CHICAGO — Sure, there are more than 170 Albertson’s/Supervalu grocery stores strewn throughout this city’s enormous metropolitan area. There are 142 Aldis, 80 Safeways, 23 Wal-Mart Supercenters and 14 SuperTargets.

Then look at the long list of other retailers documented in the latest Shelby Report.

There are three Woodman’s Food Markets, six Caputo’s New Farm, five Pete’s Markets, seven Tony’s Finer Foods, 10 Cermak Produce … the list goes on, and on, and on, perhaps longer than any other large metropolitan city in the U.S.

The highly diverse population here creates and sustains a strong marketplace for independent retail stores, and Chicago’s independent presence is as strong as any.

In fact, talk to fresh produce distributors down at the Chicago International Produce Market, and they’ll tell you most of their business comes from independent retailers.

“We have independents doing just fine,” said Mike Ruffolo, salesman for Michael J. Navilio & Son Inc. “They rely on the market more than the big boys like Jewel. To have consistent business, you lean on the independents.”

Because of the diversity of the Chicagoland area’s 9 million inhabitants, which includes a 26% Hispanic population and a 12% Italian, not only is there a much broader range of produce items on consumers’ radar, but there’s an entirely different work ethic at work.

“Among that diversity is a good work ethic to open up independents and serve their customer base,” said Dave Watson, president and chief operating officer of Strube Celery & Vegetable Co.

Customized service

Most distributors agree that what independent grocers do better than any chain is identify the clientele’s needs and desires and then do what they must to meet them.

“The chains have been here for years,” said Nick Gaglione, president of Dietz & Kolodenko Co. Inc. “But these independents, the moms and pops stores, are strong stores, offer a full line and stay competitive. They can control their stores and buy what their customers need.”

Small, but important

Mark Pappas, president of Coosemans Chicago Inc., said he learned quickly a few years ago that when it comes to this market anyway, it’s smart to pay attention to the independents.

“When I came up with Strube, I waited for a call from Safeway,” Pappas said. “But their presence here now is nil. They’ve been bought and sold so many times. Now, it’s a more diverse market. You can’t put all your eggs in one big basket. You’re not covering yourself for the future. You’ve got to take care of the little guys.”

Greg Mandolini, president of Mandolini Co., said, “We have a lot of independent stores and get a lot of support from them. We count on those guys who come in 52 weeks out of the year.”

Mandolini said he does substantial business from independents such as Pete’s Fresh, Cermak, Garden Fresh and Caputo’s, an Italian specialty store.

“We try to hang onto them by doing direct drops ourselves and by acting as our own broker sometimes,” Mandolini said.

The strong independent retail base is especially important to the sale of organic produce, said Bob Scaman, president and chief executive officer of Goodness Greeness, an all-organic distributor on Chicago’s south side.

Scaman said his company’s business is all retail. It rarely delves into the foodservice sector.

“The velocity is in retail,” he said. “A retailer may use 200 or 300 boxes a week, while a chef may use five. We’ve got to keep retail shelves stocked year-round, so we source all over the world like everyone else.”