General Merchandise/HBC

The Power of Retail (Mariano's Slideshow)

With a new store opening, the neighborhood will never be the same

WESTCHESTER, Ill. -- Maybe I’m giving too much social significance to the opening of a new grocery store. But amid an orgy of product samples, balloon animals and live music played on a humorously small piano, I felt a shift in my community as I scrutinized a new Mariano’s grocery store this week.

Mariano's Grocery Store, Westchester, Ill.

Understand, as a lifelong resident of the suburbs of Chicago, I’ve been raised on Jewel and Dominick’s, both perfectly upstanding grocery retailers, but hardly trendsetting and, with both nearly 100 years old, perhaps too comfortable in their own skin to truly enact major change. Sure there are Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s stores in the area, but they maintain the “specialty grocer” tag, not rising to the level of stock-up store.

So when Dominick’s went out of business last year, there was a real hole in the Chicago grocery market. What would come next?

Enter Mariano’s, not an entirely new concept to the market, but previously a niche player. With the opening of the Westchester store, Mariano’s, owned by Milwaukee-based Roundy’s, now operates 29 grocery stores in the Chicago area.

After nearly a year of redesign, or more accurately, reconstruction—They really took the old Westchester Dominick’s store apart—Mariano’s opened its newest store this past week about a mile from my home. This weekend, I took (“hauled” is a better word) the whole family to the store, where we barely got in the door before being offered samples while the kids were entertained by a balloon-animal artist.

Fifteen steps later, we were in line to purchase gelato at the store café. (Somehow I managed to stop myself from purchasing a bacon Long-John doughnut.)

The café serves as the first stop in what is easily comparable to a shopping-mall food court, including seating for at least 70. There’s a sushi bar, sandwich and pizza counter, a salad bar that offers far more than lettuce, veggies and cheese, and Todd’s BBQ, a branded concept that reads like a QSR with an accent on take-home and catering options. This is in a grocery store!

All the expected departments and sections—deli, packaged beverages and yes, basic groceries—are there, too, but each is stocked with something different or unexpected, something new to catch a shopper’s eye with each visit.

My Cub-Scout son was drawn to the trail-mix bar, my wife to the wine bar and me to the beer cave, which enhanced the typical walk-in cooler selection of 18- and 24-packs of domestic beers with many craft and import options.

To me, this store had a message for the community. It said: This community deserves better; this community is now upscale. It also says something about the power of retail. This is a store I’d expect in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, but it’s in tiny Westchester, middle-class community of ranch-style homes that puts on few airs.

Back in June, my local Jewel—historically my family’s preferred grocery store—in nearby La Grange Park, Ill., celebrated a redesign that, in my opinion, attempted and failed to say the same thing.

Now that Mariano’s has made a bolder statement, from its polished concrete floors to its two-story glass façade, the question becomes: Is this what the community wants?

“It’s too big,” said my 13-year-old son.

“There’s too much. You don’t know where to start,” said my wife. Perhaps more tellingly, she was so caught up in the theater and the exotic products that she noted as we exited, “I didn’t even see any toilet paper.” Talk about a stock-up-store no-no!

But the gauntlet is thrown. The community is on notice of change. Will Mariano’s rise tide lift all boats in the neighbothood?

Your move, Jewel.

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