January 18, 2008

Treasure Island to come to Hyde Park

Chicago-based grocer Treasure Island Foods will replace the terminal Hyde Park Co-op Market and plans to occupy the 55th Street location at full operations by the end of February, announced University administrators earlier this week.

The Co-op, originally scheduled to close on January 28, will officially shut down Sunday due to dwindling supplies. In preceding weeks, the University had narrowed its choice of replacements to Treasure Island and Dominick’s.

“We visited many stores of both chains, and we had full presentations from both—by no means was this a slam dunk,” said Hank Webber, vice president of community and government affairs. “What it came down to was that we believed that Treasure Island was the best combination of a general grocer and a specialty fit that can adapt to the neighborhood. They’re very good at tailoring their stores to different locations.”

Treasure Island, called “the most European supermarket in America” by chef Julia Child, made its name throughout the Chicago area by supplying a mix of imported and domestic goods.

“This is a location we have wanted to be in for 30 years,” said Treasure Island co-owner Maria Kamberos. “The location fits perfectly with Treasure Island’s ideal demographic.”

“Treasure Island recognizes that [the] 55th Street location was profitable,” said Jim Poeuymirou, president of the Co-op Board. “They know this is a location that will survive, and they can bring the best quality groceries to the community as well as better service.”

Kamberos said that Treasure Island will renovate the layout and structure of the space formerly leased by the Co-op.

“We’re going to revamp the whole upstairs,” Kamberos said. “There will be a new deli [and] new departments, equipment will be replaced, the floors will be redone, everything will be state of the art.”

During the interim following the Co-op’s close, Kamberos said that Treasure Island will continue the Co-op’s shut-in service, delivering groceries to customers who are unable to reach the supermarket.

“One of the reasons the University was so interested in us was our community relations. We are really community-minded,” she said. Treasure Island plans on holding cooking classes and will reserve a room for community meetings, she added.

University officials denied suggestions that Treasure Island was selected as a concession to Certified Foods, the supplier which provided the Co-op with a majority of its goods and owned the long-term lease to the shuttered 47th Street Co-op location. Certified, which also supplies Treasure Island, agreed to a $1-million buyout of the lease (the Co-Op was to pay $1-million annually until 2023) as part of the University’s proposal to close the Co-op. Dominick’s is supplied by Safeway.

“The fact that Certified supplies Treasure Island did not play a significant role,” Webber said. “It certainly came up, but was not a major factor.... It had no role in the negotiations for the agreement with the Co-op, and it could easily have turned out that we announced that we went with Dominick’s.”

Webber also said that even though the Co-op and Treasure Island shared a supplier, shoppers could expect a noticeable improvement in the quality of food.

“Our experience in reviewing and visiting other stores was to find that Certified was a wonderful supplier, and as a percentage, they provide far less of the food at Treasure Island [than they did at the Co-op],” Webber said.

Treasure Island began conducting interviews with former Co-op employees on Thursday in an effort to rehire workers who will become unemployed after the Co-op’s closure.

“The thing is, we need these people,” Kamberos said. “We’re going to hire as many as we can.”

Poeuymirou emphasized that throughout the Co-op’s rocky last days, the employees have worked valiantly. “I commend the employees for their dedication and service,” Poeuymirou said. “The organization failed them.”

The University’s selection of Treasure Island to replace the Co-op caps an emotional and at times bitter debate about the future of the Co-op, a 75-year old Hyde Park institution which announced that it was financially insolvent at the end of last year.

While some residents argued that the Co-op could be revived under a declaration of bankruptcy, a decisive vote by the Co-op’s board and a shareholder referendum put the troubled supermarket to rest. The board instead opted for the University’s proposal to assume the Co-op’s debts and select a new grocer for the space.

“The University vetted a lot of candidates for the spot to be the best grocer for Hyde Park, one that would be able to go beyond what a generic grocer could provide,” Poeuymirou said. “And now the table is set for Treasure Island to be a benefit to the community and for the community to reap the rewards of the grocer.”

Customers swooped up products whose prices were cut between 20 and 40 percent throughout the week, with sentiments mixed between nostalgia for the dissolving Co-op and anticipation for the new grocer.

“I think it will be a welcome change,” said Sheri Henderson, who frequents Treasure Island outlets on Chicago’s North Side.

“I’m really excited,” said third-year Steven Isbell. “I will be dancing on this building’s ashes. It was so overpriced. I’m only here now because the alcohol’s 40 percent off.”

At 11 p.m. on Sunday, the Co-op’s doors will close for good. A New Orleans–style jazz funeral will be held to commemorate the end of the Co-op on Sunday at 3 p.m., featuring jazz players and speakers who were instrumental in the Co-op’s history and development.

“This is an event that will celebrate the accomplishments of this grand institution and will extend a hand [to] various camps to come back together,” Poueymirou said. “There will be funny moments and poignant moments.”