Requiem for Dominick’s

Chicagoans took the old grocery chain for granted. Now we’re all paying for it.

The chain closes in Chicago for good on December 28.   Photo: Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune

I’ll always remember where I was when I got the news that Safeway Inc. would be shuttering its Dominick’s stores: in bed, reading about depressing world events on my phone while cuddling with a box of Roasted Garlic Triscuits I bought at Dominick’s.

“We have finally completed our long-held mission of destroying the once-proud Dominick’s supermarket chain,” I believe the official statement from Safeway read. “Thank you, Chicago!”

To which my wife added her own official statement: “If you keep eating those garlic Triscuits, I will never, ever kiss you again. I mean it this time.”

It was a bummer of an evening.

My Roasted Garlic Triscuit beauties had come from the Dominick’s down the street from my home—the one that many people in the neighborhood complained about but now are going to have a hard time living without. I know I am. We complained because the deli meats all seemed to be the same color (maybe it was just one meat under different names), and because, in a world trying to wean itself off processed foods, the store kept adding varieties of Oreos (and, er, Triscuits), and because the healthy foods section was replaced by some seasonal display and never returned, and because sometimes you got one of those broken-wheel carts, and on and on. Mostly we complained because, in a new age of supermarket innovation, Dominick’s was the same store you knew from the 1980s. And because we’re people, and we like to complain.

I, of course, don’t remember the chain’s beginnings as a beloved neighborhood deli in 1918. And I wasn’t around for its expansion in the 1950s into what was then a relatively new concept: the supermarket. But you can imagine how amazing that experience must have been: aisle after aisle of fresh produce and meats, the very best foods ever to be stuffed into a box, sample ladies giving out Lucky Strikes, customers breaking into impromptu renditions of “Mr. Sandman.”

My introduction to Dominick’s came much later, in the 1990s, around the time its president, Bob Mariano (who now runs the sizzling new supermarket chain Mariano’s), was trying to reinvent the Dominick’s brand by turning the stores into “European-style markets.” These had café seating and quaint little purveyors such as Starbucks setting up shop. The stores were actually very nice, and though I had never been to Europe, I told everyone I knew that I’d been to Dominick’s.

But then, in 1998, Safeway bought the company, parted ways with Mariano, and stripped away many of his innovations. Competitors moved in: Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s on the high end, Aldi on the low. (Aldi reduces its overhead by carrying only one brand in each product category and operating each store with just a handful of employees.) The number of Dominick’s stores dropped from 130 in the late 1990s to 72 in 2013. In hindsight, it seems obvious that Safeway sealed the fate of Dominick’s by not adapting to the changing market.

Some stores were nicer than others, but the main thing remaining of the grand old Dominick’s tradition, at least in my experience, was the service. The people at my Dominick’s were always helpful, and now they, along with more than 5,600 other workers, according to an October report from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, may be without jobs. These folks are the main reason to be saddened that Dominick’s is no more.

“We knew something was going on because [Safeway] summoned all the store managers to Oak Brook [headquarters]. We thought it was maybe closing some stores or a new promotion,” says Bruno Belmonte, 53, who worked at the Park Ridge Dominick’s for 35 years, most recently as a pricing coordinator. “I was at home [that night], and my brother called and said he heard on the radio they were closing all of them. People at the store started calling me. Everyone was in a panic. The loyalty [among workers] has been crushed.”

Mariano’s announced in December that they would buy the Park Ridge Dominick’s, potentially saving Belmonte’s job. But even if they keep him on, Belmonte is not optimistic on the job prospects of workers at other Dominick’s locations. “The job market is already flooded, and you’re adding 5,600 people to it.”

Should Bob Mariano or someone else decide not to save the market near me, Trader Joe’s will be our closest store. Sure, it has a Triscuits impersonator, Woven Wheats. But who can eat something that sounds like a shop in Lake Geneva that sells imported blankets? Plus, going to Trader Joe’s means having a 10-minute talk with the cashier about how awesome life is. (If life were that awesome, pal, I wouldn’t be here buying a box of microwavable fish.)

I’ll miss walking down the street when the only proper way to end the day was binging on Roasted Garlic Triscuits. But on the bright side, my marriage is looking up.
 

Mark Bazer hosts The Interview Show, a humor-filled talk show, at the music bar the Hideout on the first Friday of every month.

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