Recorded on March 9, 2012. Length: 30 Minutes.
DG: I am pleased to welcome Ron Bernardi who has lived and worked in Northbrook long enough to be considered “Mr. Northbrook.” We will be so glad to interview this morning and hear about your time in Northbrook.
RB: Thank you Donna, it is a pleasure to be here.
DG: Ron, I always like to start these interviews by giving you the opportunity to talk about the things that are special to you. I will do that in just a moment but first would you tell us about when you came to Northbrook. Do you live in Northbrook?
RB: I moved to Northbrook in 1970. I was born and raised in Highland Park and worked at Sunset Foods in Highland Park while I was in high school and after high school. In 1961 we opened our new store in Northbrook. Sunset Foods was my uncle’s business. In 1966 they transferred me to the Northbrook store. At that time the store was about five years old. That was the beginning of my management career.
DG: Was that why you were transferred to Northbrook – so you could be a manager?
RB: That’s correct.
DG: So, you worked in Northbrook about four years and then you moved here?
RB: I worked in Northbrook about four years before I moved here. The reason I moved here was that the area where Koenig & Strey and Starbucks are now became available when the Dime Store went out of business and we wanted to open Sunset Liquors. In order to get a liquor license you needed to be a resident of Northbrook.
DG: The manager of a retail establishment had to be a resident in order for a retail establishment to get a liquor license?
RB: That is correct. So, they had to find someone to be a resident of Northbrook. I was single at the time and my very tactful uncle said, “You are moving to Northbrook.” I said I liked my bachelor pad in Highland Park but my uncle said I was to move to Northbrook. I rented a home on Shermer and Angle from Henry Bucher, Esther Lutz’s father who had a farmhouse available near where Bank of America is today. I went from a small apartment to a house and it was just a stones throw away from the store.
DG: If you were in a little apartment and you moved to a house, how much did your rent increase?
RB: My rent in Highland Park was $175/month and it was $200/month for the house. In those days a week’s salary was a month’s rent. Now it is a little different.
DG: That is not so true today. So, you added the liquor store in a separate building and you managed it.
RB: I managed Sunset. The shopping center was built in 1959 and is “Meadows Shopping Center” which no one would know since there has never been a sign for it but it is on Meadow Road. On the other side of Cherry is another shopping center. Jewel Tea was there and they built that center in 1958. Where our Sunset was in 1961 was formerly a Kroger and right across from the Kroger where we formerly had Walgreens was then an A&P Grocery. There were three groceries within a triangle walking distance. It was a growing community at that time. Maybe the population of Northbrook in 1961 was about 10,000. The employees in Highland Park used to joke saying, “where do you work? Oh, yes, the Northbrook Sunset, the farm store.” The area west of Landwehr was not developed at all. There were lots of pheasants. Toto, who also worked at the store, used to go pheasant hunting in that area. As the town grew, our business grew as well.
DG: You have certainly seen a lot of changes.
RB: There is a lot of history in that shopping center. Do you want me to identify some of the businesses?
DG: I want to hear about that but before we go on, I heard you mention four grocery stores, but then you referred to a triangle so one of them must have left.
RB: Kroger left and that is where Sunset located. Kroger left after 1.5 years. They pulled out of the Chicago marketplace. A&P was in the same shopping center and Jewel was across the street. The competition in the Chicago market is fierce.
DG: Did people cost comparison shop? It must have been very competitive.
RB: Oh, sure. We had advertising, window signs and coupons – for three years I don’t think we made a profit. The Highland Park store kind of supported us. With quality, getting to know our customers and value we eventually grew.
DG: And outlived the other stores.
RB: Yes, we outlived them. Melzers was still in town. Developed by the generation before us they had delivery and other services. Eventually they closed the store I think you have interviewed other folks who had fond memories of Melzers.
DG: They praise the quality of their meats and now customers find that quality at Sunset.
RB: We started about the same time as Melzers in 1937. It is the 75th anniversary of our company and last year was the 50th anniversary of the Northbrook store. We still have the old fashioned values and are the neighborhood store. We are very involved in the community.
DG: You certainly are. I wonder how many of our listeners are shoppers and know how delightfully they will be treated when they come into the store. When they are ready to checkout there is someone to put their groceries on the conveyer for the cashier.
RB: We still handle phone orders and delivery like Melzers for about 80 of our older residents who are home bound. Many of them might be in nursing homes without this service. They call and talk to Marge and order their groceries. We are a self-service store but still offer individual services.
DG: With the state of the economy, does that sometimes become a discussion item as to whether you can continue doing it?
