From Friday through Sunday, Santa was at Carnival Grocery, 824 S. Oak Park Ave. The appearance was St. Nick's first to this part of Oak Park in decades, said the store's general manager, Steve Faso.
The visitation by Mr. Claus was just one part of a more comprehensive vision that Faso and owner Arthur Paris, a River Forest native, have for the independent grocer. In a nutshell, that vision is to grab more market share by opening up the space to the community.
Recently, Faso and Paris commissioned prominent painter and arts educator Cheri Lee Charlton to plaster the store's erstwhile staid white walls with whimsical (indeed carnivalesque) murals.
"A lot of my work is targeted toward younger audiences," said Charlton, who teaches illustration at Columbia College Chicago and who has an extensive body of commissioned work including an indoor mural in Schaumburg.
Before the year is out, Paris said, Carnival will also include a cafe space — replete with Wi-Fi, coffee and baked goods — which will be located near the store's entrance.
The net effectof the changes, according to Paris and Faso, is to fashion the store in the image of the creative consumers trafficking into a newly revitalized Harrison Street Arts District.
"We put the cafe in here because we want to become a real community hub for our local constituents in the arts district," said Faso. "We want a friendly place where they can come, use the Wi-Fi, do their work and collaborate with others."
"What we're doing here, I think, can really contribute to the character of the Arts District," said Paris, a graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School.
The changes come on the heels of a complete remodeling of the store that was once known as Pan's Food Center. Paris bought the store, his second Carnival location, in 2014. The first store is in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. A third location, Paris said, is in the works and will be located in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood.
Considering the recent upheaval in brick and mortar retail, the decision to expand may appear counterintuitive.
Since 2010, according to a 2017 analysis in The Atlantic, more than 12,000 physical stores have closed as online shopping has increased exponentially. In addition, Americans are increasingly spending more of their money at bars and restaurants than at grocery stores, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by economist Mark J. Perry.
And Paris acknowledged that the grocery competition in Oak Park and River Forest is already fierce, and increasingly so. For starters, there are Trader Joe's, Whole Foods Market, two Jewels and Pete's Fresh Market to contend with — all within less than a five-mile radius.
There's also direct competition for the cafe space, with Carnival located steps away from a popular spot, Addis Cafe, 818 S. Oak Park Ave.
Paris and Faso, however, believe their store's offerings — which include an extensive wine selection, premium deli meats and fresh produce — and its unique community ethos will give them a competitive advantage.
Faso also thinks Carnival has a "convenience edge over some of the giant chains."
"With us, you can be in and out in 15 minutes," he said, noting that Carnival's community ethos is baked into initiatives like the Santa appearance, Charlton's murals, and the store's aggressive philanthropy (it regularly donates to area homeless shelters, schools, churches and nonprofit organizations).
"Oak Park's a competitive market," Paris said. "There are a lot of good operators around Oak Park now, but we want to be one of the best."
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