Melvin Potash knew families and businesses are stronger when everyone pulls together.
He taught his children that lesson with a story about a team of two horses that never got anywhere until they stopped pulling in opposite directions.
“He put it in terms we could understand,” his son Art Potash said, by using South Shore landmarks the Potash kids knew from their childhood. “He said one horse wanted to go to the JCC [Jewish Community Center] at 91st and Jeffery, and the other wanted to go to Kim’s drugstore at 87th and Bennett.”
Mr. Potash told his children the horses made no progress until they agreed: “We’ll go to Kim’s first, and then we’ll go to the JCC.”
Later in life, when differences of opinion cropped up, Art Potash said, “All he had to say was: ‘Remember the two horses.’ ”
Mr. Potash, one of three brothers who founded the 71-year-old chain of Potash grocery stores, died Nov. 1 at Vi at the Glen, a senior community in Glenview. The longtime Lincolnwood resident worked for the family business from 1950 to 2017.
Young Melvin was captain of the basketball team at Hyde Park High School, which also bolstered his belief in teamwork, his son said.
“I was not the best player,” Mr. Potash told his family. “I was the captain because I was the biggest cheerleader for my teammates.”
The three Potash stores are at 875 N. State St., 1525 N. Clark St. and Potash Gourmet 44 on the 44th floor of 175 E. Delaware Pl., the former John Hancock Center.
Until four years ago, Mr. Potash was still going to work at the Clark Street store, where he’d stock the shelves and smile and wave at his regulars, many who became friends, his son said. When customers had children, Mr. Potash’s wife Phyllis made personalized baby books for them, with her delicate calligraphy and newspaper headlines from the day the infants were born.
Mr. Potash believed in personalized service, taking phone orders for delivery, stocking special requests and modifying inventory to reflect changing tastes. He expanded prepared deli items and meal choices that didn’t focus on meat. Customers could always found a Potash in their stores, including his sister Marian Schuman, who worked for the business for 60 years.
One time, in the days before cell phones, a woman was robbed in front of the Clark Street store.
“My dad made sure she was O.K. and called her family in Pontiac, Illinois” to help, Art Potash said.
“He was always looking out for the small guy,” said Brian Jordan, director of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.
Mr. Potash headed a predecessor of the group, the Illinois Food Retailers Association, from 1999 to 2001.
He had a diplomatic touch with employees, his son said. He said that when one kept coming in late, “He bought him an alarm clock.”
In addition to his two brothers who were his business partners, he grew up with six sisters. Their Russia-born parents were the former Sarah Goldstein and Max Potashnick, who shortened the family name to Potash after settling in the United States.
Max Potash was involved in real estate, but the Great Depression hit the family hard. For a time, they were homeless, and some of the younger children were temporarily placed in the care of Jewish social services, Art Potash said.
“They all believed in family; that’s what got them through,” he said.
In the early 1950s, Mr. Potash served stateside in the Army. When he was on leave, he’d come home and spell his brother Herbert — who operated a North Side store, Plee-Zing market — so he could take a vacation. Eventually, Mr. Potash and a third brother, David, followed Herbert into the grocery business.
In the 1960s, two of their North Clark Street stores were twice displaced by the construction of Carl Sandburg Village, his son said. In 1967, Mr. Potash negotiated with developer Arthur Rubloff to establish the Sandburg Supermart at 1525 N. Clark St., which operates today as Potash Market. In 1962, they opened Potash Bros., also now known as Potash Market, at 875 N. State St. The Delaware Place location opened in 2007.
When Mr. Potash met Phyllis Winer, his redheaded future wife, “He pointed to the freckles on her arm,” their son said, “and he said, ‘You know what they are?’ ”
“Freckles,” she replied.
“They’re kisses from angels,” he told her.
They were married for 67 years.
Services have been held. Mr. Potash is also survived by his daughter Debbie Dobkin, sons Ed Potash and Mark Potash, a Chicago Sun-Times sports reporter, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.