The Kroger-ization of Mariano's

The Kroger-ization of Mariano's
Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Hey, Kroger, did you really think we wouldn't notice?

It was bound to happen. When Kroger's took over Mariano's in 2015, I publicly begged Kroger's not to mess with it in a post I wrote for Chicago Eats called "Hey Kroger, please don't mess with my Mariano's."

Slowly, but surely, Kroger's has turned what used to be a destination into just another run of the mill supermarket.

The store that took Chicago by storm opening nearly 40 locations in less than ten years under the leadership of Bob Mariano is just not what it was.

Mariano built a place where people not only went to shop but to hang out--have a glass of wine, meet friends, catch a football game. Originally, Mariano's had a vibe like Eataly, Mario Batali's popular Italian marketplace on Ohio--only with much more budget friendly options.

But no longer.

No longer does my neighborhood Mariano's offer made-to-order guac, homemade potato chips, a Squeez’d bar or other things that made them stand apart.

The prices are up by a lot--I see items at Mariano's priced higher than the same items at Whole Foods.

The quality and selection is down--with many generics and Kroger brands replacing past winners. The staff is smaller and less helpful and self-checkout is moving in giving Mariano's the feel of a big box store.

It's not just me. Complaints are pouring in on Yelp and Crain's Chicago Business recently wrote a story on it here.

Sadly it seems my worries expressed in my 2015 post below were valid:

"Hey Kroger, please don't mess with my Mariano's"

CHICAGO, November 12, 2015. From all outward appearances, it was business as usual at the Ravenswood Mariano’s (1800 W Lawrence Ave.) after yesterday's big announcement that Kroger would be buying the Wisconsin-based Roundy food chain who is parent to Chicago's popular Mariano's stores as well as a much larger chain of Pick ’n Save stores--mostly in Wisconsin.

Roundy’s, headquartered in Milwaukee, owns 150 stores in Illinois and Wisconsin with Mariano’s stores accounting for 34. Now the nation's largest supermarket operator, The Kroger Co. is adding the Roundy's stores to its vast holdings.

Some call it a takeover, but Bob Mariano, CEO of the area chain’s Mariano's stores calls it a merger saying, "Mariano’s customers needn’t fret that the popular stores will see quality drop now that Kroger has agreed to an $800 million deal announced Wednesday to purchase Mariano’s parent company Roundy’s," adding  “I’m still on watch, I’m not going anywhere and I’m not going to let that happen.”

Mariano's Ravenswood store

Mariano's Ravenswood store

Mariano's entrance into the Chicago market is a success story like few others. It was only five years ago when a lone Mariano's store opened in Arlington Heights. Mariano's took things slowly in the beginning, opening a second store the following June in Vernon Hills. The first city store opened in Roscoe Village in August 2011.

Mariano's offered a new concept in grocery shopping which grew bigger and more exciting with each new store. Featuring a European flair with beautiful surroundings along with reasonable prices, the stores kept pulling in new customers from the likes of popular Chicago area stores including Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Jewel, creating an almost cult-like following.

And why not. Everyone needs groceries, but instead of making grocery shopping another chore that must be done, Mariano's created an atmosphere where shoppers can hang out--have a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, watch TV or use the free Wi-fi. Live piano music at some stores relieves stress and makes shopping fun. Food stations including Todds BBQ (pictured below) are unique and popular additions.

Todds BBQ, a barbecue inside the Ravenswood Marianos

Todds BBQ, a barbecue inside the Ravenswood Marianos

Each store to some degree, reflects it's neighborhood including local food stands and installations, while still maintaining a complete line of groceries, produce and household goods expected in a full service grocery store.

Some of the other innovations at selected Mariano's stores include a "healthy smoothie bar, Squeez’d, that offers a variety of made-to-order nutritional fruit and vegetable smoothies; a spice shop with bulk spices, nuts, grains and granolas where customers can discover new and trendy additions for their menus; an Oyster Bar with lunch specials and beautiful and colorful floral shops.

Seafood bar at Mariano's Ravenswood store

Seafood bar at Mariano's Ravenswood store

Chicago has embraced Mariano's just the way it is and we want to keep it that way. Although the merger won't officially take place until the end of the year, I am not alone in my concerns that the big giant may try to mess with what we have--not unlike Macy's did with Marshall Field's.

Kroger and Mariano called the merger a win for both Mariano’s customers and for Kroger’s other chains. "Mariano’s will benefit from the financial might that Kroger’s 2,623 supermarkets in 34 states provides, allowing it to expand and improve service" they said.

Blah, Blah, blah, say I. Let's just hope their "corporate bottom line" for pleasing stockholders doesn't conflict with "my bottom line" for the store--keeping Mariano's the way it is for its loyal customers.

FYI: Shares of Roundy’s shot up 64 percent, or $1.39, to close at $3.57 on Wednesday (yesterday). Kroger fell slightly, losing 25 cents to close at $37.03.

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