Illustrated portrait of Bob Mariano, MBA’87

(Illustration by John Jay Cabuay)

Talking shop with Bob Mariano, MBA’87

Insights from a grocery industry veteran.

In 2015 Bob Mariano, MBA’87, then CEO of Milwaukee-based Roundy’s Supermarkets, sold his company—including his chain of eponymous stores in the Chicago area—to the grocery giant Kroger for $800 million. Then, “I took a rest for a little bit,” Mariano says. “We had a heck of a run with Mariano’s.”

But the industry veteran couldn’t stay away for long. In June Mariano opened a new store in Chicago, Dom’s Kitchen & Market. The restaurant-market combo is named for his mentor, Dominick DiMatteo, founder of the former Chicago chain Dominick’s. Mariano’s comments below have been edited and condensed.

You started your career at the Dominick’s deli counter. What was it like?

I was going to the University of Illinois at Chicago for my undergrad, so I worked Saturdays and Sundays. It was a good experience working in the delicatessen, because it’s very service oriented. I had people that would wait for me to slice their lunch meat instead of others, because they liked the way I did it. That was kind of rewarding.

What did you learn from the late Dominick DiMatteo?

To listen to the employees. You’d find him sitting on a box in the back room talking to a stocker or having a conversation with a truck driver. He always had time for people.

He taught you the business. I mean, we’d be shucking oysters for the fish department and seeing how they tasted. It was all about the food and what it tasted like. That’s where the passion came from—he loved food.

He also was instrumental in me going to Booth. I was the first Booth graduate from Dominick’s, and he subsequently committed that each year there would be a Booth Dominick’s student, so potential executives would go through XP, the two-year executive program. He believed in it. That’s pretty special.

What are the big lessons of the pandemic for the grocery business?

Across the entire system, our supply chain was not what it ought to be. I also think the industry learned a great deal in terms of how to serve the needs of the community. There was never a discussion about grocery stores closing. They were open all the way through and did all the things they were asked to do by the Centers for Disease Control.

Did you always plan to open another store after selling Roundy’s?

I took it easy for a while, and then I started to get itchin’. What really stimulated it was when the deal came up with Amazon and Whole Foods. I started to research what it would take to buy Whole Foods and in doing that did a lot of analysis of the market. We even did focus groups of customers and employees to learn what was and wasn’t working. That helped me get what was going on. But it also suggested an opportunity. And out of that opportunity came Dom’s.

What is the best experience you’ve had at a grocery store other than one of your own?

Peck in Milan. The attention to detail, the professionalism, the quality of the product, how much they made themselves from scratch. I mean, these were artisans. My wife said, “Come on, we’re gonna get out of here, because you’re with your mistress.”

People have such strong feelings about grocery stores. Why are customers so passionate?

Because that’s their store. If they shop at a particular store day in, day out—that’s their store. And I can’t tell you how many times customers would come up to me and ask, what are you doing to my store? They take ownership.

If you think about it, other than religious services, the only other time we really get together is in the grocery store or in a restaurant. That’s where people come together, around food. And so it’s pretty natural for them to want to be involved.