Ted Morton, the founder of Morton’s Market, will be remembered as one of Sarasota’s most innovative businessmen.
Morton, 85, died last night from complications from a heart attack.
His son, Eddie, who now runs the market, said his father is best known as a community leader, making customer service a priority.
Seeing a need in Sarasota, Mr. Morton bought an independent grocery store in 1969 and grew Morton’s Market into the community mainstay it remains today.
Mr. Morton first got his start in the food business in Tampa as a salesman for National Biscuit Co., now known as Nabisco. In 1951, he transferred to Sarasota. After he arrived, Mr. Morton found Easter Seals/Happiness House, a special school for disabled children, to assist one of his three sons, Kenny, who has cerebral palsy.
Shortly thereafter, Nabisco asked Mr. Morton to move either to Jacksonville or Miami. Faced with having to find another special-needs school for his son, Mr. Morton resigned from Nabisco and took a job as a grocery buyer, working for the independent grocery store Marable’s Market.
By 1954, Mr. Morton was promoted to general manger. During the late ’50s and early ’60s, he helped Marable set up two smaller grocery stores called Simple Sam on U.S. 41 in Manatee County and at Osprey Avenue and Siesta Drive.
“It was great; I loved the grocery business,” Mr. Morton said in a 2004 interview. “We carried everything. It didn’t matter what people wanted. If we didn’t have it, we ordered it.”
In many ways, Mr. Morton got his first experience with the grocery business during the heyday of small independent stores. The first grocery chain, a Publix supermarket, didn’t open in Sarasota until 1956.
In 1969, Mr. Morton bought Marable.
“He had a son at college who didn’t want the store because he knew the hours,” he said. “Mr. Marable gave me a great deal because I didn’t have much money to put down.”
Mr. Morton also brought on Eddie, his oldest son, to learn the business.
In 1971, Mr. Morton hit on an innovation that — although widely duplicated — led to large growth in the grocery business: a delicatessen for hot meals and gourmet snacks. By 1997, the deli department and prepared food had grown to 25% of the store’s total revenue.
In 1976, after repeated customer questions and with the blessing of Marable’s widow, Mr. Morton changed the name of the grocery to Morton’s Market.
Twenty-one years later, the Morton family sold the store to an investment company owned by Riscorp Chairman Bill Griffin. Family members still operated the store, but in 2007, the family bought Morton’s Market back.
Mr. Morton also found time to join and serve on several business and community organizations, including the Sarasota County Chamber of Commerce, Gulf Coast Kiwanis Club, The Argus Foundation, University Club, Sarasota Yacht Club, Sarasota Sports Committee and the Florida Heart Association.
He has been a member of the board for Ellis American Bank, Coast Federal and SunTrust Bank, Sarasota.
On June 2, 2002, the Sarasota City Commission declared the day “Ted Morton Day” and awarded him the key to the city.
And in 2004, the Argus Foundation honored Mr. Morton with a lifetime achievement award.
Morton’s Market has become quite an incubator for future businessmen — businessmen who got their start as bag boys, a job Morton preferred to call “cashier’s assistant.”
Past cashier’s assistants include Ken Bailey with RBC Centura; Chuck Floyd, an executive vice president of operations for Hyatt Hotels Corp.; John Chidsey, president for Burger King North America; John Savary Jr. an attorney with Dunlap & Moran; Robert Scheb, an attorney with Bowman George Scheb Toale Robinson; and Ross Windom, a pilot with United Airlines.
As for what made Morton’s Market so successful, Mr. Morton said: “I’ll be honest with you: It wasn’t the price. Morton’s has always had a somewhat high price; Marable’s prices were high as well. What made us different is in our service.”
Eddie Morton said listening to the customer is what his father did best, and the family continues that tradition today.
A visitation for Mr. Morton is scheduled from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5, at Toale Brothers Funeral Home at 40 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota. A service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Monday, Dec. 6, at Church of the Redeemer at 222 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota.
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected].