Visit Fairfield, Ohio-based Jungle Jim's International Market, and without question you'll be impressed by the 300,000-square-foot store, its dynamic management team, and the commitment of 350-plus associates to entertain the thousands who venture there weekly from at least three states to buy groceries.

The store has plenty of fascinating features: a roadside "Jungletron," a lifelike giraffe in the parking lot, 140,000-plus SKUs supplied by nearly 1,000 vendors, and newly added Oscar's, an on-site event center that accommodates over 800 guests.

But most impressive of all is the creative mastermind behind it, storeowner Jim Bonaminio -- as I learned firsthand.

In preparation for a feature story on this independent with a worldwide reputation, (the article appeared in the September 1 edition of Progressive Grocer) I traveled for five hours to get to the store for an official tour, keeping my fingers crossed in hopes of meeting Bonaminio himself, since industry experts say that the man's passion, creativity, and drive to be different are the foundation of the store's success.

Thanks to Sarah Kaufmann, manager of creative services, I got my wish. She escorted me upstairs and told me to poke my head into his office. Sporting khaki shorts and a T-shirt imprinted with his store logo, Bonaminio welcomed me to Jungle Jim's. "So, what's up?" he asked. "Tell me what you're here to talk about. Grab a chair."

As I sat down, Bonaminio caught me glancing around his casual yet museum-like office and said, "What's the matter? You can't figure out how I operate this place without a computer at my desk, or what?" I laughed as he kept talking. "The only thing I need up here is a fly swatter. You want some chips?"

He then emerged from behind his desk, opened a door behind him, and strode out onto a small deck from which he has a commanding view of the selling floor. I admired the countless photographs displayed on his office walls: pictures of Bonaminio and his wife, Joan, and their three children; local sports teams; and prized snapshots of the grocer with such celebrities as restaurateur Bob Evans. Also captivating were some old black-and-white photos, including one featuring a much younger Bonaminio leaning against the back of an old bread truck, from which he once sold chenille pillows and handbags.

I introduced myself and explained that I grew up in the grocery business. Bonaminio reached toward his credenza and picked up a deck of playing cards. He then placed the cards in front of me and said, "Here, you cut 'em. We're gonna know in five minutes whether or not you made the right decision to sell your stores."

By this time I was practically choking on my Diet Coke, wondering if when he said to "cut 'em" he was referring to the deck of cards he'd placed before me or to what's known as the "Jim Bonaminio Fart Machine," which hangs on his office wall and was on occasion disrupting our conversation.

I found myself wondering where on earth this interview was going. Before long, however, I realized that I was in the company of a retail genius whose approach to selling groceries has little to do with moving bread, milk, and Campbell's Soup through the cash registers. For Bonaminio, who sometimes can be found roller skating in costume up and down his store's aisles, what matters most is providing his customers with entertainment, fun, and lasting memories.

Who is Jungle Jim? Bonaminio is different, but he has much in common with our industry's outstanding independents. Not surprisingly, he credits the people around him for his success -- especially his 80-year old mother, Marie Bonaminio.

Of his mom, who today resides in Lorain, Ohio, he said, "I'd bet you my life's savings that you could drop her off in any major city in the country, and she'd have it rockin' and rollin'!'"

He continued: "First, you've gotta understand that I grew up in an old-fashioned Italian family where my mom was the typical housewife and mother, whose husband didn't allow her to work outside the home. But what my dad never realized was that he was married to an equivalent of Martha Stewart. The woman has always had 100 percent business savvy running through her veins. She was determined to work and to find a way to use her talents, and she did so through her kid. And that kid was me.

"Whether I was washing cars as a kid, or selling chenille pillows out of an old bread truck during college, there were times when I'd come home frustrated because I didn't quite hit my sales goal," reflected Bonaminio. "My dad, Clem, would grumble, 'Quit selling that stuff and get a real job at the local steel mill.' Then I'd hear my mom's voice coming from the kitchen. 'You hang in there and don't give up,' she'd say. 'Tomorrow things will be better.'"

Bonaminio equally credits his wife, Joan, for helping him to become one of the most innovative independent grocers in the United States. "The most important thing in life is your partner," said Bonaminio. "If there are cracks in that foundation, everything falls apart." He added, "Don't spend more time looking at the store than you do your spouse."

Later Bonaminio introduced me to that partner of 32 years, whom he first met when they were both students at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Involved now in a research project to determine how the company can reduce its supply costs, Joan Bonaminio shared with me her views on both the supermarket business and her well-known husband.

"Early during our marriage, Jim often talked about how important it was to take care of the business, as it was 'our baby,' our future. So I focused on raising our three kids -- and Jim raised the market," she explained.

"It's important to remember that there's a price to pay to be successful in business. For some people, that success comes at the price of relationships. Fortunately, Jim and I have created that all-important balance during our marriage, and we're a really good combination," continued Joan, adding with a laugh, "He spends the millions -- and I save the pennies."

Regarding her husband's devotion to the store, Joan noted: "For Jim, work is fun, and fun is work. In my mind, he's brilliant, a visionary that wants everything to be 100 percent at all times. Sure, that's sometimes a challenge for me, but I understand him. He gives everything he has to make the business successful."

She added, "I'm totally convinced that one lifetime just isn't enough for all of his dreams."

Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].
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