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Who is Knapp Foods?

The Knapp Family Trust owns the land and Knapp Foods, Inc. owned the Hi-Lo grocery store; but exactly who are these guys? Whole Foods has confirmed that they have signed a 20-year lease. Did the Knapps get what they want?

[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.

Jonathan February 22, 2011 at 07:15 AM
Great read, you did quite a lot of digging for this one! Please keep us posted if 'the Knapps' get back to you.
Joe February 28, 2011 at 04:55 PM
News worthy? I am not a Knapp but know the family. Your piece has substance worthy of the National Inquirer. So an entreprenurial family leased their property to a very good grocery store? Get over it JP (or simply the author). If there is such a huge void, kudos to the next entreprenurial person or family to fill the gap.
Jonathan February 28, 2011 at 05:08 PM
I for one am thrilled about the arrival of Whole Foods and plan to do most of my shopping there once it opens. I've only be to Hi-Lo twice in my 5 years living in JP, once for ice, the other time for spicy Thai peppers (which they didn't have). However, it never hurts to know more about who is doing business in your community. I don't think the author is anti-Whole Foods, he's just reporting the facts (or as many as he can uncover/deduce) of the story. There will usually be more to report about the opponents because those happy with the arrival of Whole Foods don't have anything to go out and protest about (especially since the protesters aren't likely likely to make any difference).
Karla Vallance February 28, 2011 at 07:02 PM
As the editor who edited Jim's opinion piece, Joe, Jonathan is right: our goal was to try to get a sense of a key player in this story about whom very few people know very little. I only wish Jim could have gotten a response, to hear their voice in this story.
James LaFond-Lewis February 28, 2011 at 07:28 PM
I have no bone to pick with either Whole Foods or Knapp Foods, and am only interested in reporting on all the players in the local contoversy. Their silence does not do them justice. I suspect that the Knapps would acquit themselves quite well in an interview. I support their right to conduct their business according to the rules of the game. I'd like to tell their story. I have called them several times and been greeted by an answering machine recording that says they will return my call. They have not done that, even to courteously refuse to talk to me. Nothing. Not a peep. On or off the record. Silence. I have visited the purported address of their office and been unable to find it. I do appreciate you standing up for people you know and admire. I would do the same. I am still hopeful that I will hear from them.
Joe February 28, 2011 at 09:19 PM
Again, so much emphasis has been put on learning the 'mysterious' identity of the Knapp Family. They're an entreprenurial family who ran, among many other successful businesses, a grocery store in JP for a long time. For reasons of their own, they decided to lease their RE to another grocery store. They commented on Boston.com their rationale for the decision. It's a private business transaction. More publicity should be put on the inevitable; Whole Foods is moving to town, what will this mean to JP? For one, according to Whole Foods they intend to hire double the employees. High unemployment in MA and a private business transaction that is adding more jobs, that's newsworthy! The area will inevitably be 'cleaned up',by comparison. A private business transaction that's 'cleaning up' an area of JP. That's newsworthy. It's not adult entertainment moving to town (a good reason to learn more about the Knapp's). Lastly, but certainly NOT of least importance, this is a country of opportunity. It is likely that Whole Foods will not cater to the same demographic population that Hi-Lo catered to. For the local merchants in the area, this private business transaction will quite possibly be a much needed oportunity; an opportunity for them to diversify their own stores to better cater to a demographic population that may not be served as well by Whole Foods . Seems more newsworthy to me than digging in to the Knapp's private lives and business transaction.
James LaFond-Lewis February 28, 2011 at 09:54 PM
Joe, All good points. If the Knapps had made them, they would be on the front page.
Judy March 03, 2011 at 05:37 AM
It looks like the Knapps are no stranger to controversy around their business operations: http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2009/11/05/sherborn_neighbors_say_farm_crosses_line_with_business_venture/
