Marion Street Cheese Market’s store proves as popular as its bistro
Executive Chef Leonard Hollander works on a whipped chevre sandwich at Marion Street Cheese Market in November. The accompanying store allows residents to bring the market's fine tastes home. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
What’s for Sale at the Marion Street Cheese Market Retail Shop?
A sampling includes:
• Chicago chocolatier Uzma Sharif’s hot chocolate mix, $8 for 8 ounces
• Suckerpunch Pickles, made in LaGrange, which, combined with Suckerpunch Bloody Mary Mix, is one of the shop’s best sellers, $9 for a 24-ounce jar
• Majave Habanero Sauce, from Berwyn, $3.99 for 5 ounces
• Letherbee Gin, distilled in Chicago, $30
• Koval’s Organic 57th Ward Whiskey, distilled in Chicago, $53
Updated: February 25, 2013 11:10AM
OAK PARK — Dining at the Marion Street Cheese Market bistro is a singular experience.
Shopping in its store, however, promotes dining well at home.
Part of the Marion Street Cheese Market enterprise, 100 S. Marion St., the store offers a carefully curated selection of sustainably made, mostly local products that are not widely available.
“Cheese is the focus of our market,” said Claire Guenther, the store’s retail manager. “After that, we focus on things that would compliment cheese or dress up your dinner.”
Guenther is on the market’s six-person retail team, which is led by general manager Michelle Dirks. All team members contribute to selecting which products the store will carry.
“Because we’re so out there,” said Guenther, referring to the bistro’s popularity, “local vendors are coming to us and we’re seeing if there’s a good fit.”
Product selection criteria include quality, value and perceived customer interest, she explained.
Occasionally, customers suggest new items, added retail associate/buyer Francesca Vitali. An example was hot chocolate mix, for which the shop reached out to its chocolatier, located in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, for the product.
After cheese, Marion Street’s leading seller is craft beer, wine and spirits, reported retail department lead Charlie Molinaro, who’s the buyer in this arena. A shop employee since 2008, when Marion Street opened at its current location, Molinaro carries about 200 different beers, 300 wines and about 60 brands of small-batch spirits.
“I’ve got vendors coming in droves, trying to get placements here. It’s great but it’s challenging, because you have to make some decisions,” he said, about who to work with and why.
“First and foremost, it has to be quality,” Molinaro continued. “We like to think we’re carrying the best of the best; the finest red wine you can get for $130 or the finest $10 grab-and-go.”
Marion Street may be the only Oak Park shop licensed to sell spirits both in-house, at the bistro, and as a packaged good, Molinaro said.
“That’s something fun for us,” he said, especially in what he calls “such a food-centric community.”
Craft beer, too, is hopping.
“Breweries like their products to be seen in cool, boutiquey places like this, where they get the attention they deserve,” Molinaro said.
His best-sellers include unique, small batch and seasonal beers.
“Especially with beer, I have to stay as ahead of the curve as possible,” he said, adding that he keeps tabs on craft breweries to see what’s new and coming.
In December, a peak month, Marion Street’s retail shop was making 200 to 250 sales daily, Molinaro said. Though January is slower, staff agree that their customer base is growing.
“We’ve always been pulling people from the western suburbs, but over the past months we’ve seen more people coming in from the city,” Molinaro said.
Customers include a mix of bistro diners and people entering from the street, Vitali said.
One customer, Caron O’Brian of Forest Park, said she stops in about every two weeks.
“I’m in the neighborhood and they have good stuff,” she said, noting that she will stop in to pick up “goodies for the weekend,” like candies, olives and canned tuna.
Another customer, Susan Degand of Oak Park, said she visits almost daily.
“The wine is incredible and I love the people,” she said. “They take time to tell you about the products and that’s what makes it more hands-on and personal.”
For instance, shop staff had recently recommended a wine for her to serve at a party. This circles back to their knowledge of the inventory honed by having roles in the buying process.
“We don’t have a lot of space so we have to maximize it, optimize it and make it very efficient,” Molinaro said. “We have to select with intention.”