspect that there is nothing sinister about them and their answers would probably put people a little more at ease.
I also wonder if they had a hand in the day-to-day operations of Hi-Lo and if not, who was the management team? And did that team own any of the market?
I think it's fairly clear that in many ways, Whole Foods is a superior operation to Hi-Lo. Notable exceptions: they won't sell, for the most part, what Hi-Lo sold, they aren't local and they generally serve a wealthier subset of customers. It remains to be seen if any of that will matter to anyone a year from now.
I have a feeling that the Knapps' plans are complete, that the lease they have signed with Whole Foods is a lucrative one and will help support this generation of Knapps for the rest of their lives, leaving all of the decisions about this property sewn up for the next 20 years, the term of the lease as confirmed by Heather McCready, public relations manager of Whole Foods.
Long leases are typical in commercial real estate. Without them lessees like Whole Foods don't have the security they need to make substantial investments.
Operating a grocery store is not the Knapps' concern anymore. If I were a Knapp, I'd be breathing a big sigh of relief. Retailing isn't easy. Food retailing is just about as hard as it gets.
Who would blame them for selling out? Hi-Lo was reportedly dirty, treated its employees cavalierly at best and callously at worst. It must have required a fair amount of oversight which the Knapps didn't do well, for whatever reason. It's closed now and no one is talking...yet.
A look behind the scenes reveals that Knapp Foods might not itself have had the expertise to run a grocery store. They appear to be largely a real estate company whose primary tenants are national chains. A quick check of public records shows that they lease property in Newton to Starbucks, Bertucci's and Quiznos, among others. It's clear that the Knapp family knows a thing or two about the value of location and how to attract premier foodservice tenants. If anyone was paying attention to the Knapp track record they would have seen clearly that Whole Foods, or someone like them probably had been coming down the pike for quite a while.
It's much too late now, but JP activists and Latinos really missed their chance to make a difference by ignoring Hi-Lo for all these years. One has to wonder why it wasn't held to a higher standard. A little pressure could have forced this issue a long time ago, before a national chain realized what a great marketplace JP is and perhaps a more local Latino solution might have been found. But as we've seen, the Latino community shopped at Hi-Lo and turned a blind eye to its faults because they were being served something that was hard to find in any single other place and at prices that in retrospect were perhaps so low that profit to its owners was inconsequential when compared to the value of the real estate.
The Knapps didn't have to put out a great product. In fact, despite its failings, Hi-Lo attracted Hispanics from all over greater Boston. At least it's easy to imagine that this closing will open doors for a new Latin and South American market or an existing one that is poised to grow.
Regardless, the Knapp Family Trust owns the land and that's all there is to it. They are up-to-date on their considerable real estate taxes. Legally, it's theirs to do with whatever they want. I am not privy to their finances, but it wouldn't surprise me if they could have afforded to sit on an empty parcel for quite some time. I doubt that anyone would have wanted that. In that light, Whole Foods looks like a savior.
In public records, some combination of Stephen Knapp, Michael Knapp, John A. Knapp and Robert Botelho are listed as owners of Knapp Enterprises, LLC; Forty Three North Main Street, LLC; Knapp Sub Shop, LLC; 685 Main Street, LLC; and Knapp Foods, Inc. With their family penchant to incorporate, I wouldn't be surprised if I missed a few, but it's Knapp Foods Inc. in which all four men are listed by the Secretary of State's office as company officers. It's Knapp Foods, Inc. that was responsible for the operation of Hi-Lo regardless of who they hired to manage it. Two of the men make their homes in Sherborn, the other two in Natick. Each pair is neighbors. These guys are a tight bunch.
The corporate office of Knapp Foods, Inc. is listed as 275 Centre St., Newton, which is in Newton Corner, a stone's throw from the Mass Pike in a block bordered by Pearl and Carleton streets. Their office isn't easy to find. If there's an office there at all, it's very low-key. Every doorway in the two buildings that occupy that block is labeled for one or other of the commercial tenants. Knapp Foods is nowhere to be found. There are no marked doors. No secretaries or assistants. One gets the feeling that there is no there there and that perhaps the men largely work out of their homes or cars, or maybe in attorneys' offices. It's hard to say. They won't return my calls.