This is a tale of two neighborhood grocery stores, two teenage stock boys and two entrepreneurial long shots.
It's also a tale of loyal shoppers hailing from two North Shore towns, Glencoe and Winnetka, whose patronage of small businesses in their community has allowed The Grand Food Center and Lakeside Foods to endure and flourish despite a competitive retail market.
"We're thriving in this environment and the reason why is because our customers know we're all about quality and service," said Chris Barber, 48, a New Trier High School graduate who owns The Grand Food Center stores in Glencoe and Winnetka along with Dan Klebba and Kevin Salus, fellow employees at the grocery store when they all were teenagers.
Barber said the three friends bagged groceries together in the 1980s at Dee Jay Foods on Hazel Avenue in Glencoe.
Klebba went on to purchase the grocery store in 1987 with several investor partners — a deal that Barber jokes was brokered with Klebba offering up his beloved Camaro and dog as collateral.
At Lakeside Foods in Winnetka, owner Brian Geraghty, 52, shares a similar hometown business success story.
A fellow New Trier High School graduate, Geraghty worked as a stock boy at Lakeside Foods as a teenager. It was there he met his wife, Terri, a co-worker who was among the pack of North Shore kids who would hang out together after punching out at the grocery store on Elm Street in downtown Winnetka.
Geraghty said that at the time, Lakeside Foods was owned by Archie Gaudreau, a popular butcher from the days when the store was owned by National Tea.
"The people in Winnetka are extra loyal," said Geraghty, who said that after graduating from Marquette University, he returned to work as a manager at the grocery store, which had been sold by Gaudreau to Geraghty's brother-in-law, Gene Smith, from whom Geraghty bought the store in 1999.
"I've seen kids who used to come into the store with their parents grow up, get married and now come back to shop here with their own children," Geraghty said, adding that the grocery store's current butcher has a devoted following, as does the deli department's locally famous tuna fish salad.
As private companies, neither would disclose annual revenues, but both Barber and Geraghty attribute the secret of the success of their independent grocery stores to the quality of their products and a focus on customer service.
Neither expressed concerns over the latest newcomer to the North Shore grocery scene — a Mariano's store scheduled to open at the end of February in the former Dominick's store on Willow Road in nearby Northfield.
"A big box might offer generic products from Wisconsin, but we know all of our customers' names, their children's names and even where their kids go to college," said Barber, who completed a $2 million remodeling project at The Grand's Winnetka store on Green Bay Road last year.
The Winnetka grocery store also is known for being featured in the 1990 blockbuster film "Home Alone," when actor Macaulay Culkin stocks up on supplies.
"All the things that the big box stores want to do, we've done forever," Barber said, adding that come summer, many of the fruits and vegetables The Grand gets from growers in California and Florida during the cold weather months will be purchased locally from Didier Farms in Lincolnshire.
Nonetheless, Northfield Village Manager Stacy Sigman said, former Dominick's shoppers are anticipating the arrival of the Milwaukee-based Roundy's Supermarkets' first North Shore spot after the Willow Road Dominick's location closed in December.
"A local grocery store is an integral part of any community, and we're thrilled Mariano's is joining us," Sigman said. "We feel very fortunate that of the 11 former Dominick's locations that Mariano's is going into, the Northfield store will be their second."
Indeed, with an estimated 28,000 traditional grocery stores nationwide — a number that jumps much higher when including big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target with full-service grocery departments — analysts say the market can prove daunting for small independent grocers like The Grand and Lakeside Foods.
"For independents to survive, I think it helps an awful lot to be in the right neighborhood, and for The Grand and Lakeside Foods, that is a key piece of it," said Jim Hertel, a managing partner at Willard Bishop, a food retail consulting company in Barrington.
Hertel said while it is difficult for independent grocers to compete with big-box stores when it comes to pricing, it can help to be in a community that values customer service over cost.
"No one likes to spend more than they have to, or to spend money unwisely," Hertel said. "But they are probably pinching pennies less in Glencoe and Winnetka than in some other places, so the independents don't have to compete just on their prices."
Above all, Hertel said the small grocers have an advantage in being able to offer customers a personal shopping experience nearly impossible to match at larger venues.
"Every grocery store sells Tide detergent and Kellogg's Corn Flakes, but not everyone has someone in the meat department who will take the time to pick up the phone and call Mrs. Smith to say, 'We've just got a rack of lamb in today, and you're not going to believe how good it is,'" Hertel said.
To be sure, both The Grand and Lakeside Foods enjoy a storied slice of North Shore history that includes taking over venues home to once-powerful Midwest grocery chains — National Tea, Jewel Foods and A & P — that began moving out of town in the 1950s with the arrival of supermarkets that required more land to accommodate large parking lots.
The very same trends and market forces that led to the exodus of the prominent grocery store chains from their old-timey storefronts in Glencoe and Winnetka provided the perfect entree for independent grocers like The Grand and Lakeside Foods, welcomed by communities with neither the available open land nor the desire to lure large supermarkets to town, said Patti Van Cleave, executive director of the Winnetka Historical Society.
Van Cleave said that while Winnetka is now home to several national chains, including Starbucks, Panera and Walgreens, the opening of a McDonald's restaurant on Green Bay Road in 1981 came on the heels of a bitter legal battle with local homeowners, who according to village archives, called themselves "The Big Mac Attack."
"The opening of the McDonald's was controversial not only because residents were afraid it would bring extra traffic to town, but because Winnetka has traditionally been against any kind of a national chain," Van Cleave. "We're a town of residents who historically have always supported its small-business owners."
Strong support for local, independent business owners is alive and well in Glencoe, too, where resident Louise Berger said she has enjoyed visiting The Grand on Hazel Avenue for nearly three decades, bringing along her four children on grocery shopping expeditions in years gone by.
Today, Berger's children are grown, but she remains a regular customer at The Grand. In particular, she said, she appreciates the friendly employees.
"The thing about The Grand is, they are just so nice, that whatever you ask for, they'll do it," Berger said. "At the meat department the steaks are specially cut and at the Jewish holidays they have the best gefilte fish and brisket. For the size of the store, they do a bang-up job."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun