Crest Hill grocery joins specialty markets
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain email@example.com March 23, 2013 3:32AM
Shoppers look over fresh vegetables at the new El Guero Fresh Market at 1520 Theodore St. in Crest Hill, IL, on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 25, 2013 6:36AM
CREST HILL — Antonio Contreras of Joliet used to drive to Chicago to shop at an El Guero Fresh Market grocery store.
But now he lives only 15 minutes from the sixth El Guero that opened last month at 1520 Theodore St. Three others are in Chicago and two are in Aurora.
“We like this store,” Contreras said as he shopped Wednesday with his 4-year-old daughter Jacqueline. “We like the fresh vegetables and the fruit and the meat. And you can save some money. Everything is good, everything is fresh.”
El Guero is the third specialty grocery store to open in the region in the past few months. Tony’s Finer Foods opened in January at Route 59 and Caton Farm Road in Joliet and Mariano’s Fresh Market opened earlier this month at 21001 LaGrange Road in Frankfort.
All three grocers offer a wider variety of fresh produce and specialty prepared foods than some of the discount stores that have become popular in recent years.
Whether it’s smoothies and sushi at Mariano’s or tomatillos and Thai guava at Tony’s, Will County shoppers have more places to go to indulge their inner gourmet.
El Guero, for instance, greets customers with large produce, baked goods and deli sections that feature traditional offerings, but also cactus leaves, freshly made chorizo and pan dulce, a Mexican bread.
The store also makes its own flour tortillas on the premises fresh daily, said Bertha Garcia, who is married to store founder and owner Ricardo Garcia. Cakes and breads are baked on site, and full-time butchers man the meat counter every day to cut custom orders, but pre-packaged meats also are available.
While the store carries many Latin cuisine items and signs are in Spanish and English, the Crest Hill El Guero is an experiment, Ricardo Garcia said. It’s the first grocery store he has opened that is in a non-Hispanic neighborhood, and he’s hoping it draws in people of all ethnicities who are looking for more varied food options.
“If people ask for something we don’t have, we try to get it,” Bertha Garcia said. “Here (in Crest Hill) we found people wanted different items. We carry anything anyone of any nationality could possibly eat.”
For instance, El Guero has added dill, dandelion and karambola fruit after customers asked for the items.
El Guero is in a former Eagle food store that opened in 1972 but closed in 2000 when the national grocer went bankrupt. Ricardo Garcia, who opened his first grocery store in 1975, said he bought the vacant store in 2006 but delayed opening the Crest Hill El Guero because of the recession.
“We waited,” Ricardo Garcia said. “But it’s not good for the community to keep the building vacant and we had to make a decision.”
The Garcias pumped millions of dollars into the renovation and basically gutted the store, which is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. At just under 40,000 square feet, the Crest Hill El Guero is just the right size for customers who don’t want to shop in the mega stores, Ricardo Garcia said.
“Those bigger stores take you two hours to shop in,” he said. “That is something that is not convenient. ... This is a perfect size for people.”
Soon, the Garcias plan to open a taquería restaurant inside the grocery store, similar to one in Aurora. It will serve casual Mexican dishes for lunch and dinner at first, but it could be open for breakfast as well.
City Administrator John Tomasoski said Crest Hill officials are thrilled the store is no longer vacant.
“A lot of people in the community are excited to have an additional local option,” he said. “It’s another choice compared to your traditional grocery stores.”
The renovated building will generate more in property taxes and sales tax dollars for the city, too, Tomasoski said.
If nationwide trends are any indication, the store should do well, said Brian Todd, president and CEO of the New Jersey-based Food Institute. While Americans have been budget conscious during the long economic downturn and they continue to clip coupons and shop for rock-bottom prices, they also have a “splurge mentality” that craves something fresh and new, Todd said.
TV cooking shows also have sparked an interest in gourmet cooking and introduced viewers to exotic ingredients they need for recipes, he added.
As a result, the specialty food industry is experiencing “spectacular” growth, according to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. From 2009 through 2011, specialty food sales increased 19.1 percent, with Latin cuisine emerging as the fastest growing, followed by Eastern European and Indian.
For Crest Hill’s Tomasoski, who is 75 percent Polish and 25 percent French, it’s all about the Latin food, so having El Guero a two-minute walk from his office is heaven.
“I like their pico de gallo,” he said. “It’s not like a store-bought salsa.”
And while the store may be generating sales tax for the city, El Guero is earning Tomasoski brownie points at home. He said he gets the ready-made sets for fajitas when it’s his turn to cook dinner.
“I cheat,” he said.