Thomas (Tom) Ah Chee was born in Remuera, Auckland but travelled with his parents to Canton, China in 1931, returning to Auckland as an 11-year-old. He was a bright student but his university education to be an architect was cut short by his father’s death, and he took over the family fruit shop. It was there he foresaw that large supermarkets would determine the future of food distribution in New Zealand.
His family has retailed fruit and vegetables in Auckland since the days when his grandfather sold produce from baskets in Queen Street in the 1870s. He began work in his father’s Newmarket shop in the late 1930s. In the 1940s the family began to move away from straight retailing into mass produce retailing.
Their shop on the corner of Great South and St Marks Roads became a site where they sold cases of apples, peaches and potatoes. Tom had both a retail and a wholesale operation on Great South Road. In 1958 he built and opened the first American-style supermarket in New Zealand or Australia.
The Otahuhu Foodtown supermarket was beside the Great South Road to the south of Otahuhu but was actually situated in Otara. Three small business owners – Tom Ah Chee, Norman Kent and John Brown – sold their small businesses and pooled their resources to personally build and supervise construction of the supermarket.
The Otahuhu development proved a success and a second Foodtown was built and opened in Takanini, South Auckland in 1961. Tom Ah Chee remained involved with Foodtown until 1982 when he resigned as Chief Executive. By that stage it was a public company owned by Progressive Enterprises with 23 supermarkets across Auckland.
All the stores were rebranded as Countdown by the end of 2011. Tom Ah Chee was inducted into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame in 2002, two years after his death. Tom Ah Chee 1928-2000 is buried in Block D, Row 28, Plot 071E.
Thomas (Tom) Henry AH CHEE
Block D, Row 28, Plot 071E.