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Sad days on the Gold Coast: there goes the neighborhood grocery

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From the look of the place, you might not want to buy your groceries here. The garish electric sign could be what makes you hesitate, or the peeling white and yellow aluminum siding or fake rock work on the walls or bricked-in windows. Maybe the sagging, peeling tile floor now has you ready to turn around and march out, or the goods crammed without a lick of cheer on old, tired shelves.

You might guess that the Gold Coast, which knows an eyesore when it sees one, must have sent up a cheer at the news this place is shutting down next month. The shabby one-story brick building is going to be wiped off the map. And a spanking new store is on the way, almost three times the size of the old one . . .

People are miserable. One woman said that if this store, Potash Bros. Food Mart, was going to disappear, she wanted to break her lease. Another woman said, "I'm not happy about this at all." A man knew exactly what he will do without the old store. "Starve."

Store manager Carol Snider explained. "People are scared that the new store will be too big and modern, like a Dominick's or something. . . . They might say hello but they couldn't care if you're Mrs. Smith, Alice, or what your name is, 'How's your twins?' or if you got lucky last night. We care, and we've built our business on it. They're going to miss us, they really are."

For years, the Potash family tossed around assorted expansion and remodeling plans. They even considered gutting the place and adding a second floor. Expansion was critical if Potash Bros. was going to remain a full-service grocery. If the store couldn't stock the growing variety offered by the chains and large independents, its destiny would be that of a convenience store--a place for a six-pack, cigarettes, a bag of potato chips, a pack of gum.

"What we realized was that we'd spend a million dollars and still end up with a 35-year-old store," said Art Potash, who makes most day-to-day decisions at the store. So when developers bought up the Agostino restaurant next door--long empty after a fire--and offered to cut the Potashes in on the deal, they found the grocers eager to talk.

Ideally, Art Potash would have stayed where he was while a high rise went up around his place at State and Delaware. When the new space was ready, Potash Bros. would have moved in, and only then would the tattered old store so dear to the hearts of the neighborhood have come down. But the Potashes were told there was no practical way to build like that, and they agreed to shut down so the store could be razed and a high rise built.

Superior Development Corporation is the developer of One Delaware Place, which is going to be 31 stories of rental apartments over 50,000 square feet of retail and office space and a 400-car garage, plus the anchor tenant, a 10,000-square-foot Potash store. In a condominium arrangement, Potash Bros. Inc. will own the space the store is in. Superior expects demolition of the Potash store to begin near the end of July. Coming down first will be two brownstones on Chestnut Street and a small warehouse on State (El Rancho, the restaurant on the corner, elected not to be a part of this project). Potash Bros. should be able to reopen one year later, with the entire building project scheduled to take 18 months.

Richard Kahan, a partner in Superior, expects the building to attract the "better-than-middle-market grade" of tenant, the "yuppie crowd who wants to live on the Gold Coast but not in a condo building. There is excellent transportation and it's a desirable location.

"Potash is the name in this market. It was imperative to keep them in order to make the project work. They're a landmark in the area," Kahan added.

This is a hard time for Art Potash. His customers don't know what they'll do, and they aren't consoled by the distant promise of a new and better store. Of course they'll be able to get their groceries somewhere else, but the atmosphere won't be the same.

In an era where self-service prevails everywhere from banking to getting gas, service at Potash Bros. evokes a sense of how things used to be. In addition to the now common delivery services many stores offer, Potash Bros. is known for its rather lenient check-cashing policy, phone orders, house accounts, and willingness to stock any item a customer asks for.

"My boss's theory was that you never send them anywhere else for just one item, because you may never get them back," Carol Snider said. "It would happen. I'd be out of buttermilk or something and someone would ask for it and I'd have to send one of my boys down to 7-Eleven, get a few quarts of buttermilk, put them in my case, and send it over to her. You don't want to send her to 7-Eleven. She may like that convenience shopping and never come back."

Carol Snider's face is known to anyone who shops Potash. Her strong voice rings through the store--as much a testament to the size of the store as of her voice. Carol has been at the store for 37 years, 12 years longer than the Potashes have owned it (when she came to work here it was Maxime's). She puts in 54-hour weeks, more if someone gets sick. She just celebrated her 53rd birthday, and says she never had time for a family.

"I need an extension cord," an employee says.

"Isn't there one hanging from that freezer?" Carol says. "Just hanging. You'll have to get a ladder to get it down," she says. You sense that she knows exactly where everything in the store can be found.

Art Potash, 29 years old, probably doesn't know where everything is. He's only been at this store for two years. But Art grew up in the grocery business. Many years ago the three Potash brothers, Herbie, Dave, and Melvin, split the responsibilities of the three stores they own jointly. Herbie would run the State Street store, with Dave and Melvin (Art's father) operating the Sandburg in Sandburg Village and the Pleasing on Lawrence Avenue. Today, Herbie is in Florida, completely removed from the day-to-day aspects of the business, and it's Art who works out of the State Street store. His baby face and crisp appearance are a stark contrast to the old, tired aisles, but he is excited about this business.

"They laugh at me downstairs," Art Potash said from the cluttered office perched above the store, behind one-way glass. "I get excited, pumped up. I get most enthused about produce these days. I like the fact that customers get excited about produce. Customers determine where they shop by the produce. Nobody judges a store by the canned goods, maybe the price of the canned goods. But, with produce you can use your imagination and be creative. It's not something everyone does well," he said.

Art Potash also seems to have mastered the service philosophy that made his father and uncles phenomena in the grocery business. For example: "A customer says he likes Coors beer. 'When are you going to have Coors on sale?' he asks. We ran it for $1.98 this week. I know he likes it, and I wanted him to feel he had input into what goes on in this store. You're going to run [the sale] sooner or later, so why not run it when the guy wants it? I want them to think they can do something about it. I wouldn't lower my prices across the board because he tells me to. Hey. If they feel they have control over what the store carries, that's a lot of power they have, and a lot of power that if they know they have it, they'll shop with me."

