DUNEDIN — Customers wandering the aisles in Hank Lueken's grocery stores got used to seeing signs in black lettering, on dry-erase boards and changed out daily.
"Dave," his manager for many years, had ordered too many bananas or granola bars or whatever else Mr. Lueken had decided to put on sale. The signs always warned customers that if they didn't help deplete the stock, Dave would lose his job.
No such mistaken order had taken place, nor had Mr. Lueken ever held any conversation with his manager about his job. Everyone knew this, just as Mr. Lueken knew most of the customers.
It's how he made a fortune in the grocery business, then a bigger one with a landmark liquor store.
Mr. Lueken, who steered his family brand to success while forcing much larger competitors to pack up and move elsewhere, died May 3, the result of a heart attack, his family said. He was 75.
"He was really kind of a marketing genius," said Julie Ward Bujalski, a Dunedin city commissioner. "That's why people shopped there: because they knew they were getting the best deals."
Part of Mr. Lueken's success story, of an eighth-grade dropout risking all and hitting it big, is as American as Henry Ford.
What he did with Lueken Liquors (also known as Lueken's Big Town Liquors) in undercutting national chains is less familiar. Mr. Lueken called it "beating the big dogs," and there were few activities he enjoyed more.
His method combined instinct and arithmetic, buying at the right time and in huge quantities, stocking crates in a warehouse five times the size of the store.
Got some Tanqueray to unload at a discount? He'd take 800 cases.
"In the liquor business, you buy when the supplier wants to sell," Mr. Lueken once told the Times. "You don't buy when you need something."
"He would wait until the end of the month or the end of the quarter, when all these sales guys came in and needed to make their quotas," said Scott Lueken, 51, his son. "He would undercut all the other liquor stores because he had the capital."
Within a few years of opening Lueken Liquors on Patricia Avenue in 1988, nearly a dozen competitors — including a local ABC Fine Wine & Spirits — had closed their doors, Scott Lueken said.
Henry Joseph Lueken was born in 1938 in Yankton, S.D., and was stocking shelves at a grocery by age 12. He grew up to 6-foot-6 as a teenager and played football in the Army.
By his early 20s, Mr. Lueken was managing grocery stores. At 25, he sank his life savings of $10,000 into a struggling grocery store — which he quickly made profitable with the help of his younger brother Joe. (Joe Lueken made national news in 2012 when he gave away several grocery stores he owned in Bemidji, Minn., and Wahpeton, N.D., to their 400 employees.)
Mr. Lueken moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1969 with his first wife, Clara, and son, opening a grocery store in Tarpon Springs. As the subsequent owner of a Lueken's Food Villa in Dunedin and Piggly Wiggly stores in Clearwater, Largo and Orlando, Mr. Lueken mingled with customers daily.
A favorite trick, said Scott Lueken, who worked in the produce department in one of his father's stores, involved "warning" customers about succulent peaches that were likely to drip on their clothes.
"He would call me over," his son said, "and say, 'Scott, I warned this customer not to buy the peaches, that we were not going to be responsible for their dry cleaning bills.' "
Mr. Lueken retired from his grocery business in 1986. He soon got stir crazy and opened a liquor store.
His wife died in 2007, and Mr. Lueken sold the store the same year. He bought a new Mercedes whenever the new-car smell wore off, and enjoyed one-tank trips with his new wife, the former Charlene Larkin.
The new store owner retained the Lueken Liquors name.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.