The Real Deal New York

Photo by STUDIO SCRIVO
Photo by STUDIO SCRIVO

John Catsimatidis

By Lauren Elkies

John Catsimatidis is the owner, president, chairman and CEO of the Red Apple Group and Gristedes Foods — Manhattan’s largest supermarket chain. Red Apple — which Catsimatidis said has around $700 million to $800 million in real estate interests — has a proposal to build three residential towers in Coney Island and is planning to add more residential buildings to the one it has in Downtown Brooklyn. In addition, Catsimatidis said he personally owns 300 properties in New York State and Pennsylvania. And he owns the Hellenic Times, a Manhattan-based Greek-American newspaper. He is also a prominent political fund-raiser and donor.

What’s your date of birth?
Sept. 7, class of 1948.

Where were you born?
The small island of Nisyros. It was part of the Turkish Empire till the early 1900s. Then it became part of Italy till 1947. And I was born there in 1948 [when it was part of Greece]. So I tried to become a member of the Columbus Club, and they wouldn’t let me in because I missed it by a year. Six months later, my dad brought me to America.

What did your father do?
He worked for the Italian government on a lighthouse by himself for 16 years. Just to remember how hard he worked, I have a picture of the lighthouse on my BlackBerry. I took it from the yacht we charter. It’s emotional.

Where’d you live when you came to America?
We moved into 512 West 135th Street, near my father’s brothers. We were prisoners there for 20 years. You’re a prisoner of the ghetto till you escape. I escaped.

Where do you live now?
On Fifth Avenue in the 60s, in a condo. I’ve been living there since my second marriage [in 1988].

Do you have any other homes?
A house in the Hamptons — East Quogue, on the beach. We also have old family homes in Greece.

What are your hobbies?
My number-one hobby used to be flying airplanes. When my kids were born I quit.

Where do you dine out in New York City?
I go to Chin Chin for Chinese, Bobby Van’s for steak, Persephone for Greek food and Milos for seafood. For good old business, I go to the “21” Club.

What was your first job?
At the Sloan’s Supermarket on 135th Street, but they didn’t pay me. I was 14. They made me hustle behind the register and deliver groceries. I ended up buying the company.

Why did you drop out of NYU as an undergraduate?
I didn’t drop out. I completed four full years. I was eight credits short of graduating.

Why not complete it?
A family friend [was having] problems with his uncle’s grocery store on 100th Street. He said, “You gotta take my position with my uncle.” I paid [to buy him out].

Did not having a college degree hurt you?
It didn’t hurt me. It didn’t hurt Bill Gates. But I don’t want my son [John Jr., 18, who starts at NYU this fall] to hear that. [Daughter Andrea, 21, has one semester left.]

What’s the story with your pilot being held hostage?
We were in the airplane and jet leasing business. It was 1996. We were stuck with a bunch of 727s. The only place to sell them was Africa. We delivered the last plane [to West African millionaire Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko], but they took away our pilot’s passport in an attempt to reopen negotiations on the price. He wasn’t really a hostage. He was in a luxury hotel with many women and lots of food.

So what’d you do?
Lowered the price.

Who’s the most famous person you’ve flown in [one of your two] planes?
President Clinton uses them often.

Are you friends?
We’re friends. Hillary [Rodham Clinton] came to my daughter’s wedding. Bill was away.

Your daughter’s husband is Christopher Cox, Richard Nixon’s grandson. He’s 11 years her senior, so were you upset when they first started dating?
No. The kid was such a nice kid.

How much did you spend on their June wedding at the Waldorf-Astoria?
In excess of $1 million.

You were planning to run for mayor as a Republican in 2009, but withdrew when Mayor Michael Bloomberg ran for a third term. What happened?
Bloomberg called me in … and asked me to withdraw and use my influence … to get him the nomination. I’m being urged to run now by the county chairs.

You planning on running?
I am urging [Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly to run. If he doesn’t run, I may.

You hobnob with some big muckety-mucks. How did you get in with them?
I ran a lot of the fund-raisers for President Clinton in the early 1990s and I give away a lot of money every year. We do a lot of fund-raising for people we like.

Where do you buy your groceries?
At Gristedes — and I pay for them. We even — what’s the word, schlep? — we schlep them out to the Hamptons.

Forbes recently ranked you No. 692 on its list of “The World’s Billionaires” with a net worth of $1.8 billion. Is that enough, or do you aspire to climb up that list?
I don’t care about the money. Like I tell my friends, if I wasn’t in the supermarket business, I’d be higher up.

Your wife, Margo Vondersaar, is president of MCV Advertising and copublisher of the Hellenic Times. She was your secretary [when you first met] as well, right?
Going back to 1972. There were rumors we were together [while married to his first wife].

Were you?
Sometimes.

You’re a gun enthusiast. Ever drawn your weapon?
I captured one person 25 years ago. [Three guys] held up our store on 84th Street and York Avenue. The other two got away.

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