Since opening in July 1977 with one 3,000-square-foot store, family-owned and -operated Valli Produce has expanded to six stores that serve Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods and communities. Valli Produce now has stores in Arlington Heights, Loves Park, Rockford, Hoffman Estates, Glendale Heights, Illinois, and a new location in Evanston, Illinois.
The stores are international markets, offering a wide selection of unique imported items from around the world — everything from specialty olive oils and 300 varieties of pasta, Indian spices and seasonings, exotic fruits and vegetables and much more. Valli Produce offers products from Italy and Greece, India, Spain, the Middle East, Latin America and the world over. Each store has a much larger selection of these ethnic items than conventional or chain stores.
Unique grocery finds in Chicago
While variety certainly makes Valli Produce unique, the company’s family history and generations of ownership also tell an interesting story. The business is named after the founding family, who came to the U.S. from a small farm town named Valli in Calabria, Italy.
Alfredo Presta left the small farming town looking for opportunity and he landed several jobs in America, but always wanted to work in retail produce. In 1977, he opened his first small produce shop in Chicago with his nephew, Guido.
With a desire to scale up the business, Alfredo partnered with his two nephews, Lou Tenuta and Frank Chilelli, to open the first Valli Produce in 1989. “Over the years, we’ve acquired new stores, each averaging from 32,000 to 100,000 square feet or so. Our customers know us for our high-quality produce, deli and fresh meats. We are immigrants so we cater to the immigrant communities here in Chicago, and we offer them a clean environment with lower pricing on unique items that they can’t find elsewhere,” says Lou.
“We respond actively to our customer requests. We import a lot of Italian, Indian, Bulgarian and Polish products now because our customers asked us to do so. It’s just good business sense to respond quickly and positively to our customers,” adds Lou.
Adding a location in Evanston
Over the years, Valli Produce has progressively taken on more employees (the company is now at 700 team members) and larger locations, while still keeping the small family feel. In July 2015, Valli Produce launched its latest location in Evanston, Illinois. Not only did Valli Produce acquire the store facility, the company bought the entire plaza location. “We purchased the full strip mall in Evanston,” says Lou. “We like to own our real estate, we avoid leasing or renting.”
Valli Produce expanded to Evanston to continue to do what it does best — make a positive impact on the community by adding 150 jobs and greater food selection with a family atmosphere. “We felt it was important to purchase the shopping center to improve the overall shopping experience. The retail offerings at this plaza have been stagnant for several years so we’re working on revitalizing its potential,” says Frank Greco, a member of Valli’s family ownership.
Also unique to Valli Produce’s model is in-store warehousing and bulk storage. “When we build a store, we don’t do it like a chain store,” says Lou. “We build a back room area that can handle large volumes and we buy by the truckload and have deliveries split between stores to avoid operational and warehousing costs that can get very pricy. This also means we carry a lot more inventory than a conventional grocery store inside the store.”
Fine-tuning the product offering, adding more organics
Valli Produce is always looking to expand its offerings and cater products to the demographics of each neighborhood it serves. “We’ve definitely seen a shift toward more natural, organic products,” says Lou. “We have a lot of customers asking for organic items, especially in produce, meat and dairy; people also want cage-free and free-range products. The market is changing.”
Valli Produce is adding these items to its traditional staples and imported sections of the store as well. “We brought in a line of organic pasta from Italy,” says Lou. “As with any item, finding the right product is a balance of what the customer wants and something that still allows us to be competitive.”
So far Valli Produce’s biggest challenge in expansion is finding enough help to man six locations and back-end operations. “It’s getting harder to find good quality help in a tight market,” says Lou. “A lot of young people are going to college and they don’t necessarily want to get their hands dirty, so it makes it tough.”
Even amid some challenges, Valli Produce continues to find great success and more importantly, satisfaction in business in its mission to serve Chicago’s communities. “My definition of success is being happy in what you do; if you’re not happy and feel strongly about what you do, you will never be successful,” says Lou.
After 39 years, Valli Produce is growing and serving more Chicago customers with a family-like approach to service and a memorable shopping experience.