On Sept. 25, when the long-awaited second location of the international market opens, customers will pour through the doors, stroll around the enormous selection of food products and take in the sights smells and sounds of the Jungle Jim’s.
While customers will surely be impressed with the second-ever Jungle Jim’s location, they would be more impressed to know the story behind what has become a Cincinnati institution.
Jungle Jim’s founder “Jungle” Jim Bonaminio has grown the company from a roadside market he operated throughout the Greater-Cincinnati area into two giant stores filled with products from all over the world.
Debby Hartinger, marketing coordinator for the company, said for “Jungle,” it all began when he decided to sell potatoes instead of the purses he had been selling on the side of the road.
From there, Bonaminio’s success, according to Hartinger and his son Jimmy Bonaminio, creative director for the company, came from his commitment to his customers and his attention to detail.
“All of the growth that has happened has been customer focused,” Jimmy Bonaminio said. “That’s really how the store came to be.
Jimmy Bonaminio said his father began operating roadside fruit stands that he moved to various locations throughout the city, setting up and collapsing the stands on street corners or in parking lots.
During that time, Jimmy Bonaminio and Hartinger said “Jungle” began to develop relationships with both customers and vendors who would continue to help him improve his company.
“People just kept asking Jungle ‘Why don’t you do this?’” Jimmy Bonaminio said.
Jimmy Bonaminio said it was customers who asked “Jungle” to carry a certain product, customers who encouraged him to expand his selection and customers who hoped he would open a permanent location.
Hartinger said “Jungle” also developed working relationships with people who supplied his products.
“With his personality he was able to get people to trust him and work with him,” Hartinger said.
She said he continued to build his relationships with different vendors who helped him obtain products that he wanted or customers requested.
Hartinger said the roadside market continued to be successful, and in 1974 “Jungle” opened a permanent location, with a roof, in Fairfield.
“It was huge,” Hartinger said. “He was open all year, the weather didn’t affect him.”
At the new location, “Jungle” was able to continue to build upon his vision of a family-friendly market.
Hartinger said he continued to expand the products in the market and was constantly adding on to and re-arranging the store.
By then, “Jungle” had also acquired his nickname because of his rugged, hard working, Jungle-like appearance, according to Hartinger.
The nickname stuck, and the bigger the store became, the more “Jungle’s” personality reflected in the store and eventually through his employees who became a part of the Jungle Jim’s family.
“He hires experts,” Jimmy Bonaminio said about employees at the market. “He looks for someone who has drive and determination. He gives them a lot of freedom.”
Jimmy Bonaminio explained that the different departments at Jungle Jim’s including produce, deli, international food, bakery and more, are really run individually.
“It’s like all these separate stores under a big store,” Jimmy Bonaminio said.
Jimmy Bonaminio said it is the managers’ responsibility to run their department. They find the products they want to carry and are responsible for getting them to the store.
If a customer is looking for a specific product, the manager of that department will know if the store carries it or be able to find out if they can get it.
“Jungle believes you should be able to find what you need in the store,” Jimmy Bonaminio said.
Today, the Fairfield market carries more that 180,000 items from more than 75 countries.
If a customer wants durian fruit from Thailand, hot sauce from a small mom and pop store, Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese from Kentucky or wine from a small New York winery, they will be able to find it at Jungle Jim’s.
Hartinger said for many people this may be a product that they had at home in another country, or a product they remember when they were a kid.
“Their faces light up when they find it,” Hartinger said.
Customers’ faces also light up when they walk in the store because of the unique atmosphere that Jungle Jim’s has become known for.
There are few food stands, shelves or decorations that are alike, and much of the decor is not often found in a grocery store but rather in an amusement park or a theater.
“It started out as survival,” Hartinger said about the non-traditional decorations in the store. “He would look for things because he couldn’t afford it.”
Hartinger and Jimmy Bonaminio said if “Jungle” needed a food stand, he would find a used one that didn’t cost as much or build one himself.
“He is constantly ‘junking,’” Jimmy Bonaminio said. “He gets calls from people trying to sell stuff.”
Despite the success of the market, “Jungle” continues to search for items he needs or builds them himself instead of ordering them new.
“That’s how it got this far,” Hartinger said.
The crazy atmosphere, along with the enormous selection, draws people into the store in droves, and Hartinger said as many as 80,000 people browse the store each day, some driving in from other cities and states.
“There was a time when it changed from a little quirky place,” Jimmy Bonaminio said. “There was definitely a shift where it became a destination.”
And with the popularity and success of the market, came the thoughts about opening a second one.
“This got to a point where he needed another challenge,” Hartinger said about “Jungle’s” decision to pursue a second location.
But the process wasn’t an easy one.
“It was 10 years of checking out and scoping,” Jimmy Bonaminio said. “Sometimes he would say ‘Forget it.’”
In 2010, “Jungle” found a location that suited his needs; the former biggs grocery store off Interstate 275 in Union Township.
With the help of Union Township Trustees, “Jungle” secured the store, along with much of the rest of the former Biggs Place shopping center.
“The township is great,” “Jungle” Jim said. “I like the location, I am off 275. A lot of my customers travel.”
After months of extensive renovation and construction to get the store in proper shape, “Jungle” then began the task of making the store his own.
Again, he had to search for or build the best displays, create a new, but similar atmosphere and organize everything from the flow of the store to employees for each department.
He said the process has been a lot harder than he expected.
“(It was) double the money and double the time,” “Jungle” Jim said.
But once he became involved, “Jungle” Jim committed to the task ahead.
“I love the challenge,” “Jungle” Jim said. “You’ve got to be against the wall. That place has me on the edge. Now you gotta make it happen.”
Jungle Jim’s Eastgate market is scheduled to open Sept. 25 and is located off Eastgate South Drive in Union Township.
For more information about Jungle Jim’s visit www.junglejims.com.