The opportunity to hear from Bob Mariano, founder and namesake of the popular Mariano's grocery store chain, created the rare phenomenon Tuesday -- a line to get into the monthly morning gathering of the Schaumburg Business Association.
More than 150 members of the association signed up for the session of "Good Morning, Schaumburg" at Chandler's Chop House at the Schaumburg Golf Club.
SBA President Kaili Harding said that even though Schaumburg doesn't have a Mariano's, the brand's success in the highly competitive grocery store industry made fellow entrepreneurs interested to hear the business principles Mariano follows.
Mariano said his father first taught him the importance of the customer, but it was while moving up the ranks at Dominick's in the '70s that he learned exactly how a customer wants to be treated.
Customers and employees were the prime focus when Mariano began carving out a niche of his own in the Chicago-area grocery store market four years ago. From his first store in Arlington Heights, the Mariano's chain already has grown to 25 stores and 10,200 employees in the Chicago market.
"Although I'm in the grocery business, I spend most of my time in the people business," Mariano said. "We were fortunate that we caught the customers at the right time. They were looking for something different. They were looking to be treated different. Self-service is code for no service."
It wasn't long before Mariano was asked a local version of the question he says he's asked everywhere he visits: "When are you coming to Schaumburg?"
He said he's currently limited to opening five stores a year because of the amount of time it takes to find the right staff. Though he can teach the business to most people, he makes certain every hire is someone who comes with strong people skills and an eagerness for working with customers.
"We try to take it to a much more fun level," Mariano said. "I don't golf, I don't sail. I open stores."
Because Mariano's isn't in Schaumburg yet, he was asked what he looks for in a prospective location. Among the criteria are a fair amount of houses, a study of where residents currently shop and why, and an ease of traffic and parking.
He added that he's fortunate to have all the members of his team familiar with the region and aware of the natural boundaries people just don't cross to do their shopping -- such as certain expressways and forest preserves.
Mariano also addressed what he believes Safeway did wrong after buying Dominick's, a company he'd spent a lot of time improving. His own stores are really just a progression of the Fresh Store concept he created for Dominick's.
Despite the many smart people at Safeway, Mariano said they misread how personal each Dominick's was to its neighborhood. What Safeway thought of as an improvement -- homogenization -- turned out to be the big mistake that drove away loyal customers.
Mariano said he looks for ways to customize each of his stores, including researching how to put together a vegan bar for one in a Chicago neighborhood.
He also tries to keep in touch with what employees like or dislike about their jobs, and why they may leave.
"People don't leave companies, they leave managers," he said. "We pay very close attention when we see turnover in a store."
Mariano said he's looking forward to continuing to innovate in an enjoyable industry that celebrates the commonality of people rather than looking for ways to divide them.
"We believe food is fun," he said. "What binds us is that we all get around the table and eat."