Big is not necessarily better in the dynamic market of Chicago-area supermarkets. Chicago is an overstored urban market in which food retailers are adapting to changing living trends, higher real-estate costs, and increasingly segmented consumer tastes by means of smaller, tighter designs. That's the case when it comes to both long-established chains and new entrants to the market. This suggested supermarket tour will shed light on Chicago's new players and highlight incumbents' adaptations by identifying locations and offering driving directions from McCormick Place. Why not see for yourself?
Dominick's Finer Foods
959 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago
Directions from McCormick Place: Take Lakeshore Drive north to Fullerton Avenue. Go west 10 blocks to Sheffield and Fullerton. The store is on the southeast corner.
Highlights: How does a traditional big-box supermarket position itself to cater to lucrative shoppers moving into Chicago's upscale Lincoln Park? The first challenge was to come up with a design that would put a 26,000-square-foot store on a footprint of 13,000 square feet. One advantage was that parking wasn't required. Foot traffic generated by De Paul students and professors using the adjacent El train stop, together with patrons of the post office across the street was enough. To find the additional 13,000 square feet for the store, the obvious was accomplished and the store was built on two levels.
The result is a store that has somewhat narrow aisles, so the few carts wheeled about by patrons are especially diminutive. Reflective of area shopper needs, the store features an extensive selection of prepared foods, from such typical fare as chicken salad to entrees like spinach Florentine pizza and white bean chicken chili with chorizo sausage. The beer section is merchandised from a walk-in cooler.
Whole Foods Market
1640 Chicago Ave., Evanston, Ill.
Directions from McCormick Place: Take Lakeshore Drive north to North Sheridan Road. Proceed north to Evanston, then to Church Street. Take a left on Church Street, go three blocks to Chicago Avenue. Turn left on Chicago Avenue to the parking ramp adjacent to the store.
Highlights: Whole Foods has found a stellar location in a tasteful mall renovation in old downtown Evanston. Northwestern University students and well-to-do residents of this lakefront suburb produce a desirable client base. The store occupies less ground than some Whole Foods stores since parking is on the roof. Gigantic twin elevators move customers from parking to shopping. Shoppers are immediately greeted by the colorful and artfully presented produce department. Florals, fresh cut and potted, are prominently displayed up front. Later in the shopping pattern are the usual service counters, including fresh meat, seafood and cylindrical dispensers of whole grains.
As shoppers turn to the checkout area, low curved racks of wines come into view. Low racks facilitate a view of the gourmet cheese and chocolate shops beyond. The entire front of the market is a cafe that overlooks the street. A wireless Internet connection promotes lingering.
55th Street Co-op
1526 E. 55th St., Chicago
Directions from McCormick Place: Take Lake Shore Drive south to the 47th Street Exit. Proceed two blocks, and turn left to South Lake Park Avenue. The store is just after 54th Street Place.
Highlights: This member-owned Co-op Market is open to the public. It has a big market share of shoppers connected with the nearby University of Chicago. The store offers a small produce section, wines merchandised along the circumference of the store together with fish, meat and cheese departments.
2014 W. Wabansia, Chicago
Directions from McCormick Place: Take Lake Shore Drive north to North Avenue. Turn west to Damen Avenue; turn north to Wabansia; turn west and the store is one quarter block on the right.
Highlights: Olivia's Market offers an alternative format for boutique grocery shopping in the gentrified neighborhood of Wicker Park. At just 1,000 square feet, it offers specialities such as packaged olives by the pound (in country-cured black, nicoise, tapas cocktail and green with herbal varieties), chicken sausage, connoisseur cheeses, designer barbecue sauces, Boar's Head deli meats and designer drinks. There's a miniature frozen-foods section, florals and a magazine rack.
Caputo's Fresh Market
2560 North Harlem Ave., Elmwood Park, Ill.
Directions from McCormick Place: Take Interstate 290 (Eisenhower Expressway) west to Harlem Avenue. Take that north to the store.
