A trio of grocery pros may be looking ahead with a new vision of food retailing, but they are seasoned enough to know that it's often the angles that matter.
Sometimes, it’s literal. During a recent personal tour of the new Dom's Kitchen & Market, in Chicago, Co-CEO Don Fitzgerald stopped without missing a beat to pick up a stray wrapper on the ground and later paused to note a spot where signage was needed. Bob Mariano, Fitzgerald’s business partner and Dom’s Kitchen & Market co-chairman and co-CEO, has been known to unobtrusively push stray carts back to the corral and help bag groceries in a busy checkout line.
Together with co-founder and Co-Chairman Jay Owen, Mariano and Fitzgerald have pooled decades of experience and a genuine love for the industry to launch this new grocery business. Mariano and Fitzgerald started their careers at the iconic and now-defunct Dominick’s chain, working for Owen’s great-grandfather, Dominick DiMatteo (hence the Dom’s in the new store name). Mariano was later CEO of Milwaukee-based Roundy’s, where he launched the namesake Mariano’s banner before Roundy’s was acquired by The Kroger Co., based in Cincinnati. Fitzgerald was a group VP of merchandising and marketing at Roundy’s, among other key roles. In addition to his role at the new retail venture, Owen is managing partner at DOM Capital Group
Open since June 8, Dom’s Kitchen & Market is a 17,800-square-foot neighborhood store, set at a corner of a busy intersection in the Lakeview/Lincoln Park area of Chicago. Its setup and offerings reflect both the perspective of its founders and the many facets of today’s marketplace, with an array of stalls for prepared foods and fresh foods to go. Yes, there’s pizza, but it’s available in artisan squares from an acclaimed Roman-style pizzeria in Chicago, in varieties like mozzarella and potato. Shoppers can find rotisserie meat here, but in the form of a well-seasoned round of Italian-style porchetta instead of the usual whole chicken. In lieu of the pandemic-quashed traditional salad bar, guests can order a custom salad from the “Plant Butcher” section. There's a certain lushness to this store, courtesy of a high-profile floral department, carefully arranged plants that are part of the décor, and an in-store “greenhouse” and outdoor front and back “yards” for on-site dining and gathering.
The finished location – described by many of the store’s early shoppers as a food emporium or food bazaar, according to Fitzgerald – is the result of a different kind of curated experience.
“We wanted to blend it as a startup with those who understood the challenge of retail and foodservice, and also bring in a lot of diversity of thought, gender and race to make sure that our bias of 40 years in retail didn’t just manifest itself,” explained Fitzgerald.
How It’s Been, and Where It’s Going
A month after a grand opening that garnered a lot of local and national buzz, the leadership team is looking at the up-and-running operation at different angles as they plan for the future of this and future Dom’s Kitchen & Market locations.
For one thing, their focus on partnering with hyperlocal suppliers and vendors has proved spot-on. The choice to bring in fresh meats from a local purveyor, Meats by Linz, which used to supply restaurants exclusively, has been met with enthusiasm by shoppers. The same goes for doughnuts from local brand Stan’s Donuts, cookies from The Fat Cookie Co. and proprietary bread made exclusively for Dom’s by Chicago-area Turano Bakery, according to Fitzgerald.
“When we talked about wanting to be a part of the community and Bob’s whole idea of a corner store in the neighborhood, it was also about supporting local,” Fitzgerald explained. “In some cases, that meant bringing in suppliers who hadn’t yet made the foray into retail.”
While they're planning to expand to other neighborhoods in Chicago and, eventually, the city's suburbs, the founders know that hyperlocal suppliers can and probably should change by location. A pizzeria with cachet in one part of the city may be replaced by another that means something to customers in that area, for example.
Another highlight of Dom’s first few weeks in business has been the reception to the shared spaces, both inside and outside. “We see a lot of people hanging out in the evening, with a bottle of wine and a cheese tray,” Fitzgerald noted.
There has also been steady interest in using those spaces for personal events like wedding showers, birthday parties or other kinds of get-togethers, both during the day and in the evening, when the outdoor spaces are strung with Italian-style lights. “We’re making that available for someone to reserve and to provide whatever they need,“ Fitzgerald said. “If they want cheese plates and wines, we can supply that, and if they want it fully catered, we can do that, too, because we already have a relationship with a catering company that is doing some of our prepared foods. We have an ability to do things in a vertically integrated way.”
A hallmark of Dom’s Kitchen & Market is a “Chef’s Table” area, where demos with visiting celebrity chefs and other culinary experiences are held. In the first few weeks since the opening, that hub has been busy, attracting queries from shoppers, Fitzgerald said. “We’re also looking at it as a pop-up venue, where maybe we can do something different for 30 days,” he added.
Shoppers’ reception to the grocery section of the store has also been insightful for the founders as they assess what's working now and what might be incorporated into future locations.
“At first, I wasn’t sure if it would be too obscure or too far on the edge,” admitted Fitzgerald of an assortment that includes several foodstuffs from artisan companies instead of well-known consumer brands. “But people have really connected with the products. We found they like to come in and look at products and understand them.” In addition to providing accurate pricing, some of the electronic shelf tags have near-field communications, through which shoppers can get more information about a particular product or brand.
In a marketplace increasingly defined by technology, Dom’s Kitchen & Market will venture into online ordering and fulfillment when it makes sense for the business. “You can’t do your whole basket here — we’re more about meals and food — but that’s not to say that somewhere down the road you couldn’t see us partnering or doing our own thing to get the rest of the basket,” Fitzgerald remarked. “If customers want paper towels or a case of water, we might fulfill that outside the store.”
Dom’s isn’t yet offering e-commerce, but it's launching a test of mobile orders for its coffee bar. “Then we’ll move into the kitchen, and later the rest of the market, with items for curbside pickup,” Fitzgerald said. “Eventually, we’ll get into delivery, but for now, there’s enough for us to do to get the execution right with new people and a new concept.”
Evaluating the staff — currently at about 170 associates — is also something that the team has been working on since the grand opening. “We’re calibrating what the right number is, in terms of what we can produce here, what we can do ourselves, and how to use our labor for things that are really value-added,” Fitzgerald remarked. Even with the tight labor market, the store is getting a lot of interest from passionate food lovers who want to be part of the experience, he noted.
As industry veterans, Fitzgerald, Mariano and Owen understand how important it is to have the proper pace of growth for associates as well as customers. “You can injure your culture because you grew too fast,” Fitzgerald said.