Ready for takeoff: Jet Foods nears launch of first store in Carol Stream
Jet Foods, a new independent grocer developed by a familiar name in the suburban supermarket business, is preparing to launch its first store in Carol Stream by the end of the month.
John Everest Thomas, CEO of Chicago-based parent company Freedom Development Group, is starting the chain with Nat Caputo, who operated the shuttered Joe Caputo & Sons stores.
Thomas -- Jet stands for his initials -- and Caputo are charting ambitious expansion plans. A Park Forest store is slated to open six weeks after the Carol Stream debut. They're also eyeing additional stores in Rockford and south suburban Harvey, hoping to eventually expand to Indiana and Minneapolis.
"We're trying to create a local neighborhood grocer that's interactive with the community, not just a franchise that doesn't have any ties to the community whatsoever," Thomas said.
Jet Foods will enter a market dominated by well-established heavyweights that have seen grocery sales surge while people eat more at home as a result of the pandemic. Analysts caution that independents could feel sales pressure when the COVID-19 crisis recedes.
"What I would anticipate is in 2022 or maybe 2023, when a lot of things are more back to normal, there's going to be an excess number of supermarkets because sales have gone down and other sales have shifted over to online," said Bill Bishop, co-founder of Brick Meets Click, a grocery consulting firm in Barrington. "When that happens, it's a little bit like musical chairs."
Jet executives have a strategy of snapping up available commercial space rather than building stores from the ground up. In Park Forest, the company owns a shopping center that will be anchored by the new grocery store.
"I could buy basically lesser-value shopping centers, put our supermarket in, and then start to lease the rest of the shopping center, which is exactly what's happening," Thomas said.
"So as we're opening, we're starting to fill up our other spots in our shopping center, and I'm buying them at such great discounts."
While the Carol Stream store is finished, it's set to open Jan. 27 to allow for employee training, Thomas said. It's expected to create about 80 to 90 jobs.
Jet will focus on an assortment of prepared foods in a 40,000-square-foot anchor space the company is leasing in a shopping center near Army Trail and County Farm roads. More than 35% of the store will be dedicated to produce. Meat will be cut fresh daily, not frozen and defrosted back to consumers, Thomas said.
"I never would have thought it would have taken 16 to 18 months to get us to this point," Thomas said, "but we really had to work through every single detail and every nuance of every detail, which was a little mind-numbing, but at the end of the day, it was well worth it."
The nearest competitor is Jewel. The store is also roughly half the size of the 70,000-square-foot Angelo Caputo's Fresh Markets at North Avenue and Schmale Road in Carol Stream.
"In the way grocery stores work, a store that's that much bigger with that much variety and that much going for it is disproportionately strong as a competitor," Bishop said.
Nat Caputo, Jet Foods president, is related to the Caputo family's line of grocery stores.
"It's interesting to me to see that they're as close as they are geographically to the family," Bishop said.
Joe Caputo & Sons was a separate franchise with stores in Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village and Northbrook -- all former Dominick's locations -- before going out of business almost four years ago.
When asked about the Jet Foods expansion plans, Bishop said the proposed locations "are pretty scattered." There are stores that can drop into a market and do very well, he said, but they're highly differentiated.
"You have the challenge of management when the stores are spread apart," Bishop said. "You have the challenge of advertising efficiently and building a reputation when the stores are spread apart."
The upstart doesn't have the same administrative overhead as other competitors, Thomas said.
"The problem with Jewel is if they want to change a price, they have 12 layers of administration to go through," he said. "If I want to change a price, I talk to one person, and it's changed."
In Carol Stream, Jet also will offer in-store dining, a wine bar and a coffee bar branded Jet Fuel.