It’s hard for me to be enthusiastic about the prospect of grocery shopping, which I consider a chore more tedious than folding laundry. So when my editor asked me to visit a Mariano’s Fresh Market prior to writing this article, I cloaked myself in a steely skepticism, preparing to be unimpressed despite the hefty hype heaped upon the upstart Chicago-area chain in the press and social media.
Tucking away my innate cynicism for the sake of journalistic objectivity, I walk into Mariano’s South Loop store on a Saturday afternoon with an open mind and an open notepad. A full-service coffee and gelato bar greet me upon entry. Not intending to linger long here, I accept the clerk’s offer of a free tasting of the Italian-style ice cream. Four tastes later, I am sitting down with a $1 mini cup of coconut gelato in the adjacent dining area, below a sign announcing free WiFi.
I’ve suddenly become Alice—downing the metaphorical “drink me” bottle and preparing to slide down the rabbit hole. That’s the power a crowd-pleasing gateway product such as authentic gelato can have on the unsuspecting.
Upon entering the grocery store proper, I’m confronted by an immense produce section, brimming with organic edibles and exotic fruit and veggie varieties—many grown by area suppliers. The vibe of a European farmer’s market is unmistakable. I see a fresh juice and smoothies counter. Opposite this is a sushi bar providing custom-made orders. A nearby fresh oyster bar beckons.
I turn the corner and witness a ginormous meat service counter boasting 30 varieties of sausages, Black Angus beef and house specialty kabobs. I turn 180 degrees to find an extensive bakery showcasing custom cakes, cookies, cream puffs, breads and house specialty cupcakes. I catch the wafting aroma of stone-baked pizzas coming out of an imported Italian oven that sits next to a sandwich bar. Heading there, I pass a wine-and-cheese station and sample aged Gouda that washes down smoothly with a mouthful of complimentary wine.
Steps away is a soup bar featuring Manhattan clam chowder and Tuscan white bean and kale; its salad-bar sister, tantalizing with pasta primavera and a medley of olives, catches my eye. Before I even discover the sit-down wine bar north of me, I’ve already indulged in generous samples of hot sauerkraut, chocolate-covered almonds and, to clear my palate, Honeycrisp apples.
Another left turn makes me aware that I haven’t even perused the traditional grocery aisles yet, and there are nine of them, wide and tall and neatly organized from shelf to shelf. Most memorable is the “Tastes of the World” aisle, stocked with countless imported goods and ethnic foods. Elsewhere, I see name-brand products in addition to three series of house brands: Roundy’s Select (premium, higher-priced items); Roundy’s (average-priced selections); and Clear Value (competitively priced wares). Many aisles have shelves that are top-lit with LED strips to make products pop with illumination, while lower shelves often benefit from larger price tags for increased visibility. Overhead, jumbo signage spotlights sales items and key promotions. I also pass a walk-in beer cooler with major brands and craft brews, a colorful floral department and yet another sit-down dining area.
The store’s 18 checkout lanes are each buzzing with activity as paying customers enjoy a live pianist plinking away rhapsodically on an electric piano. Before departing, I see a hand-written black easel announcing upcoming events such as “How to bluff your way through wine,” sauce sampling and $1 oysters.
And I sigh with the acknowledgement that living in the South suburbs, a long drive from the nearest Mariano’s, can have its drawbacks.
Staking Its Claim
Mariano’s didn’t get to this elevated state of making instant positive impressions on consumers by accident. Milwaukee-based parent company Roundy’s Inc. and chairman and CEO Bob Mariano had carefully orchestrated the concept behind and rollout of its growing fresh-market chain long before the first Mariano’s opened in July 2010 in Arlington Heights, Ill.