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

Friday, October 15, 2010

Portrait of Halsted as a Thriving Retail Strip

Patrick Falahee is an Attorney and Counselor at Law with a strong Bridgeport practice, but his office is in the Monadnock Building downtown. He looked for an office on Halsted Street, but was surprised to find the rents cost more for less than desirable space. He points out one storefront whose owner wanted $2,500 a month, even though there was a big dripping hole in the ceiling. (“You fix,” the landlord told him.)

It wasn’t always like that. Falahee remembers when Halsted and 35th Street was the State and Madison of Bridgeport. He grew up on Union Ave between 36th and 37th in the 1960s and 70s; he says the city lot alongside Jack Sheehan’s top secret bar used to be the city parking lot, marked with lights, and packed with the cars of people who’d come to shop the Halsted Strip.

He spent whole Saturdays at the Ramova Theater, going from one movie to the next, before it was overtaken by Kung Fu pictures and a tougher crowd; he says I should find another source for stories about the Lithuanian theater that used to be up the street by Bernice’s tavern, because he and his friends generally didn’t go north of 33rd Street. He doesn’t remember much about Morgan Street either, really didn’t go over there. But Halsted had everything.

It was dominated by groceries stores and taverns. Falahee can point out 5 former grocery stores between the former Pocius grocery at 36th Street and the former Tony’s supermarket near 32nd, where the Ace Bakery is now. And they were supplemented by a network of little shops on the interior streets. There was a little grocery store in the middle of his block on Union, where he used to get sent to pick up fresh chicken for supper; there was a drug store on the corner just down the street, a bona fide apothecary, who kept ingredients in antique glass jars. You’d go there and tell Louie what ailed you and he’d mix something up. He’d make jokes and chat while you waited, people used to go to his shop to hang out.

Now the most prosperous drug store in Bridgeport, and maybe in Illinois, is an anonymous pharmacy in Doctor Knapp’s building across from Nana Restaurant. Falahee recalls it ranked highest in the state for medicare billings a couple years ago. Walking by, you’d never know it was there.

Traffic on Halsted was already waning in the 1950s, before Falahee was born. Observers comparing Bridgeport’s portion of the city’s retail sales to its portion of the city’s population suggest that was when families who’d moved outward toward Brighton Park and Archer Heights, but came back to Bridgeport to do the shopping, could do the shopping in their own neighborhoods instead.

But the suburban strip malls really sucked it dry. Halsted’s sidewalk shoppers wandered off for a new kind of retail experience, one that seemed modern and convenient at the time, but that seems uniform and anonymous now. There were oceans of parking, and chain stores that could combine quality and price in a way the little independents couldn’t match.

They still can’t, but there is also a growing segment of consumers who will travel miles for the pleasure of shopping on a street that is quaint, pedestrian friendly, individually owned, diverse. Which sounds a lot like the Halsted Street Falahee remembers.

There was a fish monger where the car wash is now, the owners wore rubber aprons and laid the fish out on beds of ice in the windows, there was an Italian Bakery and Deli where they made their own sausage, and a Chinese laundry where the owner, in traditional dress and a queue, pressed shirts in the window – just in the 2 blocks between 36th Street and the Ramova.

You could buy anything you might need on Halsted back then: dress shoes for the office, back to school clothes for the kids, ladies lingerie, which was sold in a little shop where the condominium block stands at Halsted and 35th (though strictly the girdle and pantyhose variety – “it wasn’t Victoria’s Secret,” Falahee recalls). He says half the families in Bridgeport got their mortgages at Union Federal, where Citibank moved in, and then bought their furniture at Wendt’s – “their green delivery trucks were everywhere.”

You can still buy shoes, clothes and furniture on Halsted Street. But there are fewer options of lesser quality. Or, in a few cases, longtime owners will impress you with outstanding service so you vow to go back and spend more money there, but they’re nearing retirement age and are waiting for a good offer, someone they think will open up something that will be good for the street.

