Sunday, June 02, 2002

Jungle Jim's becoming a city

Cafe, specialty shops, hotel planned at Fairfield store

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FAIRFIELD — Central Florida can have its Disney World. This Butler County city soon will get a “Food World,” an amusement park built around grocery shopping and eating. That's what Jim Bonaminio calls his plan for a massive, $8 million expansion of Jungle Jim's International Farmers Market, which began humbly four decades ago as a fresh produce stand on the street corners of Hamilton.

        In the next two years, Mr. Bonaminio plans retail and specialty shops, two restaurants, a cafe, more shopping space in his store, a hotel and possibly an anchor store.

        A bar and events hall also will rise on the site, and a monorail system with trams that used to roll at Kings Island's safari ride will ferry shoppers around the 58-acre site. Already, steel is being delivered and holes dug.

  At Jungle Jim's, you can find:
  • Frozen large rattlesnake: $87.16 (whole snake).
  • Ostrich eggs: $9 each.
  • Sheep head: $12.10 apiece.
  • Pigs feet: $1.19 a pound.
  • Octopus salad: $9.99 a pound.
  • Gurkha Vintage Select $35 apiece or $1,000 a box.
  • Male vitality tea: $3.99 a box.
  • Canned buffalo elk in au jus: $4.99 a can.
  • Durian, a Thailand fruit: $6.99 apiece.
  • Live crawfish: $5.99 a bag.
        The place with the colorful owner, wacky commercials and bizarre offerings that range from a whole rattlesnake to canned elk in au jus already is a Tristate icon. And as the region becomes more diverse, it's a United Nations of grocery shopping, where people from Guatemala, Japan, India, France and many other countries mingle in search of their hard-to-find comfort foods from home.

        A native of Guam comes here from Mount Healthy each week, he says, not only for his favorite dishes, but also because it's a place “where I always feel welcome and at home.”

        “If we shop together, we live together in peace and understanding of each other's cultures and ways,” said Jackson Sarino, looking over the red snapper, one of at least 50 varieties of fresh fish on ice that day.

        The project will unfold off Ohio 4 north of Gilmore Avenue. An expanded international food section, where shoppers will browse near a giant Sherwood Forest tree stump, is expected to open first, in about three months.

        There also will be more parking, larger aisles, more and better demonstrations. Conventional groceries will be conveniently placed in the front of the store for shoppers who just want to dash in and out.

        Mr. Bonaminio hopes to attract other retailers to his site. He said Starbucks has indicated some interest.

        “I want to see if I can create Food World. Before this expansion, I viewed Jungle Jim's as a really nice golf course with no clubhouse,” said Mr. Bonaminio, 52, who is known to his customers as “Jungle.” “You just get in your car (after playing) and go home.

        “We have a 200,000-square-foot store, and you can't even get a cup of coffee and a sandwich. There's nowhere to sit down. But this expansion will give shoppers a reason to call Jungle Jim's home.”

        Plenty already do. About 25,000 individual sales are registered each week. Hundreds of visitors annually fly in from as far away as Japan to tour the store and its cooking school.

        Last year, the National Association for the Specialty Foods Trade, a 50-year-old trade group, named Jungle Jim's one of the 10 best specialty food stores in the country.

        The powerhouse store has put Fairfield on the map. Jungle Jim's is the No. 1 destination into Butler County on Ohio 4, which carries about 40,000 cars a day, according to a 1999 city marketing study.

        Mr. Bonaminio estimates the store rakes in $70 million to $80 million each year in sales. It generates $6 million a year in gross payroll taxes and pumps about $90,000 annually into city coffers, city records show. It is the seventh-largest employer in Fairfield with 350 workers, and Mr. Bonaminio donates to more than 200 youth sports teams each year.

        “Jungle Jim's is a most integral part of the development and growth in the city of Fairfield,” Mayor Erick Cook said. “It has promoted Fairfield — and not only put it on the map in Cincinnati but also on a national and international basis. He has such a unique store that, when the new vision is complete, we think it will enhance our entire city.”

        The store's new vision is scaled up from the original concept. Jungle Jim's — bigger than the average Super Wal-Mart — always has been a place where grocery shopping can be an eccentric adventure. At least 30 kinds of fresh fish and exotic fruits and vegetables are available daily. Shoppers can select from 875 varieties of hot sauce such as “Yeow” and even snap up those hard-to-find items like four duck heads for $1.01.

        “It's unbelievable. They have the unusual and the weird,” marveled Julie O'Brien of Independence, as she recently wandered through the store for the first time. “The meat department alone is very entertaining.”

        People from all over the world can shop under the strains of oldies blasting out of overhead speakers in some areas and music native to their lands in other sections of the store.

        “We can't find this in Lawrenceburg, Indiana,” Jessica Patel, a native of India, said as she filled her cart with fresh okra and hot peppers.

        Japan natives Bela Smith and her mother, Shizuko, of Colerain Township, have trekked to Jungle Jim's every week for 15 years.

        “Before this opened, we used to drive to Dayton once a month to the Japanese stores there,” Ms. Smith said as she plucked a jar of sweet pickled ginger off a shelf. “We would buy three months of food, but everything is so much cheaper here and it's closer. It really is a lifesaver.”

        Some foreigners who frequent the store say they enjoy open acceptance there among other shoppers that doesn't come so easily in other settings

        “Food is one way we find a common bond,” Sarah Baumann, one of 22 managers, said. “It brings us together. What is a staple food to one person is an exotic food to another person, but we all eat.”

        Though Mr. Bonaminio searched for another 10-acre site for his store early last year, flirting with relocating to Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky, he says he will stay in Fairfield for now and insists there are no plans for a second store.

        That's not part of “the game,” he said.

        The game is what drives him, the challenge of bringing food lovers from all over the world to Fairfield, Butler County.

        “I just want to see if I can pull it all off,” he says of the expansion. “If I was smart, I'd look for another location, get closer to (Interstate) 275. But I'm going to stay here. ... If I can't make a go of it here, I'll look for another site. But ... .”


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