Mitchell’s Food, where everybody knows your name
BY DENISE M. BARAN-UNLAND For Sun-Times Media
Jerry Mitchell, co-owner of Mitchell’s Food Market, cuts beef at the Joliet store. The store and the family have a history together, going back more than half a century, weathering wars, recessions and some good times too. | CAROL DORSETT ~ FOR SUN-TIM
In 1950, back in the days when neighborhood grocery stores were neighborhood fixtures, Alfred Mitchell Jr. opened Mitchell’s Food Mart on the corner of Curtis and Raynor Avenues in Joliet and, with wife Norma, raised his four children in its upstairs apartment.
More than 60 years later, the legacy that Alfred left to his descendants is a business soaring in a struggling economy. To be sure, sales for porterhouse steaks have dipped, but those for ground chuck is up. It’s the store’s “signature” meat, freshly ground three times daily.
“It’s a blessing to have this neighborhood store continue so long,” said Lola Mitchell of New Lenox, wife of a former co-owner, the late Harley Mitchell.
Mitchell’s moved to its present location at 1300 N. Raynor Ave. in the late 1950s. Shortly afterward, Mitch’s much younger brother Harley, who had worked at Mitchell’s for many years starting in the 7th grade, returned to the shop after his east side store had burned down. In the early 1970s, Harley became an official partner. Harley’s sons, Jerry and Jim, now manage Mitchell’s.
They attribute several factors to Mitchell’s continued success: fresh, high quality meat; a wider assortment of groceries than one might expect in a small store; five generations of satisfied customers, most of whom no longer live in the neighborhood; and strong ties to family and community.
Lois Bucciferro of Joliet, who has a 54-year shopping history with Mitchells, never had reservations about sending any of her six children two blocks away with money and a grocery list.
“I had all the faith in the world in that little store because it had such wonderful people,” Bucciferro said.
Children, siblings, cousins and their friends can list Mitchell’s Food Mart on their resume.
“All my kids worked here through college,” Jim said. “And I have one still here, working full time.”
Four decades ago while in high school and college, Bruce Midlock of Joliet stocked shelves, cut meat and unloaded trucks. Midlock still shops at Mitchell’s.
“I get service there I can’t get anywhere else,” he said.
Jerry, by age 12, was stocking milk and pop and carrying customer’s groceries to their cars. A 50-cent tip was good; a dollar was even better. One longtime customer still tips Jerry a quarter.
“It taught the kids a nice work ethic,” Lola said.
Staff and customers alike greet each other by name, part of the store’s charm. Some share their news and interests, among them 40-year customer and former local baseball player Ben Tekel of Joliet. He enjoys sharing the latest news on the White Sox with the Cub fans behind the meat counter.
Doris Kats of Joliet, whose children and grandchildren also shop at Mitchell’s, agreed with Tekel.
“It’s part of the fun to go in and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ ”
Although the store no longer offers home-baked bread — which Norma provided in Mitchell’s early days — Mitchell’s still carries two soaps many large chains have since abandoned: Fels-Naptha and Cashmere Bouquet.
One out-of-town customer buys canned apricot halves by the case, an item which usually flies off Michell’s shelves. A tattoo artist purchases pigs ears from Mitchell’s to practice his craft. Mitchell’s is also carrying on the Faletti sausage legacy, another Joliet food tradition.
“He measures it at home and his daughter brings in the mixtures and the seasonings,” Jerry said. “We still don’t know what’s in it.”
Jim added, “But we stuff it right here in the store.”
During the holidays, Mitchell’s adds Swedish specialties, such as potato sausage and limpa bread, to its regular stock. Crowds of customers clamoring for extra cuts are commonplace.
“At Christmastime, customers were lined up around the corner,” Jerry said. “While they’re waiting, they’re talking to old friends and saying things like, ‘Hey, how have you been? I haven’t seen you in awhile.’ ”
Customers relate how, when necessity requires a meat purchase from another store, their family will complain because it’s not from Mitchell’s.
“That makes us feel good,” Jim said.
Of course, time marches on, even for Mitchell’s. Meat preparation no longer includes breaking down hind quarters; cuts now come in boxes, but that’s not necessarily bad. This makes it easier to cater to every client’s request and unusable trimmings and waste are vastly reduced..
“Years ago, if you wanted steak on sale, you’d have to buy the entire hind quarter,” Jerry said. “Now you can order whatever part someone wants.”
A commitment to personalized service and quality is why Vicki Schmitz of Joliet for the last 35 years has bought all of her meat at Mitchell’s, as did her mother before her. Schmitz now cooks for several Carmelite priests and serves them only meat from Mitchell’s.
“They have the best ground chuck,” Schmitz said, “and if you want something special, they will accommodate you.”
Sharon Blunt of Joliet, who purchases Mitchell’s ground chuck in bulk, especially appreciates Mitchell’s precise packaging.
“They even mark what it is and how much is there,” Blunt said.
In addition, the butchers sometimes share their favorite cooking techniques and recipes, such as pulled pork, with the customers, who do some sharing of their own.
“The customers cook things and bring them in,” Lola said. “One woman is always making her banana bread.”
Carrying the Mitchell’s legacy was not a part of Jim and Jerry’s original career plans. Jim holds a commercial pilot’s license and Jerry is a carpenter. Both returned to Mitchell’s during job crunches and neither has any regrets.
“I’m glad it’s what I do,” Jim said. “I like making people happy.”