When John J. Cortesi opened a small grocery store on Central Avenue in Highland Park in 1937, he took orders over the phone, filled them and had them delivered by truck. That small grocery store grew into the modern-day Sunset Foods and despite its growth to five stores throughout the northern suburbs, it still remains focused on customer service.
“We still do it the old fashioned way,” said Ron Bernardi, the local chain’s community service representative and Cortesi’s nephew.
Fast forward 80 years: Though phone orders are still taken, apps on a cell phone have replaced the call for many. An employee still fills the order before it is placed on a truck and delivered, according to John E. Cortesi, the current president and CEO as well as the founder’s grandson.
“We started e-commerce five years ago,” said Cortesi. “People have busy lives today. They want to spend time with their families. Our goal has always been outstanding service and it still is.”
Bernardi said groceries are geared to arrive at the customer’s home within two hours of the time the order is placed. There is a “minor fee” when the phone app is used.
Sunset has grown from its original 25×30 storefront in the shadow of Highland Park’s Sunset Park, which gave the market its name, to a five-store chain. Along with Highland Park, there are stores in Lake Forest, Northbrook, Libertyville and Long Grove.
Innovation has always been part of Sunset’s mix, according to Cortesi. With farm to table popular with shoppers, he said the stores offer items such as produce from Meyer Farms in Wauconda, bratwurst from the Brat Stop in Kenosha, Wis., and honey from Allen’s Honey & Candles in Lake Bluff, a few miles from the Lake Forest store. (The honey is in the Lake Forest store only.)
“Small, startup companies come to us and we work with them,” said Cortesi.
For a lot of grocery stores, farm to table is relatively new but not for Sunset. Cortesi said they started selling sweet corn from Didier Farms in Lincolnshire in 1950.
“Hugo (Cortesi, John J. Cortesi’s brother) stopped by on his way to work and got the sweet corn,” said Bernardi. “It was especially sweet the same day it was picked.”
Cortesi said Sunset just started selling frozen pizza from Lou Malnati’s, the first grocery store to offer it. The company markets other local products like Highland Pop popcorn and Carol’s Cookies. This is not new to Sunset.
When Frank Gallo, the owner and operator of Francesco’s Hole in the Wall restaurant in Northbrook, wanted to get his sauces in grocery stores 20 years ago, he went to Sunset. Gallo said Sunset was the first store to offer his sauces and now he sells them in 28 states.
Two Sunset stores—Northbrook and Libertyville—now have a taproom. Lake Forest will open one in June or July. Cortesi said eventually the taproom will be featured in all the stores. It is more than a place for a customer to get a choice of eight to 10 craft beers, according to Cortesi. He said it is a grocerant, which is a combination of grocery store and restaurant.
There is seating for people to have a full meal, whether it is fried chicken, custom wraps or most anything Sunset also sells in its store. Cortesi said there is a full kitchen in the stores, allowing it to prepare meals as well as selections for the delicatessen.
“When you have 30,000 ingredients that you sell you can make anything,” said Cortesi.
If Sunset does not have what a customer wants, the staff will do what it takes to order it, according to Cortesi. One time the request was a five-pound lobster.
While the butchers in the meat department cut a variety of beef, poultry and pork, Bernardi said, there is another kind of butcher there—a produce butcher. Customers pay the marked price for produce like a melon and the produce butcher will prepare it to order.
The made-to-order opportunities have always extended to meat and fish as well, according to Cortesi.
“We’ll filet it, carve it, slice it or dice it any way you want it,” said Cortesi.
“We grind fish around the holidays for the bubby in the kitchen,” added Bernardi.
Four years ago Sunset bought a florist, enabling it to expand its department to the point it handles special floral orders, according to Cortesi.
Another thing Sunset still does like it did 80 years ago is give back to the community, such as working with schools and non-profit organizations to help them raise money, and making regular donations to local food pantries.