There are more grocery shopping options than ever in Milwaukee, from large chains to corner mom-and-pop bodegas, so when Cermak Fresh Market opened in July, it was fair to question what, if anything, this Chicago-based chain could bring to the already-flourishing local grocery scene.
Cermak, attached to a Target that expanded its food department a year ago, is located at 1541 N. Miller Park Way. This is the first Cermak in Wisconsin, but there are eight more in the Chicago area. Mike Bousis, who owns the chain, opened the first store in 1978 in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood as primarily a fruits and vegetables market.
Originally, Cermak catered to the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities, but as time went on, and more locations opened in neighborhoods populated with other ethnic groups, it expanded its offerings.
Consequently, the 60,000-square-foot West Milwaukee store feels like multiple ethnic grocery stores – Mexican, Indian, Asian, Italian, German, Middle Eastern and Polish – all under one roof, leaving some to wonder if single-ethnicity grocery stores like El Rey or Pacific Produce will suffer with so many options at Cermak.
A full selection of American foods is available, too, along with a sit-down deli, cafe, bakery, liquor department and ready-to-eat hot food items that are mostly Mexican. Details like fresh tortillas made hourly and within view of the customers, a high-end meat department featuring Angus beef, an extensive cheese department with an olive bar, a wine area and a build-your-own-six-pack section featuring micro beer from Milwaukee Brewing Company, Lakefront Brewery, Horny Goat, Central Waters and more offer a bit of Sendik's or Metro Market to Cermak's mix.
"Any place with five or more different kinds of feta is OK with me," says Jill Albers, who recently shopped at Cermak for the first time.
The produce department is perhaps Cermak's biggest asset. It's at least three times larger than most produce departments and offers attractive-looking fruits and vegetables from apples and oranges to lychees, jicama, coconuts, bittermelons, Chinese okra, aloe leaf, bok choy, opol, multiple types of mangos and more. The best deals appeared to be 10 limes for $1 and 49-cent avocados.
But not all of the prices are stellar, some items like cereal and macaroni-and-cheese are definitely higher than at competing stores. But store manager Joe Murano says customers have to look at the shopping experience overall, and that the dollars saved on meat will far outweigh the coins that might be saved on a package of noodles at another store.
"You have to look at your savings here as a whole," says Murano, who started out working for Cermak in the deli. "We try our best, but there are some items we can't compete with other stores, and there are so many items here nobody else can touch in price."
Realistically, many customers who have the time and patience will most likely add Cermak to their list of grocery stores they frequent rather than do all of their shopping there. Especially considering some of the "everyday items" are a tad more expensive and the natural and organic food offerings pale in comparison to Outpost Natural Foods or Whole Foods.
The cleanliness of the store is impressive. Of course, Cermak has only been open for a little over a month, but it's spotless. Plus, the floor design is easy to navigate, there is not a trace of unidentifiable smells that sometimes scare off American shoppers from ethnic groceries stores and the music – a mix of '80s tunes during our recent visit – is slightly louder than at other grocery stores, creating a lively vibe.
Murano knows that keeping the store in top condition is key to long-term success. He hopes word-of-mouth and media exposure will help customers understand the concept of the store, particularly that it is more than a Latin grocery store. He also thinks the overall savings, the eclectic offerings, large number of staff and the commitment to cleanliness will make Wisconsin's first Cermak a success.
"Every time you come in here it will look like a brand new store," says Murano. "You really don't need to go anywhere else."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.