Sixty years ago, Tony Chernalis decided he was not the type of guy to sit behind a desk all day, and our communities have been thanking him ever since. As a 21-year-old, he decided to drop his accounting studies and grasp an opportunity to open a butcher shop on Sicomac Avenue in Wyckoff.
His dad, William, had owned a butcher shop in North Haledon where Tony learned the trade. When William cut his hand badly, 14-year-old Tony filled in for his dad at the shop.
“Maybe that’s why he thought he wanted to be a CPA,” quips his son, Mark Chernalis.
Tony, a lifelong Wyckoff resident and graduate of Ramapo High School, was working at the shop when he met his wife, Phyllis, whose mother had opened the neighboring upholstery store.
In 1960, when they discovered a deli available in Wyckoff, Tony and his brother Bill took it over and established The Market Basket.
“Route 208 was still being built. The last exit was Cedar Hill Avenue, and I remember kids racing their cars up and down the closed section of the highway,” says Tony.
Tony had taken note of the expansive northward growth of Bergen County, the building boom of new industrial parks, and the introduction of large corporations opening in the area, namely Nabisco in Fair Lawn and IBM in Franklin Lakes. The trend was shifting for big businesses to move out of New York City and into the suburbs, bringing along the expansion of new home construction and new residents to the community.
“My dad realized there was a market for prepared foods. He was a pioneer in his time because when he started, no one else was doing it,” says Mark. Tony noticed the trends in traveling up and down Route 208 and the busyness of working families, so he started making chicken dishes and meatloaves for them to bring home. “I would call friends for recipes if I didn’t know how to make it,” laughs Tony.
“It was an evolution moving into the catering business,” notes Mark. “One customer asked if he catered, and Tony confidently answered, ‘Sure!’” This was the start of the extensive catering business that Market Basket has built to this day.
In 1989, the family added the Franklin Lake Road store to accommodate the growth of its catering business. “We couldn’t do any more volume in our Sicomac Avenue space,” says Mark. There had previously been an Acme, Gristedes, and Kilroy’s on the Franklin Lakes property, none of which were successful. The family received some negative feedback when they began their initial negotiations; claims that they’d be unsuccessful because the larger stores had not been profitable. However, the family took the gamble and invested in building out the space.
Since then, they’ve expanded the store twice to accommodate the growing business, and invested in an off-site warehouse to manage delivery and distribution. The warehouse helped them to sustain the store when COVID hit. “We had plenty of supplies because of our huge refrigeration and storage facilities,” says Mark. “The warehouse is key to our buying power.”
The Market Basket was able to stay open throughout the pandemic and was designated by the Office of Emergency Management as an emergency food supplier.
“We do it for our customers, says Mark. “We stayed open, dealt with managing the lines, figured out the policies, and secured the necessary PPE,” says Mark's son, Zach. “When COVID first hit, no one knew the protocols for staying open. We were calling the Board of Health and the CDC; meanwhile, we were buying tons of hand sanitizer, paper towels, and toilet paper for our warehouse in order to have it all available for our customers.”
COVID created a unique situation for the Market Basket to see many first-time customers. Because they were fully stocked with supplies that were scarce in other stores, they attracted shoppers who didn’t usually stop there. “Now we are part of their shopping routine. We have weekly customers who come in from Manhattan every Saturday. That doesn’t happen with a traditional supermarket. People drive here as a destination,” says Mark.
Market Basket’s appeal has grown because its customers are willing to travel a distance for their specialties. “Supermarkets attract people from a mile or two, while Market Basket attracts people from all over,” says Zach.
Their truck drivers head to Hunts Point in the Bronx to pick up produce, meat, and seafood long before the crack of dawn. “Other stores buy from one wholesaler. Our buyers with years of experience and have the right relationships with various wholesalers. Sometimes, issues come up, and I get calls at 2 am; but that extra step makes it all worthwhile,” says Zach.
Another aspect of patriarch Tony’s farsighted innovation was to connect with the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. He had the idea to provide jobs for students and bussed them back and forth between Market Basket and their campus. There are more than a few renowned chefs and restauranteurs who got their start thanks to Tony Chernalis.
Tony’s positive community impact continues to this day, far beyond prepared foods and pandemic preparation. He makes a priority of helping others. As an avid supporter of Eva’s Kitchen in Paterson in its early years, he made a point of delivering Thanksgiving dinners to the organization. “At Thanksgiving, we would get turkeys and meals ready and bring them there in the morning,” says Mark. “No fanfare, no big deal. That’s just what we did.”
An offshoot of Eva’s Kitchen (now Village) is Oasis, a Haven for Women and Children in Paterson, which has benefitted from Tony’s generosity as well as his outgoing personality. The family supported the organization from the beginning, and Tony was a catalyst in getting his friends and colleagues to join him in supporting the cause. Tony’s wife, Phyllis, served on its original board of directors, and the family was pivotal in forming a faction of volunteers to help make a difference in Paterson.
“Everyone who got involved with these causes was affected by my dad. People tell me, ‘your father taught me to give back,’” says Mark. “Our kids see what he is doing, and they learn to give back as well. It was not about being ‘philanthropic.’ It was about people simply needing food and then providing it. My dad was ahead of his time. He gave them all a wake-up call.”
The passion that the Chernalis family pours into community support initiatives also helps them to meet the everyday challenges of the food industry. They’ve had to put their heads together to figure out how to deal with complicated catering situations, manage the unprecedented COVID pandemic, and even make emergency 3:00 am runs to the store to fill generators with gas during power outages.
The family has successfully worked together—continuing to innovate new ideas for the business and for serving the community. “It’s good having the three generations working together here,” says Tony.
Mark adds, “It didn’t happen by accident; you have to get up and do it every day.”