Wednesday was Bob Mariano's last day as CEO of his beloved Mariano's Fresh Market, which changed the face of grocery store competition in the Chicago and suburban market.
Mariano announced his retirement plans last month. Yet he didn't slow down. Instead, he continued opening new stores, including the Mariano's Lakeview East in Chicago on Tuesday.
The Inverness resident spent 49 years in the grocery industry, including 12 years with Milwaukee-based Roundy's Supermarkets, the former parent of Mariano's, and just 9 months with new owner, Cincinnati, Ohio-based The Kroger Co.
"Bob is an innovator, a teacher, a motivator and an icon in the grocery industry. He is a great friend to all us here at Roundy's and his daily presence will be missed. All of us at Roundy's wish him the best in his retirement," said Jim Hyland, a spokesman for Roundy's.
Kroger acquired the Mariano's stores from Roundy's for about $800 million last November. Since then, Oak Brook-based Inland Private Capital Corp. has sold the property of Mariano's Fresh Market in Vernon Hills for $36.4 million this week and the store in Elmhurst for $25 million in May.
While Mariano said at the time of the Kroger acquisition that he would continue as CEO, he suddenly announced in July that he would retire as of Sept. 1 and would continue as a consultant. Mariano, 66, declined to comment on Wednesday.
Analysts appreciated his contributions to the industry.
"Bob Mariano has had an enormous impact on grocery retailing in Chicago from his early days running deli and fresh food at Dominick's to the introduction of the world class Mariano's grocery stores. Few others have achieved as much," said Bill Bishop, analyst and principal with Brick Meets Click, a grocery consulting firm in Barrington.
Mariano felt at home at those former Dominick's sites. He started his career in 1967 by working as a part-time deli clerk at a Dominick's. He then forged a lifelong friendship with the DiMatteo family, who owned the chain. Mariano held various roles, including senior vice president, before being named president and CEO of Dominick's in 1995. He led Dominick's through an initial public offering in 1996 before the company was purchased by Safeway in 1998.
He then led Roundy's in 2002. Roundy's opened the first store under the Mariano's banner in 2010 in Arlington Heights and the chain since has increased to 38 throughout Chicago and the suburbs, including Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Lake Zurich and elsewhere. Each store features something unique for the neighborhood, whether it was a sushi bar or barbecue eateries, he has said.
Many of those stores also were established in former Dominick's Finer Foods locations. After Safeway, Dominick's parent company, left the Chicago market, Mariano looked to acquire some of those sites for his beloved namesake stores with an Italian flair. The Chicago-born businessman launched the first Mariano's store in 2010 in Arlington Heights, where he grew up. He then won shoppers' hearts with European floral sections, gluten-free items, pressed juices, sushi bars and other features.
"Bob has been a tremendous leader for Roundy's and the entire supermarket industry. The centerpiece of his career, of course, is the Mariano's chain of stores," Rodney McMullen, chairman and CEO of The Kroger Co., said when Mariano announced his retirement. " ... We look forward to our continued partnership with Bob as a strategic consultant and adviser. The entire Kroger and Roundy's family extends our best wishes to Bob and his family in retirement."