Sunday, October 7, 2018 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
The owner of the Leamington Foods in Hillside that closed last week recently spoke out against what he said has been the unfair portrayal of the store by a high-profile local legislator and dozens of social media commenters. He also addressed the reasons for the store’s closure after more than two decades at the 550 Mannheim Road location.
Ken Casaccio and Dan Casaccio, two brothers who are third-generation grocers in a family that’s been in the business for around 90 years, said that they were disheartened when state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (7th), who lives in Hillside and represents the district where it was located, blasted the store on Facebook after learning that it had closed.
“We don’t need grocery stores like Leamington in our neighborhoods,” Welch wrote. “They provide poor quality at high prices. They prey on poor people. This particular store was always dirty, and it smelled like it.”
Welch’s comment opened the floodgates for dozens of people to share their own experiences at the store — from complaints about the store’s controversial smell and lack of cleanliness to some people claiming that they were sold bad meat.
Other commenters, although a lot fewer in number, praised some of Leamington’s produce and lamented its closure.
Ken Casaccio, who owns two other Leamington stores in Chicago, said that he had wanted to modernize and expand the Hillside store, but “we just couldn’t do it to that building.”
Cassacio said that he had been leasing the building on a year-to-year basis since a long-term lease had expired four years ago. The unpleasing smell was due to plumbing issues deep underneath the old building, he said.
“The building was an old Jewel Osco,” he said. “Half the plumbing underneath the ground was cemented and blocked off. We took the Jewel part and not the Osco part. It was a big building back then.”
Cassacio said that when his team “started getting the smells that people were talking about,” they called in “a bunch of companies” to look into the source.
They were told that the “whole meat department” would need to be “ripped up” and the store closed while workers dug 20 feet underneath the ground to fix the drainage issues — a measure that was cost-prohibitive.
What’s more, Cassacio said, the store was plagued by regular power outages that happened “three to four times a year.”
“That particular area needs a huge redevelopment of electrical power,” sad Dan Cassacio, who owns Living Fresh Market in Forest Park — an entity that is separate from Leamington Foods.
“This year alone, [the Hillside Leamington] lost power three times, once for two days,” Dan said. “When something like that happens, you take a $50,000 to $60,000 hit … That was a huge undertaking every year.”
In addition to structural issues related to the building, the Cassacio brothers said, the store also had a big tax burden.
They said that when the Hillside store opened 23 years ago, they paid $70,000 a year in property taxes. In the final years they were in business in Hillside, they said, they were paying more than $200,000 a year.
The competitive landscape for independent grocers is pretty hostile these days without added hostility from powerful politicians and the reverberations of social media and other internet platforms like Yelp, they explained.
“I take it personally,” Ken said. “To have bad meat — we would never want someone that came in to walk away unsatisfied. That’s just who we are. We had a good meat department and good produce, but the store just needed a new face. It needed a new paint job and a new decor package.”
“There was no bad meat sold in our stores,” said Dan. “Our reputation stands. Our meat is 100 percent guaranteed in every single one of our stores. Nobody’s ever walked out [dissatisfied] and not gotten a refund.”
The brothers said that the criticism threatens to overshadow the generations of satisfied customers and employees their family has had while doing business for close to a century.
“We’re grocers, we belong to associations,” said Ken. “We know that if somebody walks away dissatisfied, they tell 10 people. If we do something right? Maybe they say nothing to nobody, maybe they only tell the grocer. We always know the downside is worse.”
Ken said that the Hillside Leamington employed around 35 part-time and full-time workers, and served between 6,000 and 8,000 customers a week, at the time it closed.
“We came from the West Side,” he said. “We gave the customer what they really wanted. You could get your greens and smoked meat from us. You could buy Oscar Meyer items that you liked at a much cheaper Jewel. You can’t take that away from us.”
Over the years, the brothers said, the store became more of a neighborhood than a place of business.
“At Christmas time and Thanksgiving, we always doubled our business,” Dan said. “We knew we’d see all of the kids we grew up with who used to work at our store, whose parents shopped at our store.”
The brothers said that they also hired from the community. Now that the Hillside store is closed, those employees with the ability to travel to new locations have been reassigned.
“We tried to transfer as many as we could to Living Fresh Market,” Dan said, before emphasizing that his Forest Park store is a separate entity from Leamington.
Ken said that he’s currently focused on giving his two Chicago Leamington locations something that was structurally impossible in Hillside — a makeover.
He’s budgeted $2 million to modernize and downsize the Leamington in the city’s North Lawndale neighborhood starting next year. Once the renovation is completed, the store will feature a salad bar, a soup station and other amenities. The Leamington located in the city’s Austin neighborhood could be renovated sometime in 2019, as well.
The brothers said that they took pains to make sure that they exited Hillside properly.
“You’ve got a lot of grocery stores that went under and everybody they did business with got stiffed,” Dan said. “We closed our store? Spotlessly cleaned when we walked out the door. Every vendor got paid. We walked out the door and everybody’s smiling. I don’t see how else you can do it better than that.”
“You don’t burn bridges, because you never know where you’re going to go tomorrow,” Ken said. “Maybe someday Maywood or Bellwood will make us an offer. There are second and third generations that shop our store. It’s a reputation that we take seriously. That Hillside store was just inside of an old and tired building. It’s just that simple.” VFP
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