On a visit to Chicago, walking around Bucktown, we stopped by the neighborhood store to buy some basics — and there it was — Olivia’s Market. A lovely epicurean shop, like a scene from a movie. A welcoming entrance with fresh flowers, wooden ceiling beams and columns, baker’s racks filled with delightful treats to please all your needs.
It opened my feelings of curiosity. I wanted to see what they have and what that have that I have never seen. It’s a well-kept community market. You can find the things you need throughout the week. You can buy fresh for the moment depending on what you need for cooking. It’s like a European shopping experience rather than one big trip to a supermarket with big grocery carts. It reminds me of buying ingredients in a small neighborhood market in Paris, where I would buy only exactly what I needed for dinner that night. The experience of it, the handling and care of the items, the cooking, it all feels completely different than when I buy in mass. I like to feel like I am taking little treasures home with me.
Esteban talked with the owner of Olivia’s Market, Bill Maheras.
Esteban: Your website talks about inspiration for Olivia’s Market coming from New York corner stores. How did that happen?
Bill: I’m from Chicago. I lived in New York, worked in finance. I took a job in San Francisco, but wasn’t enjoying myself in the job. I didn’t have my plans laid out, but I knew I wanted to get out of that business, so I moved back to Chicago and started looking for work, but my heart wasn’t in it.
My dad was an entrepreneur — he owned old-school diners and bars when I was growing up. I wanted to be self employed, too. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew that I wanted to be my own boss.
My wife and I moved in to this neighborhood and one of the ideas we thought of was opening a neighborhood market like you’d find in New York or San Francisco. At the time, there really wasn’t anything around like this. You didn’t have stores the size of 7-11 carrying the products you’d find at Whole Foods. People thought we were crazy.
Once the idea for Olivia’s came to me, it clicked. Although I had no idea how I was going to do it, I believed that this type of market or bodega could work in this city. It was many years of late nights not sleeping, thinking about how to do it. We knew we wanted to open something for the community. Just treat people well and go from there. I never had this vision to have 20 of these. It was more about building a place that stood the test of time.
Oliva’s was not just New York inspired, but it was also inspired by the idea of a European shopping experience where people would have this place to go to two, three, four, five plus times a week, to get just what they need and shop as they go.
E: What about the curation of the products? It really makes this store feel special.
B: The curation is what has made this place a success. It’s a lot of work. Since we opened our doors, we have always taken customer requests and kept filling things in as we went. It was driven by the community in a big way, but we also had a vision of what we thought it should be. The two blended together pretty well.
We knew we wanted to have something where you could get your everyday staples. You could get Cheerios, marshmallows, peanut butter, but also wanted to be a place where you could find healthier, trendier lifestyle items. Not everyone is only eating organic, not everyone is only eating local. I still believe we are going more and more that route, but we won’t let go of keeping everyday staples.
It makes for a lot more work for us but this whole thing of how we started, finding what the customer wanted because we wanted to make the community happy. We’re working with tons of large vendors, tons of direct small local farmers. We’ve gone more and more that direction. We’re only increasing it, which is not the most efficient way of running things, but it is what’s gotten us here.
This summer we are trying to get more and more local produce. We have local and organic produce, but its not enough. We need to have more local produce.
E: Is there anything that you carry that would be difficult to find somewhere else? Is there something that you had to have in your store?
B: When we opened we were the first ones to carry Tate’s Cookies from a small bakeshop in the Hamptons. Now you see them all over the place in Chicago. Hale and Hearty soup — fresh soup we get out of New York. No one else in the city has that.
E: The store feels like you have looked at every kind of a certain product and that these are the ones you believe in the most.
B: It’s about trying to make sure every section is as good as it can be. There is still a lot of work to do in that; it’s an always moving target. I am interested in the old school way of running a store — keeping the store clean, organized, keeping products in stock, having the best selection I can, treating each other well, treating the vendors well, treating the customers well.
E: That seems critical to you.
B: I try to keep it simple. It seems like you don’t see many business around for eight or nine years. The first question people ask is, “When are you opening another one?” It’s never enough to have just one. One thing that could be added someday is a kitchen, but at the same time, we have a model that works. As long as we keep doing the same thing, treating each other well, and the customers well, I think that it’s a formula that works.
E: It feels great to come here. It feels like it’s my personal gem, even though I know there are other people coming in that probably have that very same feeling. I enjoy the feeling of coming in and thinking this is my personal little village store.
B: That’s the ultimate goal.
E: One more thing you probably get asked all the time: Olivia’s. Is there an Olivia?
B: My oldest daughter, Olivia, was a newborn when we were planning the store. I was thinking of names, probably brainstormed one hundred plus names trying to come up with a catchy name. I just kept falling back to her — Olivia. I’ve since then had two kids: a son, Will, and a daughter, Maggie. They are fine with the name. I love the sound of Olivia’s Market.