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Inside Chicago's Specialty-Grocery-Store Boom

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Contributor Tori Telfer dug deep into Chicago's specialty grocery store craze (and took some kale to go.)

Photo: Belli's Market via Facebook

2013 was a year of note for the specialty grocery scene in Chicago. Just look at this roster of kale-friendly newcomers: Plum Market opened in Old Town in June; Mariano's (South Loop) and Belli's Local Foods (Pilsen) opened in October; Mrs. Green's hit Lincoln Park in November; Eataly shocked and awed River North in December. In fact, the total square footage of gourmet grocery stores in Chicago increased by 60% over the past two and a half years. Hear that? We now literally have more than twice as much grocery aisle roaming to do. (Don't tell me I'm the only one who's wandered through Whole Foods for hours, lost in a daze of imported cheese and olives.)

Though Chicago certainly has its issues with food—our massive food deserts and love of deep dish pizza come to mind—the wind of healthy change is blowing in, and its harbinger is none other than the specialty grocery store. What is this magical place? Well, it's more community-focused than your typical Jewel-Osco or Kroger; it stocks more product and boasts better hours than your local farmer's market. And Chicago can't get enough. What do specialty grocers bring to the table that other food sellers can't? It comes down to three things, really: convenience, experience, and community.

In a city of busy people and bad rush hour traffic, healthy eating comes with a major caveat: it must be convenient. This is one area that the specialty grocery store, hovering between the raw vegetables of the farmer's markets and the endless packaged food of Dominick's, is perfectly positioned to fill. "When catering to city dwellers, there's a big emphasis on healthy to-go foods for the shoppers who are stopping by after work or between classes," says Jack Reeves of Natural Markets Food Group, which owns Mrs. Green's, "—hence all the delicious food prep stations."

Amenities like in-store food preparation or ready-to-go healthy options are a key offering of most specialty stores. At Mariano's, for example, you can purchase a piece of fish and have them grill it for you right there. Kevin Selig, assistant store director of Mariano's in the Loop, notes that fresh, pre-prepared food is one of their best-selling categories. "I'm at Michigan and Randolph. People don't know where they're going to be tomorrow, so they don't buy groceries for the week," he says. Even small, independent grocers like Belli's understand that the convenience factor often tips the scales when people are deciding between eating healthy—or grabbing junk food. The owner, Alex Curatolo, has started making soups herself out of her farmer's market produce, "for the people who don't cook."

Not in a hurry? Then lucky you, because shopping at a specialty grocer is all about the experience. If you're looking for the lowest possible price on a can of beans, you're going to dash into Aldi or Target. But stores like Eataly and Mariano's can offer you something those cheaper places simply cannot: a luxurious, multifaceted shopping experience. Many of these stores pride themselves on the number of "stations" (you've got your sushi station, your bread station, your Nutella station...) and other customer perks that they offer. Mrs. Green's boasts two registered dieticians on staff. Eataly is an absolute mecca of food stations, from a gelato counter to a wine bar—not to mention its numerous sit-down restaurants. The day Plum Market opened, an Intelligentsia opened right next door, meaning you can take a break from comparing artisan breads in order to grab one of the country's best cappuccinos. Perks like this change the very face of grocery shopping: no longer are harried moms simply trolling the aisles for the best deal on tomato sauce; they're now looking to be pampered.

If you're thinking this all sounds a bit pretentious, you're on to something. Yes: much of this fantastic, delicious food is for privileged wallets only. Plum Market happily rents from a building with the second-highest rent in Chicago. Mrs. Green's is in Lincoln Park. Eataly is in River North. And the prices reflect it—a look at Yelp reviews reveals a significant level of sticker-shock from consumers. Yelp reviewer Ben B. writes, "You can buy $16 measuring spoons here. That's not an exaggeration. Basic metal spoons," while another reviewer mentions spotting a $28 box of dry pasta. In a review for Mrs. Green's, James K. writes, "$9 for a gallon of milk? You have to be kidding."

But there's hope for those who can't spend on cheese what most spend on rent. Healthy eating, like anything else, requires education—no one is born with the innate knowledge that chia seeds have more antioxidants than blueberries— and Alex Curatolo of Belli's is educating the people, one affordable, Pilsen-based beet-grapefruit juice at a time. Belli's is a clear outlier among the other specialty grocers that opened up this year; it's a one-woman operation in a neighborhood that ritzier grocers have ignored until now. "It's an education thing," says Curatolo. "A lot of kids that come into the store don't know what's healthy and what's not, so I teach them." She doesn't even mark up much of the organic produce she gets from farmer's markets—it's that important that people eat their greens.

Despite the whiff of privilege from specialty stores in higher-income neighborhoods, they're far from the devil. A common thread between them is their love of community; since these businesses care enough to bring quality food into the store, they certainly care about the people who take the food home. Mrs. Green's on-staff dieticians, for example, are a completely free service, dedicated to bringing transparent nutritional information to the community. Mrs. Green's is also invested in supporting local vendors that larger stores overlook. "When a customer asks about a product or a smaller vendor emails us, it goes right to the category manager for that department," says Reeves. Various Mariano's locations have featured a piano man and an in-store singalong for preschoolers. It has nothing to do with food, but it makes people feel at home.

"There's definitely change coming," says Curatolo, when asked about the Chicago grocery scene. "A lot of people are finally like, 'What's in my food?' It's a way for people to have some control over their lives." —Tori Telfer
· All Plum Market coverage [Racked Chicago]
· Mariano's South Loop is Open [Racked Chicago]
· Belli's Market Opens in Thalia Hall [Racked Chicago]