RB: We are old fashioned and will continue to provide these services. We put customers first. In the old days Northbrook had a number of local stores and if you didn’t know your customers you were just out of business. We continue in that tradition.
DG: It is wonderful, Ron. We thank you for what the store does and what you do. So you wanted to talk about changes you have seen in the shopping centers.
RB: Changes, I have seen a lot of changes. I have worked in Northbrook for 46 years. As I said Kroger left. Of the original stores, the only ones left in the Meadows Shopping Center are Phillip’s Shoe Repair and Walgreens just moved out, and I believe O’Reilly Cleaners. As you went around the center, I’ll try to identify what was originally there in 1961. We had a small 15,000 sq. foot store. There were three shops next to it where Marcello’s is now – Betty Watt’s Beauty Salon, Northbrook Currency Exchange and I believe Phillip’s Shoe Repair. As you turned the corner there was a 5 & 10 store, a Meadow SavMart (a hardware & variety store), O’Reilly Cleaners, A&P and Walgreens and later some stores moved from the Northbrook Shopping Plaza across the street– Leonard’s, Fashions by Jane, Kaden Shoes, Golden Crown (where Subway is now) and Ida’s Salon came in later (they have moved a couple of times), Blockbuster. Across the street was the Jewel Store and a Ben Franklin Variety Store.
DG: How did it come to be that Sunset moved into where Jewel used to be?
RB: It is a long story. We outgrew our store. It was a small store. We went through a series of remodeling over the years taking over the various shops and it was very inefficient. We needed to move. We actually looked outside the downtown area. The old Caravel property was offered to us. The Village had a study done by Gruen & Gruen and established that the anchor store in the downtown was Sunset. We needed to remain because Sunset is a destination and traffic building to build other business.
The Jewel went out across the street so they shut down the store. Meanwhile they were remodeling the library so they rented that building with the idea that when the library was finished, they would give Sunset the right of first refusal. Donna, you are doing a good job of interviewing.
DG: Thank you – you are easy to interview.
RB: So, we tore down the former Jewel store, built our new store and opened there in 2003.
DG: So, you will be having a 10 year anniversary next year.
RB: That’s right. It will also be my 70th birthday which we will celebrate at Sunset.
DG: I remember your 65th birthday at Sunset. Ron, I want to talk to you about your involvement in the community. I said at the beginning that you have the label “Mr. Northbrook” and that is true. Everyone knows and loves Ron Bernardi and wants Ron Bernardi at their event. Talk to us about your involvement and how you came to be so involved.
RB: Well, I never really was Mr. Northbrook but as you grow older and you are around so long, there was probably a Mr. Shermerville at one time, but I think when you are around so long and Sunset is a community business. My uncle said when I was moving here that I should join Rotary which I did.
DG: Had you been in Highland Park Rotary?
RB: Not at all. I was working in the meat department there. I was really over my head in management. I learned on the job. No formal training. Jumped in the water and figured it out. Part of the culture was that you gave back to the community. I followed in the footsteps. They were in Rotary and Chamber. Northbrook is a community of volunteers. People ask what it is about Northbrook that is so special. There are more organizations and non-profits and people giving back to the community starting with Northbrook Days, Shermerfest, 4th of July Parade, Earth Day, Park District programs. Volunteering in Northbrook is really huge. We always try to give back of time and resources.
DG: How many organizations do you belong to or work with?
RB: I’ve been a Rotarian for 43 years, on the board of the Northbrook Historical Society with you, Donna, on the Chamber Board for 6 years, the Civic Foundation. Basically, I don’t say no. I feel that if God gives you a gift and you don’t use it, it is a sin. That is what we were designed for. We are all wired differently and have different gifts and when we use them it is very fulfilling. It brings me happiness.
DG: I know it does and we appreciate it so much. You made kind of a reference to having to grow your gift of speaking in front of people. Would you like to say something about that? It might be encouraging to some of our listeners.
RB: Well, I traded in my meat frock for a sport coat and I felt I was out of my league. My family was from Italy, basically a blue collar family, my father was a plasterer and I just needed God’s help.
DG: Anyone who meets you today would think that you were born speaking in front of people.
RB: I wasn’t. I was a shy little kid. My cousin Bill was in Rotary. He was program chairman and I told him not to schedule me. I was so frightened. My first program was a movie about oranges. Those are the worst programs. I got up and said, “I’m going to show you a movie about oranges,” and sat down. But I am a student and I studied the owner’s manual of life – the Bible. That’s where I get my faith and my strength and that is really who I am.
DG: So that would be your advice to young people who are looking to grow their talents?