Highlights: The Old World heritage of Italy can be felt at Caputo's Fresh Market, yet the store caters to many ethnic groups such as Italian, Polish, Hispanic and Indian. There are four Caputo's stores in the Chicago area, this one is the original founded by Angelo Caputo in 1958. His strategy has centered on importing specialty items from around the world. This store was recently renovated and now is 20,000 square feet. It features produce, deli, cheese and a huge selection of Italian oils, vinegars and frozen pasta sauces. Chicago Magazine named the store "Chicago's Best Neighborhood Fresh Market."
The Fresh Market
718 Commons Drive, Geneva, Ill.
Directions from McCormick Place: Take Lakeshore Drive north to East Roosevelt Road. Turn right onto Columbus Drive. Turn left onto Congress Parkway. Congress Parkway becomes Interstate 290 West (Eisenhower Expressway). Merge onto East-West Tollway, Interstate 88 West, via Exit 15A on the left toward Indiana and Aurora. Take the North Farnsworth Avenue Exit. Merge onto CR-77. Turn left onto East Fabyan Parkway and CR-8. Turn right onto South Randall Road and CR-34. Turn left onto Williamsburg Avenue. Turn right onto Commons Drive.
Highlights: Fresh Market's emphasis is on upscale food. This market represents the chain's first foray into the Chicago suburbs. Another marketing emphasis is on community-benefit events. For example, the Geneva market is sponsoring a spring wine gala during which customers can sample select wines and dine on a variety of hors d'oeuvres to raise funds for the Geneva River Park.
3400 N. Western Ave., Chicago
Directions from McCormick Place: Take Lakeshore Drive north; exit at Belmont Avenue. Turn left on Belmont Avenue and proceed to Western Avenue. Turn right onto Western Avenue and go two blocks. Store is on the left.
Highlights: This store is in Roscoe Village, an up-and-coming neighborhood. It's also nearly adjacent to a Dominick's. Unlike other stores on this tour, this Jewel is a large store with a TCF mini-bank and a Starbucks immediately inside the entrance. The produce section is 35 by 100 feet. The frozens section runs some 150 feet on both sides of the aisle. There are six self-checkout counters.
A&G Fruit Market
3300 North Central Ave., Chicago
Directions from McCormick Place: Take I-90 north toward O'Hare Airport, exit Belmont Avenue west. Take Belmont Avenue west to Central Avenue and turn right. Store is one block.
Highlights: A&G Fruit Market exemplifies the adage, "Show the customer what you do best first." There's no mistaking produce is the star attraction with a huge variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. A&G's customers are highly diverse. Seasonal items rarely seen at other supermarkets are found here. The shopping experience has an open-air market feel with 17-foot high ceilings in the 51,000-square-foot store. Bright canopies and hand-painted murals add to the ambience. The ethnic food influence continues into the meat and deli sections where Hispanic and Polish delicacies are available throughout the year. The store's island of imports entices shoppers with specialties before they are led to the traditional part of the store where brand names and toiletries are sold. This is one metro-area market that offers one-stop shopping with ample parking.
1840 N. Clybourn Ave., Chicago
Directions from McCormick Place: Take Lakeshore Drive north to North Avenue. On North Avenue go to North Clybourn Avenue and turn left. Store is at corner of Wisconsin Street and North Clybourn.
Highlights: Located in the trendy Lincoln Park area, here's where Chicagoans feel a touch of island paradise as they shop. The "Crew Members" are not only helpful and pleasant, but adorned in Hawaiian shirts. It's no secret that Trader Joe's well-stocked frozen-food section is young professionals' answer to home-cooked meals. It took some special planning to create a market the size of Trader Joe's, which has parking on the second floor in this high-rent retail location. The new Trader Joe's is nestled among retailers like Banana Republic, The Gap and Crate & Barrel. The store itself faithfully follows the company prototype, offering wine (some as low as $2 a bottle), sauces, frozen foods and snacks -- but no national brands. Prices are low due to the large volume, direct-buying model that the chain employs.