Shelf life: Jean Dillard searches for apple juice in the Dominick's grocery store on Lake Street in Oak Park. The store will close Dec. 28. (DAVID PIERINI/Staff Photographer)

With half-empty shelves and frenzied customers filling grocery baskets to full capacity, the scene at the Oak Park Dominick’s last week was more reminiscent of residents preparing for a hurricane than the neighborhood store Oak Parkers have come to know.

But the hurricane is coming Dec. 28, by way of the grocery store, and another in River Forest, closing their doors forever, along with the rest of its 73 locations in the Chicago area. Employees at both locations will have to find another job or file for unemployment, and customers will have to find a new place to shop. Some are still holding out hope that Mariano’s, a grocery store chain owned by Roundy’s, will move into the space. That company announced earlier this month that it will purchase 11 of the Dominick’s stores, but neither the Oak Park nor the River Forest locations were part of the deal.

Miguel Perez who works in the dairy department of the Oak Park store said he heard at first that Mariano’s or Jewel-Osco would take over the location, “But that never really happened, so they’re just going to lay us off.” Perez said he’s also heard rumors among staff that Tony’s Finer Foods, which has 10 locations in the Chicago area, could buy the location.

Perez, 19, has worked for Dominick’s for a little over a year. He is also a student pursuing general education coursework at Loyola University. He said he’ll survive having to find a new job, but others at the store aren’t so lucky.

“The butcher’s been working for Dominick’s for over 40 years,” Perez said. “For some of the managers here, they have to start all over again and start at minimum wage.”

Many employees at the Oak Park location declined to discuss the store’s closure, noting that Dominick’s disseminated a letter instructing them not to speak to journalists. One employee who declined to go on record said she was told that speaking with the media would jeopardize her severance package. Brian Dowling, a Dominick’s spokesman, would not reveal the number of employees at either location.

On whether employees’ severance packages could be jeopardized for speaking publicly about the closure to the media, Dowling said in an email response to questions: “I’m not sure what that is about.”

“We typically ask our employees to refer media calls on any subject to public affairs – as is the practice with large companies, but [I] don’t know anything was said about severance,” he said in the email.

The Oak Park Dominick’s has been open for 25 years. It was built on the site of the old West Towns Bus Company bus barn. Both the Oak Park and the River Forest Dominick’s stores are among the smallest in the chain.

Frankie Guiglio, 30, said he’s worked for Dominick’s for 10 years serving coffee to customers at the location’s in-store Starbucks. He’s been at the Oak Park location for about a year and a half, he said. 

“It’s sad to see the store go,” he said. “There are a lot of good people in the area. I’ve built a lot of great relationships with the customers around here. They come up and you say, ‘You want the usual?’ The conversation is always great. You get to know the kids, the families.”

Guiglio said that as an employee at the so-called licensed Starbucks store, he officially works for Dominick’s. He’s hopeful that he can get a job at a different Starbucks, considering his experience. 

During the last few months, he said he’s seen representatives of several other grocery stores touring the location. “I want to say I’ve seen Pete’s Produce,” he said, but could not remember the names of other industry representatives who may be considering the location. 

“As of right now, nobody’s coming in here,” he said. “Even if I’m not going to be here, Oak Park needs a good grocery store.”

He said it’s unlikely that a new grocery store would include an in-store Starbucks, one of the many amenities, he says, makes the store better than its competitors.

Lori Coplan, a River Forest resident who said she’s shopped at Dominick’s for years, echoed the sentiment, noting the excellent customer service she receives at the store. 

“I’ve been coming to this location for years,” she said. “I discovered it a long time ago and fell in love with it and have never stopped coming here.”

She described the store as a “resource for the community” noting that the senior apartment highrise, Heritage House, is just a block from Dominick’s at 201 Lake St., makes it easy for those without transportation to pick up groceries.

“I’m devastated that I have to go somewhere else, but what about the elderly lady or elderly man in the high-rise right there? And I just feel worse for the employees who aren’t going to have a job to go to. What will they do?”

Ray Middleton, 71, who lives at Heritage House, said he walks to the Dominick’s two or three times a week. He said he frequently sees others there from the housing facility. He said Heritage House provides bus rides to Jewel-Osco and Wal-Mart a couple of times a week, but if residents are unable to go at that time or unable to pay the two dollars the facility charges, residents will have to find a ride with someone or make other arrangements. Middleton said he hopes something goes in Dominick’s place.

“The lady at the counter [at Dominick’s] said nobody’s bought it, and on the 28th they’ll be out of work, three days after Christmas; how do you like that?” he said.

Dominick’s exodus could hurt tax base

The financial impact of the closure of the Oak Park Dominick’s has yet to be determined, and it could be months before the village can determine how it will affect the tax base.

Loretta Daly, business services manager for the Oak Park village government, said grocery stores are among the largest taxpayers in the village, but it won’t be clear how much the Dominick’s closure impacts the sales tax base until the end of the second financial quarter in June 2014, when numbers will be available showing the decline.

“It is one of our top tax generators,” she said. “But does it alter the [village] budget? No.”

She said the village and the Oak Park Development Corporation have been in discussions with individual grocers as possible replacements but gave no details. 

It also is uncertain how the ownership status of the two local Dominick’s locations will affect the negotiations. The Oak Park location, 259 Lake St., is owned by Safeway, parent company of Dominick’s, while the River Forest location, 7501 North Ave., is leased by the company.

Dominick’s spokesman Brian Dowling gave no details about the future of the two locations in an email response to questions.

“We are still engaged in a process of finding purchasers for as many of our stores as possible,” he said. “That process is ongoing and confidential.” 

— Timothy Inklebarger

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