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Bob and Nina Mariano tell us what makes their stores tick.

Nina and Bob Mariano in one of their 10 stores—so far

 

“People talk about it like it’s an exclusive club, not a grocery store,” says Nina Mariano, who is dressed in beautiful high-heeled boots and slim designer jeans as she pushes a cart into the gleaming Mariano’s Fresh Market (marianosfreshmarket.com) at Monroe and Halsted Streets. Her husband, Bob Mariano, is the CEO of the Milwaukee-based grocery company Roundy’s and the founder of this upstart chain that bears his name. Married since 2006, the couple lives in suburban Inverness; Bob commutes to Milwaukee and Nina is active on the boards of a slew of Chicago charities, from Common Threads to the Service Club of Chicago.

Nina’s status as the store’s unofficial “community relations guru” is not lost on the employees of the newest Chicago Mariano’s in the 10-store, 3-year-old chain. Many stop to say hello as Nina points out the reasons why newly converted shoppers tend to act like they’ve discovered the Holy Grail—and why the store has been so successful that its expansion plan calls for 15 new stores over the next five years, totaling 25 stores and a $5 million to $6 million capital investment per location. (Keep your eyes peeled, South Loop and Ravenswood residents.)

“The line will literally be 10 people deep at happy hour,” says Nina, showing off a bar that attracts downtown workers and West Loop dwellers alike for wine and fresh-shucked oysters. Around the corner, there’s a seafood department where you can order a lobster tail or piece of fish, then take it to a guy manning a grill station who will cook it up on the spot—along with whatever you’ve grabbed from the produce section. Speaking of veggies, how about a kale smoothie blended at the juice bar? Or, for a sweet tooth, fill your basket with treats from the candy bar.

With its floor-to-ceiling windows offering city views, seating areas with free Wi-Fi and a beer cooler where you can mix and match a six-pack of craft bottles, this Mariano’s typifies the lively, fresh and inviting vibe that has inspired its cult following. Mariano wants this to be a community haven, and book clubs, groups of retirees and young mothers all stay for hours.

“I’ve made a point of traveling the world and scoping out famous food markets for their mind-blowing presentations,” says Bob Mariano, who started in the business behind the deli counter at Dominick’s and eventually became its president before moving to Roundy’s. He is known for rolling up his sleeves when he visits a store—bagging groceries and swooping in on stray pieces of trash—a practice that inspires a trickle-down work ethic among employees. “They’re trained to serve the customers with their complete attention, one at a time,” Bob says.

With so many bells and whistles on the fresh foods side, it can be easy to forget that Mariano’s is aiming for your entire shopping cart. Bulk toilet paper, light bulbs, cereal—all of the things that send shoppers running for big-box stores—line Mariano’s shelves, too, and they’re priced to move.

Just don’t forget to pick a bouquet from the impossibly gorgeous floral department on your way out the door.