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Independent Cermak relies on Chicago produce distributors

Cermak Produce Inc. is a family business that has grown over the last 30 years from owning and operating one Chicago area retail grocery store to a dozen. Mike Bousis, the company’s owner, said that the produce-oriented retailer does all of its produce buying through Chicago distributors.

Cermak, which is headquartered in Chicago, buys around 50-60 trailerloads of produce a week from the Chicago International Produce Market, or other local distributors, Mr. Bousis told The Produce News in a mid-May telephone interview.

“The market is our warehouse. We buy fresh produce from everybody on the street. We cut and try everything we buy. We value the merchandise in the box. And we try to hit on certain price points on every item we buy. We try not to cross price lines that customers will be shocked with. At the same time, we try to buy the best merchandise available at the time. We try to be the best we can,” Mr. Bousis said. “All of our produce comes out of market. We support the street and they support us. We … have our trucks and drivers. We pick up stuff and distribute to our own stores.”

Fresh produce amounts to 26-30 percent of Cermak’s total sales.

Mr. Bousis, who is one of the firm’s three produce buyers, said that as Cermak grew, it “started pre-booking stuff off the street [rather than] direct. That way, we get to see the quality when we buy. When you buy direct you’re stuck with what you have.”

Working with produce wholesalers leaves the door open to “rejecting it if it is not sweet enough or the quality isn’t there. We use the street to buy and that we way we control the quality we put in our stores,” he said.

This June, Cermak’s 12th store will open in Milwaukee. It is the first Wisconsin store for the firm, which has expanded broadly in metropolitan Chicago over the last three decades. The first store was 1,800 square feet. Now the largest Cermak is 90,000 square feet.

“We have plans to keep expanding. We would not do that if we were not successful,” Mr. Bousis said.

Cermak competes with Chicago’s large chains, Mr. Bousis said. “We work harder at it and, with the chains, it makes us different. We get into the neighborhoods we are in and … we carry a vast variety of perishable fresh fruits and vegetables that set us apart.”

The grocer carries not only regular staple items “but everything in between.” Furthermore, “We can react on a moment’s notice. If we catch a deal on something and want to take advantage, we can change the price on a phone call. We don’t have to go through the bureaucracy you go through with a chainstore.”

Thus, he said, the business “is a lot of fun. We enjoy it. I am a firm believer that you’ve got to enjoy what do. If do enjoy it, you will be successful.”