Bezelee Martin, founder of Lena’s Food Store, passes at age 88

July 29, 2021

Staff Photo

Entrepreneur Bezelee Martin, the co-founder of the former Lena’s Food Market chain in Milwaukee, died on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Funeral arrangements are pending. Bezelee Martin was 88 years old.

Born on September 29, 1932 in Dumas, Arkansas, he was named by an aunt who found the name in the Bible. Martin was mainly raised by his mother, Ruthie, in the prosperous all- Black town of Boley, OK. In later years, he credited the independent, entrepreneurial spirit of Boley with helping inspire his interest in business. As a child, he went into the lawn mowing business. As the lawn mowing business became successful, he bought more lawn mowers on credit and hired his classmates and friends as his employees.

By 1950, Martin had relocated to Milwaukee and become the first licensed Black-owned car dealer in Wisconsin. In 1957, he founded Martin Hosiery, selling stockings to young women and in 1958, he founded a trucking business. After meeting his future wife and business partner, Lena, he married her in 1960. The couple raised four sons together and founded their first Lena’s Food Market in 1965 at the corner of Fourth Street and North Avenue.

Lena’s quickly established a reputation for creative marketing and advertising strategies. At one time, Lena’s was the largest Black grocery store chain in the U.S. He received numerous awards during his lifetime for his business achievements, including being named an inaugural Black Excellence Award Honoree sponsored by The Milwaukee Times in 1985 and being inducted into the Wisconsin Business Hall of Fame in 2013. The grocery store chain would grow to include six stores employing 600 people in Milwaukee by 2007 as well as Black Gem, a regional store brand of some 60 food and seasoning items carried by independent grocery stores in five states at its height during the 1980s. The last Lena’s Food Market closed in 2018.