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What selling drugs taught him about running a supermarket

Louis Rivera remembers when he took home his first Brown's ShopRite paycheck and showed it to his wife.

"I was humiliated," he said, handing over his check for $120. "I said, `I'm sorry, babe. I can't do this. I'm going back to selling drugs.' "

Rivera, 40, believes a good job is key to keeping people from returning to prison, and experts agree.

But, at that moment nine years ago, as Rivera held his first-ever paycheck, his new path to legitimacy seemed an uphill climb. The only positive, and Rivera had to reach for it, was that the $7.35 an hour that ShopRite paid him for part-time work beat the 19 cents per hour that he had earned behind bars cleaning jailhouse toilets.

These days, Rivera is the lead assistant manager at ShopRite's East Norriton store in Montgomery County. As far as Brown's Super Stores chief executive Jeffrey Brown is concerned, Rivera represents the pinnacle of what Brown adopted as a mission -- serving his stores' communities by hiring its formerly incarcerated sons, fathers, and sisters to work at the chain's 13 ShopRite and Fresh Grocer supermarkets.

For Rivera, it's a more complicated story full of ironies.

Here's one: If Rivera hadn't made so much money in drugs, he would not have been able to afford to work at Brown's ShopRite. "I guess I was out of the norm because I still had money saved from back then" to draw on until he gained full-time hours and some promotions.

About 250 to 350 of the formerly incarcerated among Brown's 3,000 supermarket employees get hired through programs with community organizations such as the Salvation Army. Not Rivera.

Rivera got his start by walking in the front door of the ShopRite on Oregon Avenue and begging. "I had just come home from prison," he said. "I told them, 'If you don't give me a job today, I'll probably go back to prison.' "

Rivera realizes that everyone gets a part-time job to start. At 20 hours, "that's maybe $140. I don't know anyone who can live off of $140 a week. It's virtually impossible. I wish we could offer higher rates."

"One of the biggest solutions," he said, "would be to give people set schedules," working the same hours, if not the same days. "If we're not giving them higher rates or more hours, then we should at least give them the opportunity to find a second job."

At ShopRite, Rivera works more than full time. He earns $65,000 a year, plus an additional $10,000 in bonuses. That's $75,000, as much as he could have made in six weeks selling drugs. He said he owned a Mercedes and a Lincoln Navigator and thought nothing of buying a $15,000 necklace or of flying to Miami for the weekend.

He said he made so much money that he lost $20,000 when he was robbed, at gunpoint, of just one weekend's revenues.

"Do I make a lot less now? Yes, but I'm content with it.  I made a lot of money, but to me it wasn't worth the time I spent in prison," he said. "They couldn't pay me enough money now to spend even a week in jail."

Rivera said he was living in Lancaster when he started selling drugs at age 11. His mother had gotten remarried, but he and his stepfather didn't get along. "I'd stop by, but I was living out on the streets, in abandoned cars. I had to fend for myself, make my own lifestyle."

Rivera saw guys on the corner making money on crack. They supplied him with drugs; he supplied them with the profits from the sales. "I was never addicted to drugs," he said. "My addiction was to money and the way of life."

CEO Brown says savvy drug dealers make good retailers -- understanding inventory, margin, marketing, logistics, and human resources. Rivera is a case in point.

Supermarkets operate on a high-volume, low-margin basis. Rivera's business strategy was the opposite – strictly high margin.

"My philosophy was I didn't sell whatever everybody sold," Rivera said. "Everybody was selling crack, so I went after the other stuff people couldn't get."

In Lancaster, Rivera wouldn't trade in "backyard boogie," an everyday grade of marijuana that cost dealers $800 a pound wholesale, he said. They'd make a 33 percent profit by selling it to street dealers for $1,200 a pound, who would in turn distribute it to crews on the corner to market at $5 a gram.

Instead, Rivera opted to spend $2,300 a pound for a higher grade of marijuana and sell it for $4,000, turning a profit of about 40 percent. On the street, Rivera's marijuana sold for $20 to $25 a gram, he said.

Rivera said he followed the same philosophy for PCP -- phencyclidine, known as angel dust -- and ecstasy. He had enough cash flow to buy ecstasy in 3,000-pill lots at $3 a pill, selling them for $20 to $25 apiece.

"To me it's the exact same thing as I'm doing here," he said, during an interview in a crowded office behind the deli department. "You are buying a product. You have overhead. You have bills. You have associates you have to pay."

And motivate – in the store, on the corner.

"You have to learn the people and their abilities and see how they handle themselves before they work for you," Rivera said. "Someone who is smoking pot and playing video games is not someone you want selling drugs for you, because, obviously, they won't come back with your money."

At ShopRite, "you have to know what sells in your building," he said.

ShopRite's wholesale distributor, Wakefern Food Corp., sometimes offers a lower wholesale price on certain items if the supermarket buys more. Around Christmas, the item was crabmeat, $11.99 a can, usually available at about $6 a can wholesale; Wakefern sweetened the deal to $4.

It was Rivera's decision. "We ended up buying 60 cases," he said. His colleagues "thought I was buying too much. But I took a chance. We sold through all of it."

Merchants, like fishermen, love to brag about the size of their take.

Rivera immediately followed his crabmeat story with one about marijuana. One of Rivera's suppliers thought a load of marijuana seemed a little off, and asked Rivera if he wanted to buy some at a discount. "Here it was the best marijuana," Rivera said, "but he didn't know it was good."

As a "favor," Rivera bought 10 pounds for $1,600 a pound. "I sold every ounce for $425" turning $16,000 into $68,000.

He still smiles thinking about it.

In 2004, Rivera was arrested, convicted of charges related to the drugs, and sentenced to four to 10 years in state prison. He got out in 2008.

On March 1, 2008, he started working at the ShopRite, near his home in South Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife and three of his four children.

Rivera hasn't forgotten his first paltry paycheck for $120 or his wife's reaction when he said he vowed to return to drug dealing. "She begged and pleaded and cried," he said. "She said, 'I can't afford to lose you again.' "

And so Rivera returned to ShopRite determined to make it work, and he wants what he accomplished to encourage others to do the same.

Rivera landed in the fish department. "I didn't know the difference between salmon and tilapia," he said, "and those two fish are completely different colors."

In 18 months, he became a department manager. It took him less than three years to become an assistant manager, in charge of a whole store.

Working as a documents specialist for a logistics company, his wife earns a little more than he does. Between them, they are solidly middle class.  "If you want to change your life, you need to do everything in your ability to get here, to learn," he said.

Mostly Rivera doesn't know the backgrounds of ShopRite's employees. But, sometimes he can tell. He looks for the ones trying hard for a new life, the ones determined to change their street hustle.

"I know the struggle they are going through when they look at their check and it doesn't equal what they got on the street," he said.

"I try to pull them aside and tell them, `I've been in your shoes.' "

About this Project

The Inquirer is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on issues facing people coming out of prison. The piece is part of an occasional series — across the region and across platforms — on the challenges of reentry and what can be done about them.

To read our collective work, and read more about the project: