Eating it up

Local specialty food stores appeal to our gourmet tastes

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By JONATHAN SCHULER

A daily cup of coffee from a convenience store used to be the norm for River Forest resident David Venerus. That was before his trips to Switzerland.

"Coffee there is outstanding," he said. "I used to drink 7-Eleven coffee everyday. Now I can't drink it anymore."

Instead, he gets his fix from Hayes' Coffees, a specialty coffee and tea store on North Boulevard. A pound of fresh-roasted beans at Hayes' Coffees starts at about $10 and can run up to $40 or more, depending on the variety and season.

Consumers like Venerus, who seek out higher-quality food and drink items, are growing in numbers and are a major factor in the popularity surge the specialty food and drink industry has experienced. Specialty food has become a $24.7 billion industry, and Oak Park and River Forest, with their business-friendly blend of demographics and location, seem to mirror the national trend that has seen a 17.9 percent spike in specialty food sales from 2002 to 2004.

In the Midwest, 53 percent of all consumers purchase specialty foods, said Ron Tanner, vice president of communication for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. According to the association, which has 2,390 members that produce nearly 100,000 specialty food products, a specialty food is an item that is produced in low quantities but is of high quality. Generally it has few, if any, artificial flavors or preservatives.

"A lot of people buy them, and I think a lot of people have some type of food that they like," Tanner said. "They want something that's of a little better quality. Everybody has something."

For Eric Larson, it's cheese. The Berwyn resident opened Marion Street Cheese Market seven months ago in downtown Oak Park.

Tanner pointed out that one of the biggest areas of sales growth in the industry is cheese, which jumped 29 percent from 2002 to 2004. Larson believes his success is due in part to the personalized, interactive shopping experience he provides to customers.

One customer recently brought in a wheel of cheese from Vermont that he'd tasted and enjoyed. Larson tried it and loved it. He's now one of the few"possibly only"store owners in Chicagoland who carries that particular cheese. "It's nothing fancy, but it's outstanding cheese," he said.

So outstanding, in fact, that the cheese"a Crowley medium sharp Colby"recently took first place in its category at the American Cheese Society's 22nd annual competition last month in Louisville, Ky. "It's from a small dairy that can only supply small shops like mine," Larson explained. He's secured exclusive selling rights for several of the 125 cheeses he has in stock and said customers like his store in part because they can find unique items that can't be found elsewhere.

David Hammond, a 20-year resident of Oak Park, frequents many of the local specialty food stores, including Marion Street Cheese Market, and values the superiority of their offerings. "In this calorie-conscious age, if I'm going to consume several hundred calories of cheese, I'm certainly not going to eat the stuff from Kraft or Dominick's," he said. "I'd rather feel like I was using up my caloric intake for maximum satisfaction."

Margie Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Penzeys Spices, said the store's selection of spices, seasonings and herbs at its Lake Street location represents higher-grade items that aren't typically found in a supermarket's aisle. "That's what we do"travel around the world to import the best selection of spices in each category," she said.

Penzeys carries about 250 different spices. The store's curry powder collection alone offers nine different flavors, each nuanced to reflect specific regional differences. She said the depth of offerings resonates with shoppers who have traveled abroad and return home with a more sophisticated palette. "Certainly by being overseas, people begin to rearrange what they do in their kitchen to accommodate the tastes they pick up," she said.

And when Oak Park and River Forest residents are in search of those exotic ingredients and flavors, many of them make a point to purchase the items locally.

"Oak Park is unique in that people really take ownership in the community. They think, 'Can I buy this in Oak Park?'" said Donna Ogdon Chen, executive director of the Downtown Oak Park business organization until last Friday. "People are very committed to that ideal."

Cathy Yen, owner of Great Harvest Bread Co., believes a good way to honor that commitment is by making contributions to the community in turn. An Oak Park resident for 12 years, Yen bought the bakery, at the intersection of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue, six months ago. But the store's been around for more than 10 years and has a history of giving to the community. She said roughly 10 percent of the bakery's sales goes toward donations.

They've given away bread, rolls, brownies and nutritional snacks to schools, youth sports leagues and other community
organizations. The store also sets aside
day-old bread, which stays fresh for more than a week, and donates it to shelters,
food pantries, churches and other local charities.

"We spend a great deal of time going out into the community. We want people to feel welcome here, and in supporting Oak Park and River Forest, they in turn will support our business," Yen said. "And when people feel good, it becomes more than just a loaf of bread or a cookie or a brownie."

Shoppers become invested in small specialty shops not only because of the ways these businesses enhance the community but because of the rapport customers develop with store owners.

