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A Candidate With a Store Chain Around His Neck

New York Times—Michael M. Grynbaum

But before he can follow Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as another idiosyncratic, new-to-politics businessman in City Hall, Mr. Catsimatidis must first confront the public’s often-strained relationship with the company for which he is best known: Gristedes, the unloved uncle of the New York City grocery scene.

Garishly lighted, expensively priced and home to a dusty décor that several Yelp users have labeled “depressing,” Gristedes has suffered mightily in the face of flashier rivals like Whole Foods. Sales are down, stores have closed, and the company has paid out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits over allegations of unfair labor practices and consumer safety violations.

Mr. Catsimatidis himself does not mince words, saying the store that once catapulted his career is now predominantly a headache. Even his 23-year-old daughter, a regular customer, has concerns. “She comes and complains about everything that was wrong,” he said.

“I’ve run this company for 40 years,” he said in 2011. “My life would be better without Gristedes.”

In his political ads, Mr. Catsimatidis, 64, has made no mention of his supermarket, eager to pitch himself to voters as a worldly executive with deep experience in oil and real estate concerns, which make up a vast majority of his business holdings.

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Since starting his long-shot bid in January, Mr. Catsimatidis — whose smiling photo still appears at the top of Gristedes coupon fliers — has proved an exuberant and disruptive presence, bringing a salesman’s brio to an often humdrum municipal race. He swore at an audience member who questioned him at a Young Republicans’ meeting, expressed skepticism about global warming at a sustainability event (he was booed), and once trailed off midsentence at a candidate forum, telling the puzzled audience, “Sorry, lost my train of thought.”

He has spent more than $100,000 on radio ads, robocalls and campaign fliers, pitching himself as a “common billionaire” who will create jobs for the middle class, assist small businesses and protect public safety. He has pledged to spend millions by the primary election in September — not at Mr. Bloomberg’s level, but still a formidable sum against opponents who, lacking personal fortunes, have agreed to abide by spending limits in exchange for public matching funds.

In polls of Republican primary voters, Mr. Catsimatidis lags behind his establishment opponent, Joseph J. Lhota, a former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, although most Republican voters are not familiar with any of their party’s candidates, and even Mr. Bloomberg was little known at this stage in the 2001 mayoral race, which he went on to win.

Still, whether New Yorkers want the proprietor of a maligned grocery chain to run City Hall remains an open question.

Unhappy shoppers are not all Mr. Catsimatidis has to worry about. Gristedes has been the target of three class-action suits by employees since 2000, being told to pay more than $7 million in settlements to workers who said they were underpaid, denied overtime or discriminated against by management.

The most recent case alleged that female workers had been passed over for promotions and forced to stay in cashier positions; Gristedes is finalizing a $1.45 million settlement to more than 600 women. (A portion of the settlement will be paid in the form of Gristedes coupons.)

In the interview, Mr. Catsimatidis’s voice began to rise when asked about the legal troubles. He dismissed the lawsuits ... seeking millions in legal fees from local businesses. When an aide attempted to interject, Mr. Catsimatidis waved him off, saying, “I got to finish, because I’m emotional!”

In court, Mr. Catsimatidis has taken a firsthand role in arguing for his company, often showing up in person even for minor hearings and personally participating in settlement negotiations. If he became mayor, he said, he would examine the prevalence of such class-action suits. “I’ll be in a position of power to be able to do the right thing by the store owners in New York,” he said.

(Justin Swartz, a lawyer who has argued all three cases against Gristedes, said he was “not surprised” that Mr. Catsimatidis was upset. “His company got caught breaking the law, and a federal judge said he was personally responsible. He’s probably just embarrassed.”)

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The chain expanded around the city and into Westchester County. But its reputation suffered and sales dipped as the city was colonized by upscale and boutique food shops with organic food and humanely raised meat. The faded produce aisles in Gristedes could barely compete.

“They’re not retro; they’re just old,” said Kevin Coupe, founder of MorningNewsBeat.com, a retail news site. Last year, Gristedes had $205 million in sales in Manhattan; Whole Foods, with significantly fewer locations, sold nearly twice that amount, according to Food Trade News, an industry publication.

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