A woman buys groceries at The Commissary on Oct. 23, 2023. Credit: Melody Mercado/ Block Club Chicago

GOLD COAST — Tucked away in the lobby of a residential high-rise at 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive is a locally owned grocery store. Fitting the definition of a “hidden gem,” Commissary Market has about four aisles of snacks, organic produce, a deli counter, pantry staples, wine and liquor — dubbing itself the “the little store with a big store inside.”

But after 45 years of serving the community, Commissary Market is closing Saturday after failed lease negotiations and despite fierce pushback from neighbors and loyal customers.

George Bockwinkel took over ownership of the store from his brother, who owns and operates three Bockwinkel’s grocery stores in Chicago. Bockwinkel managed Commissary Market with his mother, building up a customer base together in the Gold Coast. Now, he manages the shop with Warren Smith, who’s been with Commissary Market for 34 years.

Bockwinkel told Block Club Chicago he hit a major bump in the road when it came time to renew his 10-year lease with property owners Draper & Kramer, Incorporated.

George Bockwinkel stands next to a portrait of himself in Commissary Market on Oct. 23, 2023. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

Draper & Kramer operates numerous multifamily and commercial buildings in Chicago and in other states. In 2017, the company bought the building at 1350 N. Lake Shore Dr., making the upcoming lease renewal the first between Commissary Market and the real estate company.

According to documents obtained by Block Club Chicago, the proposed lease has been amended several times, but ultimately Bockwinkel said the terms were still full of “trapdoors.”

Some of those “trapdoors” include the option for Draper and Kramer to terminate the lease at any time after Oct. 31, 2026, in the event the company “elected to redevelop the lobby of the Building and is requesting all other tenants to terminate their respective leases.” It would also allow Draper and Kramer to show the space to prospective new tenants after terminating the lease and while Commissary Market was still in operation.

This was a red flag for Bockwinkel, who saw this as a way to eventually “get rid of” Commissary Market.

“They tried to force me to sign it and I’m like, I’m not signing it … that was Oct. 1,” Bockwinkel said. “Even though we’re a very busy place and profitable and we pay them really good rent, they just want to propose [a lease] that I can’t sign.”

In a statement, Draper and Kramer said they believed their terms were standard and instead turned the blame on Bockwinkel, saying he failed to respond to the company after multiple follow-up attempts.

An ice box decorated as the Tardis from Doctor Who at Commissary Market. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

“The Commissary has been a valued part of the building for the past 40-plus years, and we are sorry the proprietor has chosen to vacate. … The terms we offered were fair and in keeping with industry standards for a renewal, and were in no way intended to discourage him from remaining at the property,” the statement said.

“As of mid-September, we believed we had reached an agreement for a long-term renewal but, subsequently, received no response to multiple follow-up communications. While no lease has been executed, we remain willing to continue the conversation in hopes of resolving the matter fairly and amicably,” the statement continued.

Bockwinkel said the statement is false, saying the lease was “dictated” to him with no room for his own input.

“They said it was non-negotiable. So that’s where we left it,” Bockwinkel said.

Customers Jump Into Action

The news of the preemptive closure hit residents hard. Several sprung into action, organizing an email campaign directed at executives with Draper and Kramer. Flyers were posted all around the store urging customers to join the cause.

Mary Bleakley, who’s been frequenting the store since 1992, shared photos of the flyer with all of her friends and neighbors. She lives around the corner from the store and goes several times a week.

“I distributed it to my neighbors in my building and everybody was like, ‘What?!’ so everybody started emailing. Not that it’s done any good,” Bleakley said.

Neither she or her neighbors received a response despite sending numerous emails, Bleakley said.

Warren Smith (right) and loyal customer Luke Goodroad (left) at Commissary Market on Oct. 23, 2023. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

“You think they’d want to be a good neighbor in the neighborhood? But they’re just big, arrogant money-grubbing real estate people. That’s how they’re coming off,” Bleakley said.

