Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series.

Bashas' family-owned grocery chain has been in the news a lot lately as it fights for its economic life in today's tough business environment.

Through the chain's 75th anniversary in 2007, three generations of Bashas kept the company growing. But in July 2009 Bashas' was forced to declare bankruptcy due to mounting debts in a deep recession.

Emerging from bankruptcy in August, after streamlining its operation, the company now has 132 stores - 130 in Arizona, one in Needles, Calif., and one in Crown Point, N.M.

Bashas' Inc. has four types of markets: Bashas' grocery stores; AJ's Fine Foods, with gourmet and specialty items; Food City, oriented toward Hispanic tastes; and Bashas' Diné, which serves Native Americans on the Navajo reservation.

Of the five Bashas' stores in Tucson, Foothills Star readers may be most familiar with those at 6900 E. Sunrise Drive and 3275 N. Swan Road. And many of us patronize AJ's Fine Foods at La Encantada.

The closest of Tucson's eight Food City stores are probably those at 719 E. Fort Lowell Road or 3030 E. 22nd St.

The early days

The Basha family spent 48 years in business in the United States before the name Basha appeared on a building. In 1884 Tanuis Basha left Lebanon to set up an import/export wholesale store in New York City.

His oldest son, Najeeb, joined him in 1886 and in 1901 married Najeeby Srour, the daughter of another Lebanese immigrant.

Najeeb and Najeeby raised a family of seven girls and two boys. The boys, Ike and Eddie, would later found Bashas' Inc.

In 1910, after their business burned down in New York City, the growing Najeeb Basha family moved to Arizona to try to make a living in the mercantile business.

Over the next 10 years, the family survived financial struggles and two more disastrous fires, living in Congress Junction (north of Wickenburg), then the mining towns of Ray and Sonora (south of Superior), until ending up in Chandler in 1920.

Najeeb established a store there that, according to Bashas' company profile, "catered to the rural needs of its community, selling groceries, dry goods and household goods such as furniture."

In 1932, after Najeeb died from diabetes and with the family heavily in debt from his long illness, Ike and Eddie looked for an opportunity to restore the family's finances. They took over a general merchandise store in a small community on the cotton-growing Goodyear Ranch, five miles south of Chandler. (Note: The area is called Ocotillo today.)

The brothers began to concentrate on groceries and put the Basha name over the front door for the first time.

Aggressive expansion

For 20 years the Bashas' chain grew steadily, transitioning from country stores to larger supermarkets, stocked with a more diverse range of merchandise. Ike Basha's death from cancer in 1958 left Eddie as the head of the enterprise. Basha's son Eddie Basha Jr. soon joined the business and helped his father expand it.

When Eddie Basha died in 1968, Eddie Basha Jr., then in his early 30s, assumed full control over the company. At that point the Bashas' chain had 17 stores.

Bashas' expansion continued under the aggressive leadership of Eddie Basha Jr., who "endeavored to create supermarkets that catered to the needs of individual communities," according to the Bashas' company profile.

The most striking example of that occurred in 1981 when the Navajo Nation asked Eddie Basha Jr. to open a store in Chinle. Since opening that store, Bashas' has continued to serve American Indians, now operating seven Bashas' Diné ("of the people") markets across the Navajo reservation.

Bashas' also has two stores on two different Apache reservations - in San Carlos on the San Carlos Apache Reservation and in Whiteriver, on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. Finally, Bashas' services the Tohono O'odham reservation with a market in Sells.

An expanded focus

By the end of the 1980s, Bashas' had grown to approximately 45 outlets. Eddie Basha Jr. wanted to have at least one Bashas' in each of the 15 counties in Arizona.

In the 1990s Bashas' embarked on an acquisition campaign. The first acquisition, in 1992, was AJ's Fine Foods. Today, there are 12 AJ's in the Phoenix area and one in Tucson.

Bashas' also wanted to sell to the Hispanic community. In 1993 Bashas' acquired a Food City store in Phoenix that for 50 years had catered to Hispanics. Then in 1996 Bashas' acquired the MegaFoods discount stores and by 1999 had completed the conversion of those stores and a few other specialty stores to the Food City format.

In 2001 Bashas' bought 22 Southwest Supermarkets for conversion to the Food City format. Today Bashas' operates 53 Food City stores, mostly in the Phoenix area, with seven in Tucson. It also has a state-of-the-art grocery distribution center in Chandler.

$2 billion in sales

By 2004, as reported in Bashas' company profile, its "$2 billion in sales (nearly half from Food City) ranked it third in Arizona's increasingly competitive grocery market, behind Safeway and Fry's."

Bashas' was the only locally owned supermarket chain in the state.

Progressive Grocer pronounced Bashas' its 2005 national Retailer of the Year.

Over the years Bashas' has been noted for championing education and has donated more than $100 million to Arizona charities.

In 2007, in a DVD celebrating its 75th anniversary, Bashas' stated that the company had surpassed 160 outlets with more than 14,000 employees (which it calls "members" in keeping with its "family business" orientation).

The first Bashas' grocery store in Chandler, along with some associated original buildings and a few additions, became the company's headquarters.

In 1992 the Zelma Basha Salmeri Gallery of Western American and Native American Art (named for Eddie Basha Jr.'s Aunt Zelma) opened on the headquarters site. It displays more than 3,000 pieces of art Eddie Basha Jr. has collected since 1971.

The gallery is open to the public and - take it from Pat and me - is worth a visit.

Sources: Arizona Local News, azcentral.com; Bashas' History, bashas.com; Bashas' Company Profile, referenceforbusiness.com; Wikipedia.com; Bashas' 75th Anniversary DVD; Bashas' Public Relations Department; Arizona Daily Star; Arizona Republic; Phoenix Magazine

Next week:

Bashas' survives bankruptcy and reinvents itself.

E-mail Bob Ring at ringbob1@aol.com or view his website, ringbrothershistory.com