Suburban shoppers cheer new upscale grocers

  • Whole Foods team member Gabe Weldin gets ready for the Naperville store's grand opening in 2008.

    Whole Foods team member Gabe Weldin gets ready for the Naperville store's grand opening in 2008. Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Posted7/19/2010 12:01 AM

When a new Whole Foods store opened in Schaumburg in May, hundreds of people lined up to be among the first inside. By the end of the day, more than 5,000 people had come through the doors.

In Libertyville, the hoopla is over a Trader Joe's grocery store. Mayor Terry Weppler is routinely asked "Why don't we have a Trader Joe's?" and he and other residents have pleaded to company executives for a store. Nearly 2,000 people are fans of the Facebook page "Bring Trader Joe's to Libertyville, IL!"


On Tuesday, the country's first Mariano's Fresh Market will open in Arlington Heights, with appearances by Chicago Blackhawks center Dave Bolland and former teammate Adam Burish. Local shoppers say they can hardly wait.

"I'm so excited. I'm going to be there when it opens at 6 a.m. OK, maybe 6:30," said Bernadine Dziedzic of Chicago, who works across the street at the Ben Franklin Bank. "I love to shop organic ... so I've been waiting for this."

Even though the store's not open yet, company chairman Bob Mariano - a former Arlington Heights resident who got his start working the Dominick's deli counter at Golf and Elmhurst roads - says he's already heard positive feedback.

"People are just driving by to look (at the store)," he said. "They know it's going to be a special and complete offering."

The Arlington Heights village board canceled its meeting so everyone could attend Mariano's VIP gala tonight, and the Palatine Village Council moved its meeting up an hour because that town's officials also wanted to join in the welcome.

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These new, upscale, organic-focused grocery stores are multiplying in the suburbs lately. Customers love their fun, healthy, urban vibe, their unique natural products, their friendly staffs and their creative carryout menus. Despite the rough economy, they don't flinch at the higher-than-average prices.

In the past year, Whole Foods has opened stores in Schaumburg and Naperville. Mariano's is considering a second location in Vernon Hills. A Sunset Foods is under construction in Long Grove and Trader Joe's now has 13 suburban stores, including locations in Batavia and Glen Ellyn.

Even though the suburbs are already saturated with places to buy groceries - including new bargain-priced fresh produce and frozen foods at Walmart, Target and Meijer stores - the enthusiasm for these specialty grocery stores persists.

Not everyone is a fan, however. Critics say it's good marketing rather than superior products that fuels their popularity and refer to Whole Foods as "Whole Paycheck," saying its prices are high.


"A lot of it is hype," admits shopper Anne-Marie Raad of Johnsburg, who does most of her shopping at Jewel and Aldi but occasionally buys specialty items at the Trader Joe's in Lake Zurich. "You can probably buy the same thing at Aldi that you buy at Whole Foods."

"Make no mistake. This is not for everybody," says Harry Balzer, the chief industry analyst for NPD Group in Rosemont. "This is for people who have some money."

So are we overpaying for something new and trendy? Or are we simply embracing the chance to buy more organic, fresh, carryout options?

It's a little of both, says Balzer, author of the annual "Eating Patterns in America" report.

"We like to indulge ourselves," he said. "We may not be able to go out to eat because of food costs, but here's another option to try new things and have a new experience. These places are more competitive with casual dining restaurants than they are with supermarkets."

Balzer refers to chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's as "secondary grocery stores," because it's rare for people to do all of their grocery shopping there because of higher prices or limited stock. They usually have to supplement it with a trip to another store, he said.

While the groceries at these stores may be pricier than, say, a Jewel or an Aldi, cooking at home is almost always cheaper than eating out. With sit-down restaurant dining at its lowest point since 1984 - largely because people are trying to save money - splurging on, say, a few $5 organic burger patties and cooking them at home is fun and different and still saves money over a restaurant meal, Balzer said.

Another allure of these stores is our constant yearning to try something new - even if it's just a new place to grocery shop.

"The spice of our life is new things," Balzer said. "But, it's funny, we like new things we already know. So they're not really new. It's a new pasta dish. It's a new way for meat to be ground. It's steel cut oatmeal instead of regular oatmeal."

Liana Allison, of Arlington Heights, says there's also a social aspect to trying out new stores. She's hoping at Mariano's, she'll see familiar faces while she shops and stumble upon good finds she can share with friends.

"It sounds funny, that part of your social life revolves around the grocery store, but it does," she said. "Everything is neat and orderly, and grocery shopping can be a nice and pleasant escape from the day-to-day of work, family and home."

The feel-good urban experience these stores offer is another attractive feature.

"(These stores) used to be only in the city, and now they're reaching out to suburbanites," said shopper Laura Saccone of Des Plaines, who is fan of such stores. "It's like, hey, people out here like to eat well, too, and we're not afraid to spend money."

Ultimately, if the stores don't offer good value, they won't survive, Balzer says.

"You're going to have to satisfy basic values. That's the taste of food, and saving me time and money," Balzer said.

If stores don't meet that challenge, they might not be around for long - a familiar suburban story.

Palatine Mayor Jim Schwantz recalled all the excitement over a new Piggly Wiggly store in town many years ago, which turned out to be short-lived.

"It's long gone," he said. "There's a Dominick's there now."