Bezelee Martin is head of the Black family-owned dynasty known as Lena’s Food Market. He was always an entrepreneur, starting his own lawn mowing business as a child and employing other neighborhood children as employees. He ran a soda and chicken concession stand at baseball games, and sold Blair’s products—all before reaching adulthood.
Born in Dumas, Arkansas and reared in Boley, Oklahoma—an all Black town—Martin’s mother always instilled in him the importance of being on time. His entrepreneurial spirit and strict rearing paid off.
Martin attended Milwaukee Area Technical College where he took business and bookkeeping while working at a tannery. By 1950, he was the first black licensed car dealer in Wisconsin. By 1957, he was selling his own brand of stockings, Martin Hosiery, to women, and by 1958, Martin was operating his own trucking company.
Martin and his wife Lena opened their first grocery store in the Harambee section of Milwaukee, more than 35 years ago. By 1965, they owned a 3,000-square foot location. Martin purchased Milwaukee’s 13,000-square foot Kohl Food Store in 2001. During this period, he purchased four sites for Lena’s Food Market giving it a square footage of 87,000 to utilize. In 2005, Martin used $3.7 million in New Market Tax Credits through the Wisconsin Housing and Urban Development Authority to open a more spacious store. That made Lena’s Food Market the first minority owned business to receive these credits. In 2007, Lena’s Food Market purchased two new locations raising the total to six stores and employing more than 600 people.
Today Lena’s Foods is proudly operated by a second generation of Martins – Anthony, Derrick and Greg; the sons of Bezelee and Lena. Martin’s hard work, determination and entrepreneurial spirit have served him well, and have helped make him a legend in his own time.
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