Bamber’s finds a spot on the shelf alongside chain stores
You can order a jar of Amarena Fabbri black cherries in syrup from Amazon and the mega-corporation will deliver it to your door in two days.
Or you can go to Bamber’s Superette Food Market, 1145 Mishawaka Ave., South Bend, and ask owner Gene Bamber about the difference between those cherries and the Luxardos. He’ll explain that the Luxardos are a larger variety of cherry and priced a little higher.
And while you’re standing there next to the cherries, you notice rows of olive oil on the shelves. Bamber can walk you through them all, offering counsel on the best one to buy depending on the use.
This is why Bamber’s, which has been in business 66 years, remains a destination for food lovers even as online shopping and Whole Foods have come to northern Indiana.
Bamber’s started in 1950 as a grocery store in the Sunnymede neighborhood southeast of downtown. Gene’s father Joseph sold everything he owned to fund the construction and opened on July 20, 1950. His first ad in the South Bend Tribune touted canned salmon and baby food — three jars for 29 cents.
As Gene Bamber holds the ad, he talks about how Bob Greenwood sold baby food at a penny above cost at the two grocery stores he operated in South Bend and Elkhart. How National and A & P brands tried to get families to become customers for the entire 15-year cycle their kids were in the house. How there were six or seven grocery stores on Mishawaka Avenue between Bamber’s and Logan Street a mile to the east.
“In the 50s, 60s and 70s, life was different,” Bamber said.
Gene started working there when he was 10 years old. Now, at 69, he’s there with his wife, Virginia. They’ve grown the store and the business into something other than a neighborhood market. They’ve adapted and changed — happily — as the world continues to as well.
Five things Gene Bamber says every pantry needs
In the 1960s and 1970s, executives from South Bend and Mishawaka’s large companies such as Bendix and Wheelabator were traveling internationally and came home seeking the flavors they’d had overseas. They’d ask Bamber to get it for them. Eventually those items replaced the soap and paper towel. Spanish almonds replaced the Planter’s peanuts and amaretti replaced the Oreos.
One day when a wine salesman didn’t show up, Bamber stocked them in the store that day and started on the path to curating the offerings. He’s spent a life doing that now, for all the items. “I just like to see out products people have asked for, that they’ll use going forward for a number of years,” he said.
The larger grocery stores, the Meijers and Walmarts, that came in the 1990s are different. “They will sell more milk in two hours than I will in a whole fricking year,” he said. But those stores don’t have multiple varieties of lemon curd, sea salt, truffles and balsamic vinegar.
After decades of picking items for customers, he knows what will sell. He calls it “intuition.” He tracks sales numbers, but doesn’t rely on a computer. He doesn’t email, but talks to sales reps instead.
Gene can suggest how to turn ingredients into a romantic meal or a simple and elegant dessert. Virginia often works the front register. Together, they team up with the young employees they hire to sell great food.
“I love this store,” said Libby Christianson of South Bend. “This is where I come when I want to treat myself. Or when I want to impress guests.”
When David Macharaschwili wants to impress clients, he orders catering from Bamber’s. He delivers pastas, chicken and cookies. People always ask where he got it. “It’s never a disappointment,” he said.
Customers coming in daily or weekly make Bamber’s successful, Gene said. The way he makes a living is different than how his grandfather sold groceries 100 years ago on the south side of South Bend. It’s different than how his father did after selling all he owned and opening it in the Sunnymede neighborhood.
But the Bambers always embraced change. “I can’t be afraid to embrace something new in some fashion,” he said, adding that his parents John and Palmina weren’t either.
Times change and so does how we eat, where we shop. The Bambers’ children live elsewhere and aren’t likely to take over the business as Gene did from among his three brothers. It may be Amazon’s world, but Bamber’s can still succeed.
Bamber’s Superette Food Market
Location: 1145 Mishawaka Ave., South Bend
Open: 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, 7 to 5:30 Saturday
“It is the best place in South Bend. It better be preserved,” Christianson said.
Gene said they are doing just fine and though they don’t know what will come, it’s a good life. “We just like what we do,” he said.
And those who shop there are grateful.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.