One of the men whose homegrown supermarkets kept Canada’s grocery giants from overrunning Waterloo Region has died.

Lester Zehr died in his sleep earlier this week at the age of 91

In 1950, Zehr teamed up with his brother and their father to open a supermarket on Highland Road in Kitchener. That store would eventually grow into the Zehrs chain, which has dozens of locations across southern Ontario to this day.

Son Gregory Zehr says his father was always focused on customer service, creating a positive experience for people in the store – and extending the same courtesy to his employees.

“He obviously cared deeply about his customers and tried to do his best (for them),” he says.

“If people believe in what they do and believe (in) the cause that they’re working for, I think customer service comes out of that.”

Zehrs was bought by Loblaws in 1963. Zehr remained with the organization for more than a decade, helping it expand its footprint, before starting what his son describes as “one of the great success stories of retirement.”

Once retired, he devoted decades to his family, playing golf and developing friendships everywhere he went.

Grandson J.D. Zehr recalls his grandparents always hosting holiday gatherings for the full family – whether in Kitchener, Muskoka or Florida.

“Some of our best memories have been with him,” he says.

Zehr’s obituary describes him as “the humble entrepreneur” – a title J.D. Zehr says fits perfectly, as his grandfather always played down his business success.

“He was one of the most modest people you could ever talk to,” J.D. Zehr says.

Larry Smith, an associate professor of economics at the University of Waterloo, says Zehr’s ability to build a local business that could survive in the competitive grocery environment is a local success story to be celebrated.

“Lester Zehr was virtually an epitome of a local entrepreneur,” he says.

“He succeeded the way you’re supposed to – high level of service, conveniently located stores, competitively priced groceries of a high quality.”

Lester Zehr is survived by his wife Elva, three children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His funeral will be private.

With reporting by Heather Senoran