A handful of new businesses have opened their doors on Halsted in the past few years and seem to be thriving, recession or no recession. Bridgeport Tattoo set up shop in the old North Ice Cream Parlor, Blue City Cycles opened up where Blackie’s Barbershop once was. Nana Restaurant brought organic dining to Bridgeport, and brought Bridgeport to the attention of the mainstream press for a positive accomplishment. Across the street Calabruzzi’s has been slowly taking shape behind the bed-sheets in the windows of the old Magikist plant.

All of which seems to promise more good things are in store for Halsted Street when the recession eventually lifts. With any luck, it will skip the awkward strip-mall and big-box phase that some other neighborhoods endure, and re-populate with something more like the shops that brought crowds strolling down the sidewalk when Falahee was a kid.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Butler Street Foundry's Next Big Job

John LaMonica, proprietor of Butler Street Foundry, freely admits that business is terrible. “In our industry we say ‘You can only pretend you’re okay for so long.’ Two and a half years is too long.”

But John is also an optimist who sees connections and opportunities everywhere. “All the doors are closed,” he says, describing life in general and not just the economy as it happens to be now, “you have to have the balls to start opening them up.”

Butler Street Foundry has been doing business at 35th and Normal Avenue since 1891. Normal Avenue was called Butler Street when Arnold Hinkens first opened an iron foundry there. Hinkens was a German tradesman; a group of Nebraska farmers, in need of his services, financed his relocation to the United States. But he stopped in Chicago first, and some Chicago investors poached him -- they were in a frenzy of construction for decades after the Chicago fire, they paid off Hinkens’ Nebraska sponsors and set him up on Butler Street.

Succeeding generations of Hinkenses produced iron to build and rebuild Chicago for 114 years, until 2005, when John bought the business from his “Uncle Bud” Hinkens, the man who’d sponsored his mother’s family when they emigrated from Croatia. Butler Street Foundry was an iron fabrication shop by then, though the old foundry patterns still hang in a workshop upstairs.

Uncle Bud had let business dwindle down to what he could do with 4 guys – just the amount of work he needed to make money. When John bought Butler Street Foundry he was proud to be taking on a mantle, a 114 year heritage. He started cold calling his way through the lists of old customers that Uncle Bud had let slip away. By 2006 he had 15 guys employed in the shop, by 2007, as the development boom was beginning to falter, he employed 28.

He had made a niche fabricating parts for restoration projects. A new construction project is mathematically regular, uniform parts fit together in a uniform way. A reconstruction project is all specialty parts precisely fit for irregular spaces. If they aren’t made exactly right in the shop, they have to be made to work in the field, where it costs twice as much to do corrections.

John believes part of the reason his shop excels at work like that is because they lay everything out by hand. They don’t use a computerized table to calculate laser cuts. “In the ideal world, the computer is efficient, and every cut is perfect.
“But in the real world, there’s dirt in the shop, there’s a big crane travelling back and forth across the floor that makes everything vibrate, the machine gets bumped and goes off an eighth of an inch.

“Our stuff is all laid out and a man checks it. A proud man checks it,” he adds.
Which is a succinct description of how John believes the economy should square its shoulders going forward. “Let’s go back to our roots and create a whole society of new craftsmen” -- men whose trade is both a skill-set and a heritage, something they learn at the feet of masters. Which is how John learned his.

He describes his career through a series of mentors, starting at Emil’s Auto Body Shop on Morgan Street, back when he was a kid unsure of what he ought to do. “I can’t tell you how many guys fucked up their old man’s car, brought it to Emil’s and he saved their ass.”

Emil taught him to build wood burning stoves from barrels, which he sold, until he took an aptitude test and found himself recruited to work at the IIT Research Institute, which was humming with defense contracts during the Bush administration and the Gulf War. He learned precision welding in the machine shop, “and I got to work for 5 years with guys who’d worked with Werner Von Braun,” Hitler’s rocket scientist, who helped start NASA’s Space Flight program after the Second World War.

