Mariano’s searches for ingredients to span South Loop and Chinatown

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When Bob Mariano opened the doors on his 12th eponymous store in the South Loop on Tuesday, it was lined with the ruck of bars — wine bars, sushi bars, smoothie bars, gelato bars, coffee bars — that mark the other 11 stores.

But in addition to the upscale fixtures that have made Mariano’s a favorite for the young and the moneyed, the new store will also be selling a few new things. Among the novel offerings: whole squid and whole octopus.

“In this neighborhood, we could sell some butterfish,” Mariano adds. “Because of Chinatown.”

The South Loop store is about a quarter-mile from the northern bounds of Chinatown, and with a host of traditional Chinese ingredients, Bob Mariano aims to reach more than the condo-dwellers to the north.

“When you start thinking about geography in the city of Chicago, it’s the league of nations,” Mariano said as he strolled through the store Monday. “Bridgeport, you gotta take care of, Chinatown, South Loop. You have to be fundamentally prepared to serve all in the early stages.”

That’s not to say that the shelves at the new Mariano’s will closely resemble the mom-and-pop shops that line the streets of Chinatown. “For the most part, [the store] will just to cater to the yuppies that live on the South Side of the Loop,” says David J. Livingston, a supermarket consultant based in Chicago.

Livingston thinks that such exotic ingredients may be as much for Mariano’s traditional clientele as for its new target demographic: “A lot of that is just to get people’s attention.”

According to Mariano, the new inventory isn’t just a matter of making a splash, but a product of research. Mariano says he spent five years planning the South Loop location, visiting nearby restaurants, butcher shops and specialty stores to assess demand for inventory. “We get fully immersed into the community, then we step back and ask how we meet those needs,” he said. “It’s a continuous improvement cycle. We’re not static.”

Rich Mitchell, a senior analyst for Planet Retail, studies the domestic grocery market and lives in Chicago. He says that gourmet grocers are abandoning the one-size-fits-all “cookie-cutter approach” that outlets like Jewel and Dominick’s used to employ. “Retailers are starting to pay attention to carrying what the local communities are looking for,” he says. “By Mariano’s [carrying specialty ingredients], they’re being very astute. If you don’t carry what they want, they’ll go elsewhere.”

Mariano and his upmarket competitors like Whole Foods have transformed the local grocery market by assessing the new intersection between quality and price. According to a recent report by Mid-America Real Estate, square footage for gourmet stores in the Chicago area increased by 60 percent in the past two years. Meanwhile, the square footage for traditional grocers dropped by more than 5 percent in the same time period.

“If all we’re gonna do is see who can sell it the cheapest, that’s not going to work,” says Mariano, who was Dominick’s CEO from 1995 until Safeway bought the chain in 1998. “Who in the heck would go to Starbucks for a $5 cup of coffee? Is that rational? And I’m not picking on Starbucks. They go there because they like going there. There’s more than just the price.”

But Mariano’s previous 11 locations are sprinkled throughout the North Side and outlying suburbs, where customers tend to have more disposable cash on hand. According to the Chicago Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, the average annual household income in Chinatown is $36,964. In the Loop, North Center and Jefferson Park, where Mariano’s other Chicago stores are located, average annual income exceeds $60,000.

A clientele with fewer spare dollars patronizing the South Loop store may provide an early litmus for food desert locations like the ballyhooed Whole Foods in Englewood and the Bronzeville store at 39th and King Drive that Mariano is currently working on.

Mariano remains careful to maintain the perception that his stores are not for gourmands alone. In the cheese aisle, he held up a slice of Cashel Blue the size of a doorstop — $5 for a quarter-pound. “If customers are trying something new, there tends to be a threshold. This is from Ireland, $20 a pound. We try to keep what they’re buying down a manageable level,” he says of the presliced wedges.

“You have to try to stay relevant, and yet give them a piece of cheese too.”

Mariano’s photos

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