Sunday, May 30, 2021

Popping into Sunset Foods.


Ron Bernardi

     Ron Bernardi's four uncles, the Cortesi brothers, started Sunset Foods in Highland Park in 1937. He started bagging groceries there at age 16 in 1959, the year before I was born, and was still at it Friday morning when I stopped by the Northbrook Sunset to pick up some cranberry juice.
     Not that Bernardi, 77, hasn't risen above grocery bagging in the ensuing 62 years. He became not only the manager of the Northbrook store — there are five Sunsets in the Northwest suburbs, all still family-owned — but has been the chain's public face as community liaison, and is perhaps the most well-known, and certainly the most well-liked, person in Northbrook.
     He doesn't officially have a role in running the store, but is still there a lot, and certainly was playing a role Friday.
     Just seeing him is fun. We always pause to chat. A proud Italian, he introduced bocce ball to Northbrook Days, and my family enjoyed many a fierce match because of it. He wasn't around the store much during COVID, for obvious reasons. Or he might have been; we weren't there. After a few quasi-terrified forays into the store early in the epidemic, which had the feel of hurrying into an abandoned and leaking nuclear reactor to grab provisions and rush out, we took to having our groceries delivered to the trunk of our car like many others in the leafy suburban paradise.
     Just shopping in person again felt joyous, and to the cranberry juice I added Zayde cookies from Leonard's Bakery, a pint of blueberries (only $2.99) and a few containers of Arctic Zero ice cream-like substance. Seeing Ron there, bagging away, made the visit complete. I already knew why he was doing it — businesses of all sorts have been scrambling for help lately — but supposition is a fraught endeavor in my line of work, so I had to ask him. I could see he was reluctant to be yanked from the bagger's rhythm, but when he saw it was me behind my mask he paused to answer.
     "It's Memorial Day; don't want customers bagging their own groceries," he said, jumping the gun a bit. "It's called one-on-one leadership. We're a team."
     That's true. I've had more friendly, one-on-one interactions with management at Sunset than I have with all the other stores in Northbrook combined. We live in whatever the opposite of a food desert may be. A food oasis, I suppose. Besides Sunset, within 10 minutes of our house is a Jewel, a Mariano's, a Trader Joe's, a Whole Foods, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something. With apologies to Sunset, I admit I will visit those stores, under certain specific situations. If I happen to pass by for instance. I accompanied my son to get shoes at the DSW near the Trader Joe's, and suggested we stop in and grab a few jars of this tremendous dark fudge sauce they sell, nearing Margie's Candies quality. But the kid wasn't interested so we didn't. Mariano's has an extensive flower section, and I slid by there to grab a bouquet for my wife's birthday. Jewel sometimes has killer sales, or a certain item—say Bays Brioche English Muffins — that Sunset doesn't stock. And Whole Foods, well, I never go in for any reason, on shifting principles: originally because of its mendacious, these-products-were-coaxed-from-Mother-Earth-by-Pueblos pretensions, lately because Amazon gets enough of my dollar without me seeking them out.
     But Sunset is our go-to store. It's close. I love walking over, even though that limits what I can buy. I walked there Friday, though it was raining. It's friendly, and they understand that food is an essential to human existence, and the acquiring of it more than a mere economic transaction. Emotions are involved. The last time I was at Jewel, picking up those English muffins, I also grabbed some Peet's Coffee, on sale for $8.99 a bag instead of the usual $10.99. I double-checked the price on the shelf because sometimes they slap the sale price under any old bag and you don't find out until I'm in front of the cashier. Yup, Major Dickinson's blend. Two bucks off. I almost took a photo of the sign, to show the clerk after I failed to get the two bucks off, but didn't, and regretted it. Sure enough, the discount never appeared when she tallied my groceries up. When I pointed their error out, the clerk said, flatly, "Are you sure it's on sale?"
     I did not have the courage to say, "No, I just like having my ability to perceive numbers and my basic honesty questioned by a cashier." But instead I brightly told her I would gladly go check and snap the photo that I should have taken in the first place. But she mutteringly took the $2 off with the huffy air of someone indulging a fraud, even though I was the one almost cheated and then forced to point out their screw-up. That would never happen at Sunset. Not that a mistake could never happen; they're human. But when one does, they're sincere and apologetic and accommodating, because they're happy you're there, and so are you.


  1. Love these little snippets of suburban life.
    It's nice to know you can still shop places where you're not seen as merely a walking wallet, or subject to some forced corporate-policy niceties, or worse.

  2. I LOVE Sunset ! Claudia took me on our first grocery shopping trip as a married couple 27 years ago. I felt like I was being let in on this amazing semi secret parallel universe. I still kind of feel that way.

  3. A much-needed upper, Neil. Thanks.

  4. Love comparing grocery stores or reading about it.

  5. Here here to patronizing businesses that treat you well. Nice story. I felt that way about Harvestime on Lawrence when I lived near there.

  6. I remember my late uncle always bragging about shopping at Sunset, as though it only existed to serve the privileged. He “would never” shop anywhere else. I finally stopped in one day and found it quite enjoyable, though a bit more pricey than a Jewel-type supermarket.
    The courtesy and attentiveness is definitely notable.

  7. A lovely way to start my day, good cup of coffee and Neil.

  8. I realize people hate "Whole Paycheck," and I understand why. But there's a big one nearby that's our closest store, and we felt relatively comfortable going there during the pandemic, though only a couple times a month.

    While they're not "coaxed-from-Mother-Earth-by-Pueblos" (LOL), many of their store-brand products are a better value than name-brand healthy and organic fare at other stores. For whatever that's worth.

    If one is going to sell one's soul to the devil and be an Amazon Prime member, which we grudgingly have done after years of holding out, you can easily finance your annual membership fee from the extra savings you get on selected items at WF. For whatever THAT'S worth.

    As if I'm not gonna roast in Hell to begin with, chiming in to support Mr. Bezos' operation in a comment to a swell post about a family-owned gem like Sunset Foods ought to seal the deal, alas. I've been to Sunset in Highland Park a couple times when in the area, which I considered a pilgrimage akin to visiting the Bahai Temple in Wilmette, based on Neil's enthusiasm for SF. ; )

  9. With a quick look, I thought Rham Emanuel found employment in Northbrook!

    1. I had the same initial impression! Now that would been a story. I enjoyed this one, though.

  10. Trader Joes is more organic than Whole Foods by a mile. Not for the products, though they have them, but the philosophy puts the customer first. Try a new product and find it wanting? Don't bother to return the package, your word is sufficient. Like Sunset, they have items unique to TJ's, like the frozen chocolate croissants, delicious and fun for children. Prices are reasonable and the staff is wonderful. If I lived in a place with a Trader Joes in walking distance, I could survive without a car. I wouldn't miss the variety of the major grocers so much, but for the lack of cleaning products. Sunset seems to be between TJ's and Marianos, I've never lived close to one.

  11. Lovely <3 ... thank you for sharing! We love having walking distance to Sunset, and we love Ron as well.


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