Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cermak Produce Steps Up Where Jewel Backed Out

Cermak Produce aims to open for business in the former Jewel Store on Halsted and 31st sometime between the last week of February and the first week of April. According to George Bousis, whose family opened the first Cermak Produce in 1993, the Bridgeport store will be the 12th store for the independent grocer. It is also the latest example of an unsung trend in the Chicago grocery market.

The press tends to focus on price wars between supermarket giants, and historically, chains have gained advantage over independentsby steadily consolidating their buying power. But in Chicago, the acquisition of Jewel and Dominick’s by large chains opened new footholds for independents. The behemoths proved less nimble to meet local needs.

Dominick’s lost market share after being purchased by Safeway, one local wholesaler recalls. “One of the first things they did was pull Italian sausage off the shelves,” a misstep they eventually reversed. “That was one of the things the DiMatteo Family was famous for. If you wanted a specialty product, they would get it for you.”

Regulators forced Jewel to divest some of its stores when it acquired Cub Foods 10 years ago, and both chains have gone on to close other urban stores for strategic reasons. Smaller independents – like Caputo’s, Garden Fresh and Pete’s Fresh Market – grew in the gap, sometimes in the abandoned stores.

“We like to open stores in underserved markets,” Bousis says. Like its independently owned peers, Cermak specializes in ethnic niches. Bousis names stores on the far south side and close by on Cermak that specialize in Hispanic products; he says the Bridgeport store will have more bok choy and imported Italian foods.

Meanwhile, he is busy revamping the store’s web-site to make it a portal for consumer input, so the store can respond more directly to customer requests. Whether those requests are for or food items, or for other amenities. Will the Bridgeport store have bike racks? “If people request that, we will.”

Bousis believes Cermak’s products are fresher than products in the big chains too, because the supply chain from the tree to the store is relatively short. “Our guys are at the Chicago Produce Market at 3:00 in the morning, picking out the best produce every day. Jewel has bananas ripening in a warehouse, it might be 8 weeks from the tree to the store. For us, it’s two weeks from the tree to the store.”

Cermak Produce’s stores don’t typically display large selections of organic produce –Bousis says this is partly a technicality. Organic foods in a cooler with non organic ones can’t be labeled organic anymore. “We buy apples from the same place Whole Foods does, they spend more on display and marketing as organic. Their mark up on the apples is 300%; ours is 30%.”

The day I talked to him, wholesale prices for apples at the Chicago International Produce market centered around 75 cents per pound. Apples at the Cermak Store just west of Ashland were 99 cents a pound, across varieties, from Red Delicious to Honeycrisp. Down the street, Dominick’s was selling some varieties for 99 cents a pound with a membership card, but regular prices ranged from $1.99 to $3.99 – Honeycrisps were selling for $2.59 with a member card.

A 300% margin buys more real estate, but not necessarily a better store. The aisles in Dominick’s are vast and increasingly staffless. The aisles at Cermak’s store near Ashland are far more compact: the frozen food section is contained in 2 coolers; the bakery is an electric oven at the front of the store. But you’ll find every type of product you might want at a larger grocery store, with more choices of aloe beverage. And from the meat counter, to the produce aisles, the store is humming with staff restocking the shelves. The produce displays are impeccable, and none of it is sopping wet.

Overall, Cermak’s arrival may be the best reason Bridgeport has to look forward to February


  1. Love the phrase "more choice of aloe beverages."
    I love the Cermak Produce on Paulina and Cermak, and eagerly anticipate the one at 31st and Halsted. Thanks for giving us the heads up Kristin! Some things I like about Cermak Produce: Spices are sold in bags and are less than 1/3 the price of the outrageous bottled spices sold at the big chains. Nuts like pecans, walnuts and almonds are also a fraction of the price, with way less packaging. Great selection of peppers and fresh herbs. And you're right, the produce is impeccably stacked and is never wet from being sprayed with those stupid "rain" nozzles.

  2. The large CERMAK sign was attached to the revamped store just last week (late April 2011). I wonder when it'll finally open? The old Jewel was a dump, but it's been missed all the same. And the Egg Store across the street also closed many months ago. The new Cermak Produce can't open soon enough!

  3. I absolutely love the new Cermak on Halsted! Bridgeport needed a great, affordable market. Dominick's is just too expensive for this consumer.

    The new Cermak is the nicest of all the Cermaks I've been too. The deli has a wonderful selection of antibiotic-free meats. I've only seen that happen in the Southside at Hyde Park Produce.

    The staff is extremely helpful and friendly. I can't say thank you enough to Cermak for making my grocery shopping inexpensive and convenient!

  4. don pedro would of been proud of this store he's also one of the founders of the cermaks store let's not forget him.his son bobby is doing a great job also with all the stores god bless keep up the great job