Jamaica ComPlainer April 06, 2011 at 01:31 PM
The Knapp family received between $20-30 million for the 20-year lease with WF plus will be receiving about $33,000 per month (about another $7.9 million over the term of the lease) in rent from the company. They will also be able to raise the rent as the value of the property goes up. They also get to keep all property improvements. Considering how much the Knapps are profiting from this deal, should we ask: What are they giving back to the community?
gretchen van ness April 06, 2011 at 01:54 PM
When I first heard this rumor several weeks ago, the amount paid to the Knapps was about half the figure cited here. But that is still an astronomical amount of money. Rather than demanding that Whole Foods hire the ex-Hi Lo employees, Whose Foods should have been marching in Newton and demanding that the Knapp brothers share some of this profit with their employees and the community that made it all possible. And it's the Knapp brothers who should be funding the community center/farmer's market/artist studios/etc. that people want instead of Whole Foods. Whole Foods hasn't yet sold a single gallon of milk in JP, while the Knapps have been profiting off JP's Latino community for decades. Had a different course been chosen that followed the money rather than the big name, we might be looking at having both a Whole Foods AND the "alternatives" that Whose Foods wants. Sadly, there was a window of opportunity here and it was missed.
Jonathan April 06, 2011 at 03:04 PM
I don't think the 'Whose Foods' folks really care about the facts of the case, they constantly misquote numbers (i.e. claiming JP is 40%+ hispanic, when the census shows it to be 25%), they're angry that they lost their grocery store (understandable) and Whole Foods makes the easiest target. Never mind that WF will be hiring many more people than Hi Lo employed, they will be providing employee benefits that Hi Lo never did, that they offer ex-Hi Lo employees preferential hiring at all of their local stores and that the construction of the new store will inject money into our community. Forget that WF has a history of giving back to their communities and that each store carries 'local favorites', food specifically desired by their community that may not be found at most of their other stores and that Stop & Shop provides the cheap alternative for groceries that they claim they've lost. It would be nice if the Knapps decided to give back to the community but they certainly don't have to and shouldn't be condemned for choosing not to do so. The welfare mentality that somebody/the wealthy/corporations/society in general owes you something is a basic problem in our society and the more I hear about them, it sound like one of the core values upon which Whose Foods' philosophy is predicated.
Jamaica Plainer April 06, 2011 at 03:40 PM
I'm curious: where did you see these figures? Thanks in advance!
j56 April 14, 2011 at 03:07 AM
the elder knapp made part of /most of his fortune taking advantage of underage workers when you could get away with it
Brian S. April 20, 2011 at 06:52 PM
Anyone know if the Knapps also own the old Bella Luna/Milky Way/June Bug space? They're listed as owning 413/415 Centre, but there's no entries for 403 that I could find. Regardless, whoever owns those spots is no doubt quite happy that they'll finely be able to get the higher rents they've been wanting for years.
Bob from JP April 21, 2011 at 03:18 AM
http://articles.boston.com/2010-07-15/news/29300254_1_rent-hikes-bella-luna-high-rent Mordechai Levin
Jamaica Plainer April 21, 2011 at 02:53 PM
Yeah, Mordechai Levin, apparently (maybe along with Terry Bruce?). Here's an article I found: http://bostonist.com/2008/05/02/milky-way-jp-closing.php
Upset January 25, 2012 at 03:49 AM
Dave's towing , hired by Knapp's to watch the Parking Lot at 275 Center Street, Newton, is a million dollar scam. Scum bag sits all day in a car and watches - I left to get some cash across the street before dining this evening at Bertucci's ( one of the businesses on the property - only to be towed. I walked 4 miles to a dump/dive and was forced to pay 130 to get my car. I am a 68 yr old female and it is freezing out and I had no cell phone. THEY NEED TO BE INVESTIGATED
Karla Vallance January 25, 2012 at 04:10 AM
Upset: can you contact me directly and we can look into that from our Newton Patch. We did a recent piece on what could possibly be considered predatory towing in Waltham: http://waltham.patch.com/articles/suit-against-waltham-dunkin-donuts-claims-predatory-towing.

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