(Photo courtesy Mariano’s)

What’s in store

Bob Mariano, MBA’87, sheds light on what it’s like to be a supermarket CEO.

My husband and I were talking recently about how you know you’re in dire straits when you’re willing to use the restroom in a grocery store. We reminisced about the weird fear and shame that we both experienced as kids, entering the swinging double doors by the cooler section and seeing the mysterious inner workings of grocery store all in the name of relief.

In comparison, before I met Bob Mariano, MBA’87, CEO of Roundy’s (which operates Pick ’n Save, Rainbow, Copps, Metro Market, and Mariano’s), I stopped to use the ladies’ room in the Bucktown Mariano’s, which had just opened weeks earlier. What did I find? A fresh potted orchid, just one of the many touches that Mariano’s customers love and will no doubt enjoy when the Lakeside location opens up at 87th and Lake Shore Drive in 2016.

I had numerous questions about what it takes to run Mariano’s, which replaced numerous Chicago-area Dominick’s locations once the supermarket chain (where he got his start at the deli counter) closed for good.


On the biggest challenge of retrofitting former Dominick’s locations to house Mariano’s stores
Getting what we do in there in the period of time and the amount of capital we had to spend in a period of time. We had to pick what we thought made sense for our customers, knowing it wouldn’t be 100 percent complete, so if I went to the store on Sheridan [and Foster, in a former Dominick’s location], and I come to [the new Bucktown] store, they are a lot different, so the toughest thing was getting that right.

His term for what happens when he discerns that an employee is a bad fit for the company
We’ll promote you to customer full time, and then we’ll go our separate ways.

A recent customer suggestion that he agreed to implement
I just had a customer ask if you could buy the vegan burgers not cooked so she can cook them at home. I said, “That’s a great idea. I’ll call and get the label so we can sell the vegan burgers uncooked.” There’s a number of things I think our people have come up with over time.

What role he had the most fun in during his years working for grocery stores
I always had a lot of fun as a deli clerk [at Dominick’s]. The job was fast-paced, you got to talk to customers, customers would favor you when they wanted you to wait on them. Back in those days the nice little old Italian women wanted their Genoa salami sliced paper thin and shingled. I would always take the time to layer so it’s easy to take apart instead of just making a stack. I’d lay it all out for them really nice.

On who does the grocery shopping in his family
We both do, my wife and me. If I’m at the store, then we’ll plan the meal over the phone. She’ll text me the list, and I do the selection and bring it home, and then we cook the meal together. Or on the other hand, she’s going to the store, we’ll talk about it while she’s there: “Let’s look at the fish; this looks good.” We eat pretty simple meals: protein, vegetable, salad, that’s it. A nice glass of wine, and we’re good to go. We cook at home a fair amount, since it’s only her and I. We find our cooking time is the best time to catch up on the day. I’m the grill master. She makes a great sauce for pasta. She’s 100 percent Italian.

On whether he pays for his groceries
I check out like anybody else. It’s important to go through the same experience as our customers, to see what our employees see unfiltered. Sometimes I go through the store with a ball cap and sunglasses so nobody knows who I am. It’s not to do any sort of “gotcha”; it’s more for my own observations, to make sure we’re on the right path, we’re not missing anything. I haven’t seen anything glaring, which has been heartening.

Whether he favors a particular store location
I shop wherever I’m at. I like to see the freshness of the produce. Sometimes the employees offer to select it for me, but I don’t let them. I do it, just like a customer. It’s important to me to make sure I’m getting the same experience my customer is getting.

Thoughts on self-checkout
We don’t do it. It’s not a time saver for anybody. If I don’t have enough lanes open, then it is, but we have plenty of lanes. Secondly, we have to maintain two separate systems and different point of sales. It’s a problem syncing them up. It’s a technical difficulty that leads to poor service with customers that we choose not to do.

On my idea that cashiers who are under 21 should be identified so that customers on a quick errand buying some wine know to find another checkout aisle
Oh, that’s a good idea. I can see what you’re saying. We could try it to see how it works.


Bob Mariano, MBA’87, shares lessons he learned from Dominick’s founder Mr. D, reasons why it’s important to welcome every customer to the store, and why he describes himself as a “servant leader.”