Amanda Puck, director of strategic brand development for Mariano’s, loves to describe the chain as, “an experience.” It’s a lofty goal for a grocery store, but it’s definitely a goal they seem to be achieving.

Take a recent Tuesday morning for example — not exactly know as a high-traffic shopping time. Customers at a Chicago Mariano’s were greeted with samples of smoothies as soon as they entered the store. Then, they saw the sushi bar getting prepped for lunch, the smoothie station making fresh concoctions, fresh flower arrangements, new items at the bakery, and freshly made chocolate-dipped strawberries at the sweet shop. 

“What we love to do is offer an experience for our guests,” Puck says. “So you can come in and eat lunch at the sushi bar. We have a wine bar. And, all these little areas you can come up to and sit down and eat.”

It’s kind of like a hybrid between the corner grocery store and all the shops that used to line old-fashioned Main Streets — as though someone combined the butcher shop, the flower shop, and the candy store into one central location, and added in spaghetti noodles and Windex. They also have aisles upon aisles of international foods — so throw in Greektown, Little Italy, and Chinatown too.

In short, it’s so much more than a typical grocery store — it’s, well, an “experience.” And that includes the candy. Aside from the extensive display of every flavor of seemingly every candy ever made in the confectionery aisle, there’s also international treats scattered throughout the store, and even a candy shop counter where employees make fresh confections daily.

Indeed, the Sweet Shop, as they call it, is a huge draw for customers. Shoppers are lured in by the sweet smell of everything from fresh chocolate-dipped pineapples and strawberries, to freshly made caramel corn and fudge. And customers eat it up, so to speak.

“It’s about the experience,” says Puck, turning to that word again.  “Our customers love to watch it. This is a showpiece for us, and our customers love to kind of watch them in action. When we open new stores, people gather around, just kind of taking it all in.”

And there’s a lot to take in. From the popcorn drums to the fruit being hand-dipped in chocolate right there behind the glass counters, and the more than 10 flavors of fudge setting in the pans lined in the back.

The secret behind many of the delicious treats is that they are all made fresh daily.

“You turn in one day,” explains Paul Marinaro, v.p. of produce for the chain, a job that includes overseeing the sweet shops. “We’re not going to make it and let it sit for two days. So the customer knows they need to get to Mariano’s or either place their order or get their early. They kind of like that.”

Not everything is made in-house, but the candy that fills the display cases in the Sweet Shop is definitely premium. One vendor they work with is St. Louis-based Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate.

“When we first started, everything was chocolate, everything was brown. I stood in front of it, when I came on board, I said, ‘Something’s got to change here.’” Marinaro recalls. “And Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate was brought to me, and I said, ‘That’s the guy I want. Look at all these colors, all these flavors.’”

Mariano’s also has recently started selling custom-made chocolate bars as part of a Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate program. Customers are able to choose between milk or dark chocolate, add in two toppings, and then watch as their handmade chocolate bar is crafted.

“You can pick your kind of chocolate and then you can pick your mix-ins,” Puck says. “So you might want dried cranberries and marshmallow, but I may want to make like a S’mores one.”

They’re a hit with customers.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how popular it is,” Marinaro says.

The stores also take seriously the idea of being a neighborhood market.

“So the things you find here (in Chicago) are not the same things you’ll find in Oak Lawn,” Puck says. “We just opened a store in Skokie, (Ill.) and there’s a big kosher community there. So we actually have a kosher store within the store. So we have a kosher sweet shop.”

Customers love it.

“It was crazy. For two days straight I couldn’t keep up with dipping marshmallows. Something so simple. Marshmallow bombs, we call them. The kosher community loved them,” Marinaro says.

As for the staff behind the sweet shop counter, Marinaro says they train employees to make the candy, and although it sounds like a sweet gig, it’s not easy.

“They come in, they have to multitask,” Marinaro explains. “They’re going to come in, they’re going to start popcorn machine, they’re going to start looking at, what did they sell yesterday? At the same time, they’re going to start washing large, Granny Smith apples. They’re going to wash them, put the sticks in there and prepare them for making homemade caramel apples. Then they’re going to get their strawberries and all their fruit, and have like 10 things going at once. Then you get your pops going, your caramel, your fudge. They’re very organized, but they’re bouncing all the time. Right now, they’re probably doing four or five different things together.”

It makes for a sweet scene in the store.

“It’s just something that really sets us apart from our competitors,” Puck says.

But everything — from the wine bar to the on-site grill to the green apple-flavored popcorn — started with just a dream about five years ago.

The first Mariano’s opened in Arlington Heights, Ill. in July of 2010. Named for Robert Mariano, the ceo of Roundy’s, Mariano’s parent company, the store was, “designed and built to deliver the highest quality products from around the world and those produced locally to shoppers with unequaled service and hospitality,” the company says.

 “Bob Mariano really changed the way people shop. It’s not a chore or something you have to do, it’s something you want to do. ” explains Puck. “They’ll come and get a glass of wine when they walk in at the wine bar, and they’ll walk around.”

The formula seems to be working. Now, there are 31 locations throughout Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, with three more slated to open by the end of the year.

“We really are an experience for our customers and we’re a convenience for our customers,” Puck says. “So our customers can walk in on a day like today and pick up an amazing lunch, but then also take home food for the night. And also get laundry detergent. It’s kind of like a one-stop-shop.”

The big thing is the range of offerings.

“You can find anything, like a really great variety of organic kale — like we don’t have just one or two kinds of kale, we have like three or four kinds of kale,” Puck says. “Our customers love apples. For us, apples are always in season. So I actually went to a competitor’s store the other day and there were five kinds of apples, and you come to any of our stores any day and there’s 10-20 kinds of apples. So we really like to offer that variety and our customers love it.”

That attitude filters down to the candy aisle as well.

“We have a great team of buyers that literally scours the globe for items,” Puck explains. “Our buyers are really into getting really cool items and things that are different.”

Indeed, the aisle is stocked with everything from M&M’S and Brookside to Ghirardelli and Chuao chocolates.

“We like to have a wide variety,” Puck says. “We’ll range from Swedish Fish to some higher-end chocolates from Belgium or Italy. It’s like anything in our store, a really wide variety at the best price possible.”

And if they don’t have it, they’ll get it.

“If you come in here and you love like a Toblerone bar that we don’t have, you can let the store manager know and we’ll make sure we stock it after that,” Puck says. “We like to offer our customers the best value and quality that we can.”

It’s that kind of service that keeps shoppers coming back for more, and keeps Mariano’s going strong. 

“We definitely look at educating our consumers, exposing them to things they may not have had before,” Puck says. “We like to say there’s a sense of discovery when you when you come into the store.”

Indeed, it makes for one fabulous “experience.”


At-a-Glance: Mariano’s

Parent company: Roundy’s, Inc., 875 E. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, Wis.

CEO: Robert Mariano

Locations: 31 throughout Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, with 3 more expected by the end of the year.

First store: July 2010, Arlington Heights

Company description of store: “We’ve transformed grocery shopping from a chore, to a destination. Our maxim is, ‘Shop well. Eat well. Live well.’ and it is genuine.