Given the neighborhood, the "theys" make an illustrious company. Former mayor Jane Byrne shops at Potash Bros. So does Joan Esposito of WLS TV. "When Rush Street was a big thing and some of these nightclubs were open around here, we had Fats Domino in here," Carol Snider said, shaking her head as if it were yesterday. "Oprah's been here," she added.

"Here"--State Street between Chestnut and Delaware, two blocks from Michigan Avenue--is an area filled with a fabulous mix of people: everyone from the elite to food stamp customers, with a large population of young singles.

With a new apartment building going up at 900 N. Michigan and another at Delaware and Dearborn, plus the one over the store--all joining the many high rises that already shadow this neighborhood--Art Potash ought to be very well positioned. He is not overly concerned that someone new will come into the area while he is closed. "We've shopped around and the prices are just astronomical. We wouldn't be here if we weren't here 25 years ago, because you can't just come into this area and pay the rents, unless some guy's building a building and wants a grocery store in there and is willing to accept less [rent].

"Our goal is not for a certain sales figure or a certain profit percentage," said Potash, who wouldn't discuss sales figures. "We really don't look at things like that. We feel that we're in a good area. We're in a hot area. The rental figures are unbelievable. We know that we have customers who can pay a few pennies extra if they're going to get taken care of, whether it's fast checkout or a smile or a check cashed. . . . We concentrate on those things and let the rest fall into place."

Still, Potash Bros. customers will have to eat while the new building goes up. Most say they haven't figured out where they will shop when Potash closes, and their options are surprisingly limited. The closest "major" grocery store is the Treasure Island at Dearborn and Elm. There's another at 666 N. Lake Shore Dr. and a Jewel at Clark and Division. Aside from these, residents are limited to convenience stores such as 7-Eleven and White Hen Pantry, and the occasional high-rise commissary.

The Lake Shore Drive Treasure Island, which took a lot of Streeterville patronage away from the Potashes when it opened a few years ago, makes a striking contrast to Potash Bros. The prices of staples in the two stores are about the same, but the Treasure Island looks spanking new, and it has 19,000 square feet of retail space to work with and 5,000 square feet of storage. Art Potash, on the other hand, must live with 3,500 square feet overall, a thousand of it for storage.

The Treasure Island offers a far broader, deeper display of goods. The other day, it was featuring $14.95 Disney videos as an impulse item at the checkout line. The traditional pack of gum was there too, but amid so much else that you had to turn around and search for it. Meanwhile, Art Potash was expanding his product lines to include 11 kinds of coffee beans, white chocolate pretzels, and basil and tomato linguini, but he could do only so much before running out of space.

"As the variety of items increased that customers wanted--like fresh pasta and fish--we were at more and more of a disadvantage," Art Potash said. "We became more and more of a convenience store, and less and less of a supermarket. We can't give them a hundred different kinds of mustard, and that's part of Treasure Island's image."

That's why the store is closing. When he reopens, Potash will have 10,000 square feet to work with in a new building. His old customers will find more packaged goods, a salad bar, an expanded meat counter, a deli. And the biggest difference, Potash said, will be the introduction of a line of ready-to-eat gourmet foods.

More power to the Potashes, said Frank Cambaris, an owner of the Treasure Islands. "I am anxious for them to open the new store because I hate to see the business go to the 7-Elevens," Cambaris said. "Our stores are bigger, but they have a very large following, and there's enough business to go around."

Many customers obviously haven't minded that Potash's store didn't have a deli, bakery, or videos at the register. They haven't minded that items are stacked so high clerks often have to reach them for customers.

"I have a woman who used to live at Oak and Wells who now lives at Pulaski and Chicago Avenue. She shops here. I have a woman that walks from LaSalle and Division. She passes the Jewel and Treasure Island," Carol Snider said. "A blind man who lives on Belmont and Sheridan takes the bus down here and shops here because we take care of him. He takes it all home in a shopping bag. When he comes in he says hi and everybody says 'OK, I'll getcha.'"

When customers talk to assistant manager Dave Scapardine about the store's closing, "they talk to you like they're losing a person. They're so devoted and loyal to our store. They all say it's because of our friendly service. We unload their buggies for them, we basically do whatever they want us to do. If a person comes in here with something that's bought from Jewel or Dominick's, they say they want credit and we give them credit. They appreciate those things, and that keeps them coming back," Scapardine said.

"I'm not going to say this to sound like a brown-nose kind of guy, but it's working for the owners. I've been at other places, I've worked for United Parcel, Certified Grocers . . . You'll never work for anyone like these people. They're people that if you have a problem, no matter what it is, if it's a personal problem or financial problem, they always want to sit down and listen to what you have to say, and if they can help you in any which way they're always there to help you."

Scapardine will join Carol Snider and produce manager Jake Carter at Sandburg Market while Potash Bros. is being rebuilt. The other employees will be looking for new jobs. Randy Johnson is one of those employees. He's 25 years old and has been with Potash for ten years. He is primarily a cashier, but "the ice cream department is really mine," he said.

Johnson doesn't think he's going to have too hard a time finding a new job, largely because so many customers and local merchants have gotten to know him so well.

"I am one of the most popular employees in the neighborhood," he said proudly. Johnson has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection from customers. Some have urged Potash and Snider to keep him; some say they'll put in a good word for him at Treasure Island. And he has a standing offer from the True Value Hardware down the street if he wants it.

"It amazes me, but it's for real. I didn't know that many people really cared for me," Johnson said. Perhaps he spoke for the store as well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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