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Pete Luckett bids toodle-dee-do to grocery stores, ready for next adventure

WOLFVILLE, N.S. — Pete Luckett has never been afraid to start over.

In his 62 years, the self-made retail magnate has been a painter, a yogurt maker, a TV star and now the man who just sold his beloved grocery empire to Sobeys Capital Inc. to focus on his latest passion: wine-making in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley.

Known for his larger-than-life personality, Luckett is uncharacteristically bashful when asked how much the deal, which includes two Halifax-area Pete's Fine Foods stores and one wholesale operation, is worth.

But one can assume it leaves him in better shape than when he sold his small but successful fruit and vegetable stall in Nottingham, England, in the late 1970s to feed his appetite for adventure.

Well-travelled but penniless, Luckett wound up at the Canadian consulate office in Dallas, Texas, looking for a fresh start.

"I had no money, I had no job offer, I had no relatives, none of the ingredients required to be an immigrant to Canada, but I had this old Scottish wool tweed suit," he says, sitting in his modest office at Luckett Vineyards in Wolfville, N.S. "I looked like James Bond ... I think I dazzled 'em."

Three weeks later, the Englishman was on his way to Alberta.

He spent a couple of years out West before "itchy feet" propelled him to the Maritimes with hopes of owning a farm and living off the land. He was selling homemade yogurt when he read a story in Harrowsmith magazine about the Saint John City Market, one of the oldest farmers' market in Canada.

By 1982, Luckett was on his next adventure, this time with $300 to his name. He spent $250 on produce and the rest on a small booth at the market, which he christened Pete's Frootique. Using boisterous and flirtatious sales tactics he'd learned as a teenager, Luckett attracted lots of business and a few scowls from fellow vendors not used to his gregarious style.

"I used to wear a top hat and tails," says Luckett in his trademark cockney accent. "I got this green bow tie and green shoes and I used to wear it just for the heck of it...I started with all the lines, all the shouting and yelling. I was upsetting a lot of market tenants because it had been a quiet market for 100 years."

After a scuffle with one disgruntled competitor made local headlines, Luckett was approached by the CBC to do a twice-weekly TV spot as the "green grocer." The gig, which last 14 years, turned Luckett into a household name and spawned his famous "toodle-dee-do" signoff.

The market stall also attracted two very important customers, one of whom has been Luckett's wife for the past 28 years. The other, Dianne Hamilton, is Luckett's long-time friend and business partner.

She recalls Luckett good-naturedly teasing her as she struggled to open a plastic bag during their first encounter at the market. The accountant eventually became Luckett's chief operating officer.

"Little did I know what was ahead of me," Hamilton says of that first meeting. "My life changed because of Pete and the opportunities that he gave to me."

Pete's Frootique, which still stands today, eventually led to the creation of two grocery stores in Nova Scotia known for fresh, unique produce and British imports. Luckett had the foresight in the 1990s to divide his first store in the Halifax suburb of Bedford into separate businesses all less than a certain square footage to skirt Nova Scotia's former ban on Sunday shopping — a monopoly he enjoyed for about a decade before the province took him to court. Luckett won, paving the way for other retailers to operate seven days a week.

Luckett says the secret to good business is standing out.

"I'm not blowing me own trumpet here," he says. "You can't be average. If you want to start a business, you've got to be a whirlwind and you've got to be the best of the best."

Hamilton, who remains senior director of operations under the Sobeys deal, describes her former boss as a passionate, tireless visionary who never treated a challenge as a barrier.

"I saw him in the early years when he slept on the countertop, I saw him when he went out to his truck and fell asleep because he put 20 hours a day, seven days a week into this business," she says. "It's a wonderful, wonderful feeling to know he has found a wonderful exit and that his business will go on."

No job losses are expected under the Sobeys deal and Luckett will stay on in a consultant's capacity for now.

When asked whether leaving the day-to-day operation behind to focus on his winery is difficult, Luckett doesn't hesitate.

"I've lived the dream," he says. "It's been the ride of my life, but like any ride there's always a time to get off."

Melanie Patten, The Canadian Press

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