Mariano’s creates Disney-like grocery experience in Lake Zurich

BY LAURA PAVIN For Sun-Times Media

January 31, 2014 3:10PM

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Updated: January 31, 2014 3:11PM

Bob Mariano credits Walt Disney for inspiring his chain’s grocery shopping experience.

“I mean, when you think about it, Disney always was an experience, and that’s what it was all about. People want to be entertained,” said Mariano, the chairman and president of Milwaukee-based Roundy’s. “When you looked at the research in grocery shopping, people thought it was drudgery, so you have to change what goes on in the store.”

On Jan. 30, just days before the grand opening of his 14th Mariano’s Fresh Market, located on the corner of Route 22 and Quentin Road in Lake Zurich, Mariano pulled back the curtain on his company’s recipe for success.

“I think you have to innovate. If you don’t innovate, you die, and that’s really for any industry,” said Mariano, while leading the Lake Zurich Courier on a tour of his newest food theme park.

Drawing on his previous experience as CEO of Dominick’s, Mariano set out to create a new standard in the grocery industry. He built the Mariano’s brand by relying on the philosophy that past success does not guarantee future success.

Listening to customers and employees, he said it became clear people were craving a new grocery shopping experience.

The new Lake Zurich store is a restaurant, nutritional consultant and grocery store all wrapped up into a 74,000-square-foot package. Mariano’s aims to appeal to those in need of kitchen necessities and those who are willing to pay a bit extra for a high-end product.

“We have the usual and the unusual, the conventional and the organic, and we have that assortment and freshness with wonderful people, affordable pricing in an atmosphere that is very much reflected with the community,” Mariano said.

Innovative store features include a health key labeling system that identifies gluten-free, organic, vegan and heart-healthy products, so shoppers don’t need to strain to find the right foods. A dietitian is on-site to answer quick questions or offer sit-down consultations.

“We help them, give them good information, good choices, and let them decide what they want to do,” Mariano said.

Another piece of the Mariano’s business model is the vibe.

Like a Disney park, Mariano fosters a staff that takes pride in the company.

Each store hires between 400 and 500 employees. Many are adults fulfilling careers as managers, cake decorators, chefs and nutritionists. Others are high school students working part-time.

“That’s one of the things we get — that moms and dads like their sons and daughters to work with us, as we kind of get them to do things that they normally don’t: ‘Hello,’ ‘how are you?’ ‘please,’ ‘thank you.’ It’s in there, but they just don’t let it out so we kind of get them to express themselves,” Mariano said.

Roundy’s, Inc. will open 16 new Mariano’s stores in 2014, including 11 purchased from Dominick’s and five built from scratch. The company plans to close the year with 29 stores, and five more are already scheduled to open in 2015.

Currently only in the Chicago market, Mariano is confident is brand will succeed elsewhere as well.

“We believe that this format does have opportunity outside the city of Chicago and the Chicagoland area. We certainly haven’t done the homework to decide where, and it’s really, quite frankly, too soon because we’ve already had plenty of work to do here in this market,” he said. “But at some point, I think we’ll investigate where other markets might make some sense for us.”

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