Food fight Winnipeg grocer Munther Zeid won't back down from battle over provincial retail law -- it's the way he was raised

Munther Zeid knows how his family is going to celebrate Canada Day — they’re planning to break the law.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/06/2019 (1374 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Munther Zeid knows how his family is going to celebrate Canada Day — they’re planning to break the law.

On July 1, the owner of Winnipeg’s five Food Fare stores will be on a plane to Palestine, where his eldest daughter is getting married, but most of his family will remain behind to ensure some of their modestly sized, neighbourhood-based grocery outlets open their doors.

Which means, once again, they will be knowingly defying the Retail Businesses Holiday Closing Act, which forces most Manitoba stores with more than four employees to close on statutory holidays, including New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Canada Day, Labour Day and Christmas Day.

Zeid (pronounced “Zeed”) has become something of a household name in Winnipeg for demanding the province change the law, which he calls blatantly unfair because it orders him to shutter his locations while allowing casinos, cannabis shops, beer stores and pharmacies (many of which sell groceries) to remain open.

“I’m going to be on a plane (on July 1) to start preparing for my daughter’s wedding in Palestine. The family that is staying behind will be fighting the fight. As long as we have staff willing to work, those stores will be open. There will be (Food Fare) locations open on Canada Day,” Zeid vowed this week.

“I basically sat down with the family and said, ‘Who’s in?’ We sat down and said, ‘Are we going to fight this or do we want to chicken out? We know what our communities want. Are we willing to fight for them?’ They all said, ‘Let’s do it’… Our communities, our city has gotten used to the fact that we’re open (on holidays). They depend on it.”

For the 49-year-old leader of Manitoba’s largest independent, family-run grocery chain, there is nothing more important than family.

When he was asked to sit down to be profiled by the Free Press, he suggested the interview be conducted at his brother-in-law Jamal’s bustling Middle Eastern restaurant, Ramallah Cafe, on Pembina Highway. Before chatting, the loquacious grocer politely taught this columnist the proper way to enjoy a Palestinian feast — plates groaning with delicious beef and chicken shawarma, fresh Arabic bread, spicy pickles, hummus and falafel.

As Jamal trundled in and out of the kitchen, Zeid shared the importance of family.

“I brought him (Jamal) to Canada as an orphan from the West Bank,” he recalled. “Both of my in-laws had passed away. It’s been about 12 years now… Jamal came when he was about 16. He lived in my home and grew up with my kids. He’s not just my brother-in-law; he’s like a son to me.”

Zeid is one of seven siblings, the second-oldest among four boys and three girls, and was the first-born of his family in Canada. “I’m not going to say I’m the first Palestinian born in Canada, but I’m the first Zeid born in Canada,” the lifelong Winnipegger said with a note of pride.

He and his wife, Samar, have seven children: four boys and three girls (sons Wajih, 26, Bilal, 23, Tarik, 20, and Mohammad, 13; daughters Suad, 25, Nadine, 24, and Janan, 16). His parents — father Wajih (Moe) and mother Suad — are proud grandparents to 38 grandchildren.

“We have about 180 staff,” Zeid said. “Of that, I’d say probably 20 (are) family between management and employees in the business, including three brothers and a sister that are involved and various children, my own children, nephews and nieces depending on their age.”

It’s not like he dreamed about becoming an independent grocer; as a child, he wanted to be a lawyer. It wasn’t until he started working with his dad that he realized what being an entrepreneur meant to him.

At 5-10 and 220 pounds — “I’m trying to get down under the 200 mark,” he said with a chuckle — Zeid is not a menacing presence, but he knows how to handle himself in a scrap.

“I’ve never backed down from a challenge or a fight… I ended up being put in taekwondo when I was in Grade 4,” he said, smiling at the memory. “I moved into St. James, and there was some mean people in St. James. If you want to call it being picked on or bullied — a little bit. My parents didn’t like it, and I basically learned to fight.

“In the first year-and-a-half, all those guys that were picking on me stopped,” Zeid said.

“I’m a third-degree black belt… My master took a group of us to (South) Korea to learn the culture and we competed there. My kids went through it also. It’s a very good discipline sport. It’s not just to fight; it teaches you to defend yourself, but it also teaches you respect, it teaches you pride, it teaches you to be confident in yourself.”

The journey to becoming the face of the city’s biggest independent grocery chain began when his dad left a refugee camp in Palestine, moved to Germany at age 14, then applied to live in Canada, the United States and Australia.

“He had met some army guys on one of the (German) trains and they told him about Canada,” he said. “He got accepted by all three and chose Canada because of what the army guys on the train told him, and he had a friend in Germany who had left for Canada.”

Zeid’s father bought his first Winnipeg store in 1976, the family joined the Food Fare group in 1987 as a franchise store, and Munther joined the company full-time in 1990.

His dad is the president; Zeid’s title is vice-president, but he’s the man in charge. “(Moe) is still very active in the stores, but day-to-day operations flow through me. He loves dealing with the public, working in the meat counter. I have three brothers that are also involved.”

Zeid worked in the store as a youth, doing whatever needed doing, and spent a couple of years at the University of Manitoba — but higher education was not where his future lay.

“I’m proud that we can survive in such a cutthroat industry, and I’m very happy and proud that the community is the reason we’re still here,” he said. “I’ve had opportunities to leave, but this is my home. This is where I want to be for the rest of my life.”

Zeid describes himself as a simple man who likes to travel, loves watching movies and being with family.

“Family is important to me — it shows by the number of kids I have. I don’t spend as much time with my children as I should, because I’m trying to grow the business. I love working. When I have a day off, I end up going back to the store to see how they’re doing. I love the business.”

“I’m proud that we can survive in such a cutthroat industry, and I’m very happy and proud that the community is the reason we’re still here. I’ve had opportunities to leave, but this is my home. This is where I want to be for the rest of my life”

It’s something he is willing to fight to protect, and it’s that willingness to fight that has thrust him into local headlines.

For roughly 30 years, Food Fare had opened on holidays without a problem. Things came to a head on Good Friday this year, when Zeid was slapped with a $10,000 fine for opening the Portage Avenue/Mount Royal Road location.

It was later acknowledged a pre-set fine was a mistake, and Zeid should instead have received a notice to appear before a magistrate, who would decide what fine — if any — would apply.

The grocer is hoping the province is willing to talk about amending the law — he’s been given a new appearance notice for July — but if they want a legal scrap, he’s picked a lawyer and is ready to oblige.

Zeid said he has plenty of support calling on the province to change the law to allow small- and medium-sized businesses to stay open on statutory holidays. As of this week, an online petition had more than 1,900 signatures, and Zeid said the in-store versions have more than 10,000.

If the government rules out talks, Zeid is not about to back down. This is a man who keeps a bat behind the counter, just in case.

Standing his ground is a message he learned from his father, the biggest influence in his life.

“My father grew up basically in a refugee camp in Palestine. He left his home country in search of a better life for him and his family. He chose Canada for that life. With hard work and determination was able to open up a small grocery store, and from there we grew. Both my mother and father worked hard. My mom worked in a factory sewing, babysitting also when she first came,” he said.

“They taught us the value of a dollar. They taught us that to be worth a buck, you have to have the buck. They taught us the importance of family, the importance of community, the importance of giving back to people, and basically fight for what you believe is right.

“Never back down from a challenge or a fight, especially if you believe it’s right.”

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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