Oak Park grocer succeeds with service
Pan's Grocery store, Oak Park. | Meredith Morris~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 18, 2013 6:03AM
OAK PARK — Pan’s Food Center is an anomaly in Oak Park, succeeding after the loss of other local independent groceries.
“This is sort of the Last of the Mohicans,” said Pan’s Food Center cashier Emily Abram, decrying what she calls “the dying breed of mom and pop stores.”
Pan’s, at 824 S. Oak Park Ave., serves about 1,000 customers a day and is considering expanding its organic and bakery product lines, according to Steve Vlahos, store owner and manager with his brother, Jim.
“We always have to keep moving,” Steve Vlahos said.
Not too long ago, Oak Park was dotted with other independent grocers. There was Certified Land at 940 W. Lake St., which closed in 2008 after 26 years in business. And Villager Foods at 1135 Chicago Ave., which closed in 2010 after more than 40 years,
For Pan’s, one benefit is its location near the CTA Blue Line and the large Ascension Church, Vlahos said.
“A lot of people come here when they get of the L, after work, and pick up something for dinner,” Steve Vlahos said. The store also benefits from an adjacent parking lot, opened three years ago after Pan’s bought and razed a vacant building.
“It helps, especially at night. It was hit-or-miss if people could find parking or had money for the meters,” he said.
Another business advantage is that Pan’s delivers: it’s a $4 flat-rate fee for shoppers, or $8 who call in their orders and have Pan’s do the shopping.
“The delivery cost is very reasonable. I know of some stores that charge $16 or more,” Steve Vlahos said.
Nonetheless, Pan’s feels the pressure of the big-box stores.
“Before, Target and Wal-Mart didn’t sell groceries and Sam’s Club and Costco didn’t exist,” he said. “Jewel and Dominick’s were always around but they had their customers and we had ours.”
In contrast to big boxes and even many groceries, Vlahos said Pan’s greatest advantages is its personal service.
For instance, Pan’s employees who deliver food may also stop to shovel the walk for an older client, cashier Abram said, or unpack the groceries and be sure an impaired customer can open the food items.
Vlahos said one cashier was on the way to work and stopped at the home of an injured loyal customer to get her grocery order.
Abram, an Oak Park resident, has cashiered for two and half years. She’s one of about 20 Pan’s employees, most of them part-time.
“It may seem like just a job but at the end of the day you realize you’re really doing a service,” Abram said. “For some people who come in, you’re their only point of contact. You get to know people inside and out. I didn’t expect that. It’s eye-opening.”
Abram has become an advocate of independent grocers.
“They care more. They’ll go out of their ways to be human beings. You don’t find that at a big box,” she said.
Indeed, Vlahos, who caters to older shoppers with a 5-percent discount every Wednesday -- his busiest day of the week, “Seniors Day” -- finds it hard to imagine some of his customers contending with superstores.
“For a senior to go in there; it’s big for me to walk around. I don’t know how they do it,” he said.
The Vlahos brothers took Pan’s over from their father, John, who acquired it from its original owner, John Panicola, in 1986.
Steve, 48, who’s worked Pan’s aisles since he was 11, said the biggest shifts he’s seen include the dawn of organic and whole grain products, and more shoppers opting for fish over red meat. Also, he added, Sunday now runs a close second to Saturday as the busiest shopping day.
Sundays used to be relatively quiet, he said, but “more people have to work now on Saturdays.”