OLD TOWN — Customers of Plum Market, an independent grocery store that says it’s being pushed out of Old Town by a “back-door” leasing agreement with Bob Mariano’s new grocery chain, said they’re shocked and disappointed to see the local grocer closing.
Plum Market, 1233 N. Wells St., announced in a letter to customers Friday that the grocer will close June 26 after its lease was “terminated” for a new agreement with Dom’s Kitchen & Market, a small-footprint grocery store from Mariano. Dom’s opened its first store last year in Lincoln Park.
Plum, a Michigan-based grocer that opened its first and only Chicago location in June 2013, was almost halfway through a 20-year lease when the landlord used an out clause allowing them to end the lease at its 10-year mark, said Brad Bohlen, assistant store team leader at Plum Market. Plum was never given the chance to negotiate to keep its lease.
“It’s appalling, and I’m really upset about it,” said Joline Rivera, a long-time Plum customer. “Yes, I’m disappointed they’re leaving the neighborhood, but I’m more upset that they’re the victims of this back-door, shady dealing.”
In Plum’s letter to customers, CEO Matt Jonna blasted Mariano’s decision to pursue Plum’s location as “unconscionable, dishonorable and disgusting,” saying he was taken “entirely by surprise” by the situation.
“It is worth noting that when we caught wind of these negotiations, purely by luck, we specifically asked our landlord to discuss keeping our lease and we did not receive a response to our request,” Jonna wrote.
Bohlen on Monday said the building’s landlord still wasn’t answering Plum Market’s calls. The building’s owners and property management company, Heitman LLC, did not return Block Club’s requests for comment.
Leaders of Dom’s Kitchen & Market have refuted Jonna’s claims as an “ill-founded interpretation” of the grocery store’s move into Old Town. Dom’s was approached about the availability of the Old Town storefront and reached an agreement with the landlord, they said in a statement.
“As an independent grocer ourselves, we know all too well the challenges of operating in this competitive environment,” Dom’s leaders said. “Our intentions have always been to grow into neighborhoods where we can continue to expand the rich and meaningful food experience we provide.”
But some customers, including Rivera, said they don’t plan on supporting Dom’s after its conflict with Plum Market.
“If I don’t trust the people who run the store, in this case Dom’s, why would I buy my food there?” Rivera said. “I will not be supporting Dom’s Market. I’m just not interested in doing work with people who work like them.
Rivera likened Dom’s move into Plum’s storefront to a “David and Goliath situation.”
Dom’s Kitchen & Market is founded by industry veterans Mariano, founder of Mariano’s grocery stores; Jay Owen, grandson of Dominick’s founder Dominick DiMatteo; and Don Fitzgerald, a former executive at Dominick’s and Mariano’s.
Plum Market was founded in 2007 by brothers Matt and Marc Jonna, sons of Ed Jonna, who founded Merchant of Vino, a store known for its fine wine and gourmet foods that eventually sold to Whole Foods. Plum Market has four stores in Michigan and one in Chicago, along with several Plum Market Kitchens, which offer dine-in and takeout options.
“This is disheartening that the bigger Dom’s Kitchen & Market is going to kick out the smaller business owners and all the people who work for this great neighborhood store,” Rivera said.
Stephen Benson, an Old Town resident who’s shopped at the Plum Market in Old Town for two years, said it’s become his “primary grocery store,” so he was disappointed it is closing.
Benson was already familiar with Plum Market from when he went to the University of Michigan, and he appreciated the store’s meat market and cheese and wine collections, he siad.
“They have everything we need, and it seems that the landlord, Dom’s or a combination of the two have essentially worked it so they displaced Plum to put in something that doesn’t offer anything additional to the community,” Benson said.
Benson said Plum Market felt embedded in the Old Town community as a family-owned business, and its closure will remove some of the area’s charm and character.
“We’re really concerned about this constant turnover of a kind of a neighborhood feel into this commercial environment with big businesses,” Benson said. “I know Dom’s purports to be small, but it’s essentially the next generation of Mariano’s and Dominick’s. It’s unfortunate.”
Gwyn Friend, a Plum Market shopper for five years, said she was “extremely disappointed” to hear about Plum’s impending closure, but she was most concerned for the store’s staff.
Plum Market employs more than 120 people who will lose their jobs when the store closes, Matt Jonna wrote in his letter to customers.
Additionally, staffers didn’t learn about Plum’s closing until after news of Dom’s replacing the grocery store broke in the Chicago Tribune, Bohlen said.
“It was an utter surprise and it came out of the blue,” Bohlen said. “No one knew.”
Lori Hill, who started shopping at Plum Market when Old Town’s Treasure Island grocery store closed in 2018, said she was “reserving judgment” on Dom’s Kitchen & Market until more details on the leasing agreement come out.
But Hill said she’s saddened to see yet another independent grocery store leaving the neighborhood.
“I liked Plum because it has specialty items, a very unique wine department and cheese department, and they have employees who are dedicated to those areas and very knowledgeable,” Hill said. “I’m just upset my little grocery store is leaving, and it’s sad that these grocery stores within walking distance keep moving out of our neighborhood.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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