The Research Institute lost its contracts as defense spending wound down in the Clinton years. John took a severance and bought a welding machine with it. He set up his own business at the back of Uncle Bud’s shop. From there, he could watch the Butler Street iron shop in operation, and learn war stories from Uncle Bud.

Bud Hinkens had jumped from planes in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and rode the rails for a year when he returned. The family iron shop was struggling then – there was a post war recession, and when that lifted, environmental restrictions were clamping down on toxic emissions, like those emitted by iron foundries

So Bud “whored himself out,” as the family would say. He made his way around Lake Michigan working power plant projects. When he returned to Chicago after 25 years, Butler Street Foundry had reinvented itself as a fabrication business, building structural steel for skyscrapers and bridges.

John has gotten around himself over the years. Even working in the iron shop, he was picking up skills on the side. He learned sheet metal from Herman Zweifel who owned the hardware store on Stewart Avenue, so that after Herman died his widow gave John her husband’s antique tools.

He learned blacksmithing in Kentucky, and just before the recession hit, he studied sculpture at the School of the Art Institute. He wanted a new perspective on the old techniques. “The piece is one thing, but I care about the process – I learned to think about why I was doing this stuff.”

By the time he finished art school, he brought his art school mentors to Bridgeport –Dan Matheson and Gabriel Akagawa set up the Happy Accident Sculpture Studio in a workshop adjoining Butler Street Foundry.

In 2009, John became a formal mentor himself, hosting an internship for 2 students from Big Picture high school in Back of the Yards. Remembering how Crowley taught him to build boat cradles at his south branch boat yard when he was starting out, he says “You need someone to show confidence in you, to teach you to say ‘I don’t know how to do it, but I want to learn.’”

Julio Arteaga and Juan Serrano, his Big Picture charges, would stay an extra semester and have a hand in the steel steer-heads that now ornament 9 gates of the Union Stockyards. It was a project that John got himself into when he said he’d like to fix the “salty old iron” in the Stockyard gates for free.

He has a weakness for heritage projects, they ring with connections. He restored the old church bell for Second Presbyterian and discovered it had been originally donated by Louis Armour, who had financed the Armour Institute, the technical school that gave rise to the IIT Research Institute, where John first learned his trade.

A prayer he made to Saint Anthony led him to agree to a request that came through the son of a friend of a friend. The request was to build a fixture for a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. John was impressed by the story of the Virgin, who worked a miracle of roses to secure herself a church, and also by the story of her travels in Bridgeport, where the local Guadalupanas carried her picture from one church to the next, as each got torn down, or as she was made otherwise unwelcome, until they arrived at Saint Anthony’s, which is John’s own parish.

In 3 days of inspired labor, John built her an elaborate threshold, surrounded by dozens of individual steel roses. And when the Guadalupanas pulled him from the pew to help carry her through the church, his future mother in law was finally convinced he was a good man for her daughter.

Now that a long recession has driven Butler Street Foundry down from 28 employees to just 2, he has hung a photo of his own young family among the photos of the Hinkenses, and says he is proud to call Butler a mom and pop shop. He recalls that the Hinkenses themselves once retreated to the Kankakee River to retrench during the Depression. Now John is working up the shop’s next reinvention.

“I want to turn Butler into a school,” he says, a place to learn the iron trade the way a trade ought to be learned. He’s floated the idea with the Big Picture Charter Schools, and with the Iron League of Chicago, of which he is a member. “They’re the good old boys of iron – they think it’s a good idea too.” Most recently, the City Colleges of Chicago came by the shop to discuss possibilities. They’re looking for space for a program to train skilled workers as well.

John says Butler Street Foundry would be ideal, partly because the shop there isn’t state of the art or school room pristine. “It’s a salty old place, conditions aren’t perfect,” he says. “We could give students a real life experience.”