Abby Samuelson has been living at 1350 N. Lake Shore Dr. since February and also sprang into action when she heard of the possible closure. The 26-year-old put together a resident survey online and posted a link to it in the store.

Over 300 people participated; most were residents at 1350 or buildings nearby. A majority of residents who responded to the survey said if Commissary Market was booted, they would be less likely to renew their leases.

Survey takers also shared how much the shop meant to them and also expressed how convenient the location was to them, as opposed to walking to the nearby Jewel-Osco, which was over a half mile away.

“I was taken aback by how many people filled out the survey solely due to it only being out there for a few days. But at the same time, I’m not surprised because this community really is very upset over this,” Samuelson said.

Not Neighbors’ First Fight With Draper And Kramer

For long-time residents like Bleakley, Draper and Kramer have a history of not being “neighborly.”

In the ’90s, Gold Coast residents banded together to fight off plans by Draper and Kramer to build a 40-story condominium tower at 61 E. Banks St., across the street from Commissary Market.

The entrance to Commissary Market at 1350 N. Lake Shore Dr. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

Residents armed with money and connections retained lawyers and experts in architects, engineers and urban planners to argue against the increased density. The alderman at the time also introduced an ordinance, which was passed by City Council, to downsize the zoning of the location. This set off a legal storm.

What became known as the “Gold Coast turf Battle” lasted more than 10 years, making it all the way up to the Supreme Court of Illinois in 2006. Ultimately, the courts sided with the city and the residents — successfully blocking the 40-story development.

‘It’s An Emotional Moment For Everybody’

Saturday will be the last day for Commissary Market. For Smith, who’s been at the store for 35 years, it’s hard to contemplate that it’s over.

The store, decorated with hand-painted canvasses of produce and products by a former local artist, has served not just residents but even some famous Chicagoans like former Bulls player Scottie Pippen and former Bears running back Gale Sayers, Smith said.The store was even used in a short film from The Second City.

“It’s an emotional moment for everybody. Not just us, you know, the whole neighborhood. There’s a lot to be said,” Smith said.

The staff at Commissary Market has been regarded like family for a lot of customers who say that relationship can’t be duplicated.

“The interaction with the staff and everything … we love them like family, so that’s gonna be really sad not to have,” said nearby resident Joslyn Goodroad.

Freshly made sandwiches at the deli counter at The Commissary. Credit: Melody Mercado/ Block Club Chicago

Goodroad and her husband have lived in the neighborhood for five years and frequent Commissary Market for almost everything. It’s especially convenient for them when they need something quick to eat or if they run out of special ingredients.

“If I run out of time for breakfast, it’s right here. They’ve been a part of most of our Thanksgivings and Christmases that we’ve had with the food that we’ve prepared. So it’s been really, really critical for us,” said Luke Goodroad.

Samuelson visits the store several times a day, wandering down when she needs a midday snack or to pick up one of the fresh deli sandwiches made behind the counter by long-time employee Maria Andersen.

“Maria makes the best sandwiches under the sun … my boyfriend and I go down at least four times a week for her handmade sandwiches,” Samuelson said.

Bleakley is also a deli sandwich regular, coming in expecially for Andersen’s roast beef. But most of all, the staff at Commissary Market looks out for the neighbors, she said.

George Bockwinkel (left) and Warren Smith (right) have worked together at Commissary Market for over 35 years. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

“The neighbors love George, Warren and Maria. You know, if you’re sick or had surgery or something, you call over here and they send it over. I mean, they’ve been not just here for business. They’re friends,” Bleakley said.

The outpouring of support has been greatly appreciated by Bockwinkel and Smith, who said they will miss the neighborhood and their customers.

“They made me feel like I’m important and cared for, like we’re the neighborhood heroes,” Smith said.

Bockwinkel isn’t planning on opening another space, saying he’s looked and unfortunately could not find anything affordable. But he’s urging customers and nearby residents to stop by the store Saturday for a closing party.

“We appreciate all the loyal customers and all the nice times and the camaraderie that we’ve had over the last 45 years,” Bockwinkel said.

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