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It isn’t easy being the little guy, especially in the grocery business.

But Frank Budwey showed that the underdog doesn’t always end up as the loser, even when going up against the likes to Tops Markets, Wegmans and Walmart.

That’s no small feat, because when you’re the little guy you don’t have much margin for error.

After all, Frank Budwey was running his business with his own money.

Tops is backed by Wall Street money from Morgan Stanley. Walmart, as the nation’s biggest retailer, has enormously deep pockets. Wegmans isn’t pinching their pennies, either.

Those chains could afford mistakes. Frank Budwey couldn’t.

The fact that Budwey’s Markets survived for 86 years is a pretty good indication that the Budwey family didn’t make too many whoppers along the way.

His plucky flagship store in North Tonawanda even managed to outlast other big-name chains that eventually fell by the wayside in Western New York, from A&P and Loblaw’s to Bell’s and Super Duper and Jubilee.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes in the food industry over the last 15 to 20 years,” Budwey said last week after revealing that he has agreed to a deal to sell his three supermarkets to his grocery supplier.

The wholesaler, Olean Wholesale Grocery Cooperative, then would sell Budwey’s North Buffalo store to another independent local grocer, Dash’s Markets, and seek buyers for stores in North Tonawanda and Newfane.

The deal still must clear several hurdles, including the arrangement of financing and the signing of a definitive agreement, but Budwey hopes to have it all wrapped up by the end of the year.

“It’s been great – a great business for the family,” he said.

But Budwey didn’t have a succession plan. His son, Justin, died four years ago, and his two daughters were following different career paths, one as a psychologist in Washington and the other in the communications field locally. So he’d been looking to find a buyer for the last couple of years, and had been talking to Olean Wholesale for about a year.

Budwey said his stores’ independence helped make up for some of the disadvantages they faced, compared with competitors that could buy cheaper, negotiate harder and sell in volumes that he could only dream about.

“I had a very good management staff that thought the same way I did. They were independent thinkers and independent operators: Not being dictated to and being able to think out of the box and being able to bring in what you wanted to buy,” he said.

“If my meat guy got a good deal for strip loins, we were able to put it in there at that price, whereas maybe the supplier wouldn’t have been able to support an order for 50 or 100 stores,” he said.

But being nimble and in touch with your customers only goes so far.

“It’s become more and more difficult for a small chain to survive,” said Arun Jain, a University at Buffalo marketing professor.

Beyond the big supermarket chains, cost-conscious consumers can head to deep-discount chains, from ALDI to Save-A-Lot for low-priced groceries. Shoppers with a taste for more unique, or higher-end items, now can visit Trader Joe’s new store in Amherst, or the Orchard Fresh store that Tops opened earlier this year in Orchard Park.

Consumers may not do all of their grocery shopping there, heading to a more mainstream supermarket like Tops or Wegmans or Budwey’s for the rest, but every dollar that they spend in those other stores is one less dollar flowing to Budwey’s.

“They can’t afford to offer the selection of a Tops or Wegmans,” Jain said. “They may be good for fill-in shopping, but for a major grocery shopping, consumers will go to the big chains.”

Burt Flickinger III, a supermarket industry expert and managing director at Strategic Resource Group who has strong ties to the local grocery market, said Budwey deserves credit for how his stores competed against Tops and Wegmans, including decades as a Bell’s and Super Duper franchise.

And he said the impending sale, including the takeover of the Kenmore Avenue store by Dash’s Markets, will put the North Buffalo store in the hands of another local family that has shown it can compete against the big guys.

“For the Dash’s to continue the Budwey family tradition by bringing the Kenmore Avenue store into the Dash’s family continues a long tradition of entrepreneurial success in Western New York,” he said.

Budwey’s employees in North Buffalo have been told Dash’s plans to spend upward of $2.5 million to upgrade the store, while its nearby store on Hertel Avenue will be closed.

As for Budwey, he’ll still be the landlord for the three stores after the deal closes. “I have real estate in North Tonawanda that will keep me busy,” he said.

But it won’t be the day-in, day-out grind for the grocery business.

With Budwey’s 65th birthday approaching, Flickinger says that’s OK.

“He deserves a little bit of a break from the business after working seven days a week for more than 47 years.”

email: drobinson@buffnews.com