"[Hayes' Coffees] is vastly better than Starbucks, with a good range of roasts and a good range of beans. But what makes us go is that they have a personal relationship with customers," Hammond explained. "I know they recognize my wife every time she goes in, and what makes it great is that every now and then, he'll throw in an extra pound of coffee. That doesn't happen elsewhere."

A different relationship

While it can be argued the one-on-one relationship can only be found at small specialty shops, many of the products can be purchased at larger chain stores, including Whole Foods Market. In fact, many consumers have their first encounters with specialty items at larger stores.

Ryan Puckett, spokesman for Whole Foods Market's Midwest region, believes the store encourages shopping for the finest foods, regardless of where they're sold.

"We're not in the business of running someone out of town," Puckett said. "If our great meat case makes people more aware of quality meats and makes more people look for that type of thing, that's great. We want people to eat well and enjoy eating. If that means that they're going to shop at Whole Foods, that's great. We're in the business of educating the consumer in that respect."

Larson sees his cheese shop as having a symbiotic relationship with the likes of Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, a store that's expressed interest in the Whiteco site at Harlem Avenue and Ontario Street.

"We benefit each other in a way. If anything, they're expanding our market share," Larson said. "I have customers who shop in both places."

However, Roger Cameron, owner of Prairie Bread Kitchen, considers Whole Foods his direct competition. He believes his store's very close proximity to Oak Park's Metra and CTA stops holds an advantage over Whole Foods' River Forest outpost.

The bread and pastry store at the corner of Marion Street and North Boulevard enjoys very good walk-by traffic. Because of the store's high visibility from passing trains, commuters make up a large portion of Prairie Bread Kitchen's customer base. In fact, Cameron said the store has seen modest growth every year except 1999, the year the train station was under construction.

Prime real estate was what drew Cameron to Oak Park in the first place. "We looked for a location in the North Shore"the Evanston area"with proximity to the train station but couldn't find one," he said. The search was broadened and in 1995, Prairie Bread Kitchen opened in its current location.

"Typically, more so than not, the mom and pops know the area and the Chicagoland area and the market," Ogdon Chen said. "Oak Park has a reputation of being a place where stores can flourish. They like the location close to Chicago while not being in Chicago. They've already looked at the demographics and spending power. The mom and pops of today are very savvy. I've seen them come in and ask deeply educated questions, because they've done their homework."

"We've come a long way"

David King, president of Oak Park-based David King & Associates, has been involved in the local commercial real estate market for 22 years. He's represented the landlords of Marion Street Cheese Market and Cabernet & Company, a specialty beer and wine shop on Lake Street. Within the last few years he's seen an increase of food stores wanting to set up shop in the area.

"If you live in metropolitan Chicago, you've heard the name Oak Park," King said. "It's a credible business address."

And, according to Ogdon Chen, with a downtown retail vacancy rate of between 5 and 8 percent, plenty of businesses are calling Oak Park home. The single-digit vacancy rate is a far cry from when it reached about 30 percent in the late 1980s.

"We've come a long way," Ogdon Chen said. "Like with any business, there are some incentives offered through Oak Park. There are some grant programs and loan programs to help them get started. It makes it more attractive to enter, but they've already decided they like the area. The grants help make it happen for them. It does incent them and allow them to accomplish the build-up that they need, which can normally break the bank for a small ma and pa [store]."

However, even with grants and other incentives, opening a business in Oak Park can be a financial obstacle.

"For shops, the challenge is to be able to afford their rent, make enough money and grow," said Tanner. In Oak Park, rent runs about $25 to $35 per square-foot annually, King said. That means a 1,000-square-foot store will top out about $2,900 per month.

Like every shop owner in Oak Park, Sam Daher, the owner of Hayes' Coffees, is no stranger to the daunting task of running an independent business. He bought the store about a year ago after shopping there for a decade. But as he continues to learn the business and master an art where even a slight two-degree temperature difference can ruin a roast, he's a realist. "The coffee is great, but I'm taking my time to see if it's worth it," he said.

In addition to running the coffee business, he's chief engineer at Concordia University in River Forest, a position that requires being on-call most of the time. He's also raising a family, his "third job." He admits the store has seen its share of difficulties but attributes his success to the quality of his product.

"Right now, I'm just trying to bring in customers to get them to try the coffee. I'm brewing free samples, and I have a sign out front. And I always have some sort of discount," he said. "But mainly I want customers to see that our coffee is better than the other stuff out there. It's the difference between driving a Chevy and driving a Cadillac."

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