RB: Read the owner’s manual – it is all in there. It tells you how to be a parent, grandparent, all about relationships and gives you a meaning and purpose in life. I like to know where I am going. I have led Bible classes at Crestwood for 20 years for seniors who can’t get out. That is one of my callings – small group discussions. I am the kind of person who wants to continue to feed my spirit because then the spirit comes out of me.
DG: Are you a member of a Northbrook church?
RB: No, I am kind of a free spirit. Not a member anywhere though I’ve attended just about every church and synagogue in Northbrook and I attend 3 or 4 men’s Bible studies each week.
DG: Ron, I am just remembering that you moved to Northbrook as a bachelor. Are you still a bachelor?
RB: No, I have a lovely wife Theresa. She is one of 11 kids. We have the same values, the same faith – that is what really bonds us together and is the foundation.
DG: How did you meet her?
RB: I met her in Highland Park, believe it or not at a Christian coffeehouse called “The Right Track.” I met her and we talked for three hours. I asked her out – this was on a Friday night – to go to church like a good Christian boy. She called on Saturday and said she had prayed about it and did not think God wanted her to go out with you. I thought about it and something told me to go after her. I wanted a girl who really loved God. I did go after her and 11 months later we were married. It is great. We are joined at the hip. Everything I was lacking she has. I was 32 and probably the oldest, most eligible bachelor in Northbrook but I wanted God’s choice. I was going to wait around. I didn’t date a lot. Definitely we are a team. We were married in 1976, the bicentennial year.
DG: Did you start a family?
RB: We never were able to have kids. We have many nieces and nephews and the community is our family. Maybe that is why I have so much time to give back to the community. We all have a different calling.
DG: Northbrook benefits by your many contributions. We continue to be grateful for everything you do. I’m thinking of all the auctioning you do and help other organizations with fundraising.
RB: Auctioning is another one of my passions and callings. The reason I am an auctioneer is that my wife Theresa – we got married and she is really a blue jeans and outdoor kind of girl and me, too. First of all, she doesn’t like diamonds (I like this girl). So I bought two gold bands. She likes camping. When we were furnishing our house she said she likes antiques so we have done lots of camping and gone to auctions and bought antiques.
Through her exposing me to auctions and Rotary we used to support the Irish Children’s Fund years ago when they were fighting – north v. south. They had a few Irish sweaters at the Rotary meeting so they asked if I wanted to auction them off so I did and it was fun and got some laughs. We had an auctioneer for our major fund raiser that came in from New York to Northbrook Court and did an art auction. Then the organizers said they would auction art and other things and asked if I wanted to do the auction. I agreed and then thought: OMG how am I going to set prices? I came to the Library and found a book on auctioneering. So I read that book which helped me get started and that was the beginning of my 30 year auctioneering career.
DG: You are self-taught.
RB: I am self-taught – a hands on guy. Just by doing it, I learn. It’s one of the passions and gifts I have. I probably do about 20 volunteer auctions a year.
DG: We have just a few minutes left so if you are thinking of something that you want to be sure gets into our interview, I ‘d like to entertain that now or I will ask you a couple of final questions.
RB: Donna, I think you have pretty much covered the life of Ron Bernardi as a person and as a businessman in the community.
DG: I’m sure there is lots more to tell.
RB: The downtown – I’m sure there is more to say about that – the old Little Louie’s and Ben’s Shoe Repair. I’m sure others can fill in information about what it was like in that area. There was Melzer’s, the hardware store, Tom Adams’ Drug Store where Oliverii’s is which used to be a funeral home (Judy Hughes was telling me), the old Cypress now the Landmark Inn, the old A&P which was where the paint store was.
DG: Do you have a favorite memory of Northbrook?
RB: Yes, there is one, a funny story. I worked with my cousin Bill who opened the Northbrook store. He was a little older than me. We had two customers Ann Degman and Jan Morely. They were pretty comical and used to tease Bill. It was Bill’s birthday so they went to the five and ten cent store and bought a baby alligator, put it in a box and gave it to Bill for his birthday. Bill took this box, opened it and reached inside and the alligator bit his finger. It is rather comical but it tells you how the culture has changed. It used to be that for Easter you could buy baby chicks or a baby rabbit. It you did that today the animal activists would be all over you. They must have had a pet store in the old Five/Ten Cent store. They also had a lunch counter with the best grilled cheese sandwiches and soup.
DG: Would it be fair to say that Ron Bernardi today wanted to talk about history and changes, about people, about service and giving and about your relationship with the Lord?
DG: We thank you very much for being here and with that I think we will close.
RB: Donna, now I know why you are doing what you are doing. You could get a job on one of the news channels.
DG: Thank you. We will cut that out.