REAL ESTATE

The Great Centers of Ohio: Jungle Jim’s

BY Al Urbanski

Earlier this year, real estate editor Al Urbanski set off on Interstate 71 from Cincinnati to Columbus to Cleveland in search of the greatest retail centers the Buckeye State had to offer. This stop: East Cincinnati.

After visiting a mall in East Cincinnati, we happened upon the single most interesting retail story in the Buckeye State. On the side of a common commercial highway, in an otherwise plain-Jane strip center, sat a store with a theme park monorail train emerging over the entrance, a store called Jungle Jim’s. We hit the brakes.

Passing statues of gorillas, we entered this distinctive supermarket, asked for directions to the comfort station, and were pointed to porta-potties labeled “Men” and “Women.” Slightly appalled but greatly in need, we held our breath, pulled open the plastic door, and found ourselves in the poshest grocery store restroom in the Western World — ample stalls and sinks, stone and chrome fixtures, all spotless and gleaming.

From the parking lot, Jungle Jim’s appear to be a standard 50,000-sq.-ft. supermarket, but most of the store frontage was concealed by other retail tenants. What we thought would be a quick store check turned out to be an hour-long odyssey through 130,000 sq.-ft. of slightly mad, absolutely over-the-top retail experience.

Jungle Jim’s has a hot sauce department offering 1,400 varieties and topped by an actual U.S. Navy World War II fire truck. Animated bees fly around a big beehive over the honey display, the fish department has an actual fishing boat in it, and there’s a psychedelic Hippie van perched above the natural foods section. Jim’s has the largest wine and beer selection in Cincinnati, and folks who want to drop by and hang out can grab a beer at the bar (40 brews on tap), select a fine cigar from the walk-in humidor, and enjoy their drinks and smokes in the outdoor Paradise Pavilion. Store-wide, products are sourced from some 75 countries.

Founder Jim Bonaminio, simply called “Jungle” by his employees, started selling produce in street-side stands in the 70s and was so adept at attracting crowds that lot owners put stores up on his sites and he kept having to move. He now owns the center in which this store resides, and with Jungle Jim’s as a calling card, he’s upgraded the tenant roster with new food and beverage establishments, including the Eastgate Brew & View cinema. He filled one large box with a devotional center for Crossroads, a mega-church with 14 locations in Cincinnati.

We got a tour of the store from natural foods manager Thomas Hunter, who spent 13 years as a Walmart store manager. “At Walmart, nobody wanted to hear your ideas,” Hunter said. “But Jungle always wants to hear our new ideas for the store. He’ll test them and if they work, they get adopted.”

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