RAVENSWOOD — Five days before its grand opening, the Ravenswood Mariano's was a hive of activity, with store directors and senior vice presidents rolling up their sleeves alongside new hires to stock shelves, fill freezer cases, scan prices and slice cheeses.
"We're all working toward one goal — there's no rank here," said Bob Mariano, CEO of Roundy's, the parent company of the chain of stores that bears his name.
"We've found it's better to just mass attack it and get it behind you," he said.
Customers will find, as of 6 a.m. Tuesday, 80,000 square feet of what shoppers have come to expect from Mariano's — grocery store staples with amenities like oyster and sushi bars on the side — along with a little something different.
While the folks in Ukrainian Village have their wild game, the good people of Ravenswood and Lincoln Square nabbed Todds BBQ, the first Mariano's barbecue joint in Chicago, available for takeout or dine-in.
"We have a smoker here. We'll be doing pulled pork, brisket, St. Louis-style," said Mariano, whose career in the grocery business dates to 1968, when he got a job during high school behind the deli counter at Dominick's.
"They won't let me on a slicer," Mariano said, though the guy still knows his way around his cuts of meat.
"The toughest meat to slice is brisket," he said. "You've got to cut it against the grain."
Burnt ends — trimmings from a smoked brisket — will be served atop chili as a Todds side dish, according to Jeffrey Garcia, who'll be manning the smoker and neighboring rotisserie.
Garcia, a former sous chef at joints like Goose Island's Wrigleyville outpost and McCormick & Schmick's, promised the slow-cooked hickory-smoked meats, covered in a tangy-sweet rub, would be good enough to eat without sauce.
Having spent most of his career working in the back of the house, cranking out food with the goal of turning over tables, Garcia was looking forward to interacting with customers and providing more customized service.
"If you want just one chicken tender, a restaurant will laugh at you," he said. "Here, if you want a single rib, I'll cook it for you."
Another feature debuting at the Ravenswood store: Nob's Wine Bar, the largest wine bar in the chain, complete with a pianist tinkling the ivories on a baby grand.
Mariano envisions customers stepping off Metra trains at the adjacent Ravenswood station and stopping in for a drink and maybe a bite to eat after work.
"Much of what we try to do is have a community feel," he said.
In fact, the store has frequently been touted by Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) as the anchor of revitalization efforts along Lawrence Avenue, a responsibility Mariano takes seriously.
"It is important to us that we are a little bit of a spark for economic development, for other shops that thrive alongside us," he said. "It's how we keep our neighborhoods strong."
But his main priority, he said, is "providing customers with the greatest food experience" — whether that means buying the ingredients to prepare a meal at home or pulling up a stool to dine at Todds.
It's an approach that seems like an evolutionary step forward from your basic supermarket but is, in fact, a return to the days when strong regional operators ruled the grocery business.
"I think we had a gap in the industry in the '80s and '90s with all of the buyouts and consolidation, it got to be more corporate and came away from the creativity and entrepreneurship," Mariano said.
"Having traveled to Europe 20 years ago, at all the great food halls, consuming and buying are integrated," said Mariano. "Part of the experience is eating."
Grocery shopping turns from "drudgery into fun," he said. "Customers may spend spend two hours here. It's an outing."
It could take a person two hours just to browse the store's 300-400 cheeses — large wheels of which were being sliced down to sample size in advance of the opening.
"I think it's the best job in the store, but of course I'm biased," said Kat Sanchez, a member of the installation team who normally holds the title of lead cheese monger at the South Loop Mariano's.
Given Mariano's recent rapid expansion — the chain picked up 11 shuttered Dominick's stores, in addition to planned openings like Ravenswood — the boss has relied on veterans like Sanchez to help keep the ship afloat.
Though Mariano said he was "disciplined" in choosing which Dominick's to acquire — snapping up locations that didn't overlap with existing stores or those already in the works — the purchase "did put kind of an unusual strain on us" in terms of human resources, with the chain, only in existence since 2010, nearly doubling in size in a matter of months.
"People have really stepped up their game," he said. "The new people see that, and it's kind of contagious."
"We're seriously having a blast," said bakery manager Eric Marie, already nicknamed "Clark Kent" by his staff for his eyeglasses and mop of dark hair.
"It's just total madness — I love it," he said.
A 26-year pastry veteran who originally hails from France, Marie is leading a team that includes Erin Watts, from Mrs. Green's Natural Market, and Cruz Bueno, who said he learned his mad dough-handling skills at Dunkin' Donuts, where he twisted and braided hundreds of doughnuts and bagels a day.
The two, who will be on the overnight shift once the store opens, were working up a sweat kneading and rolling out loaves of marbled rye.
"We don't need a gym — I'll be like Angela Bassett," said Watts, though the Mariano's does share a wall with LA Fitness.
While the enthusiasm of newbies like Watts is understandable, Lori Jones was equally giddy setting up her fourth Mariano's Spice Shop, which offers bulk spices, nuts, grains and more.
"We have a line of heirloom beans ... flavored cane sugars ... three shelves of sea salts ... a huge mix of organic spices, a huge selection of rice, a huge new line of grilling rubs, a huge array of dried fruits," she said. "We're going to have a peanut butter grinder."
What's amazed Jones is the number of "everyday mothers" like herself who now regularly use ingredients once considered exotic.
Purchasing from the bulk section has made that more affordable, she said.
"If you have an ingredient that's very expensive in the aisle, $7 a jar, and you only need a teaspoon, you can buy just what you need," she said. "Once you start buying bulk, you never go back."
Beginning Tuesday, the Ravenswood Mariano's, 1800 W. Lawrence Ave., will be open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. Pharmacy hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.