Jungle Jim, I Presume?

Illustration by Nate Otto

In an industry known for selling commodities at low margins, Jungle Jim’s International Market in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio is something else entirely. It’s a super-sized grocery store that’s also a tourist attraction with animatronic characters, a dedicated events center, and a working monorail. At the center of this unexpected food empire is a businessman known simply as Jungle, who started with a pop-up produce stand and built something closer to a theme park than a grocery store.


WAILIN WONG: I’m at the grocery store. Actually, I’m sitting on a plush seat inside a tiny movie theater that’s tucked between the France and Spain sections of a grocery store about 25 miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio.

JUNGLE JIM: In 1988 is when we really started taking a little bit of a gamble with the craziness of Jungle Jim’s and niche marketing. We added palm trees. We built the animal scene out in front. People said, “You’re crazy. Why do you want to put so much money in that?” But I wanted to see what would happen if I could make a store that’s entertaining and fun for shoppers. I want shopping at Jungle Jim’s to be fun because I enjoy myself; I work 80 hours a week over there. There I am playing shopping cart bingo where you pay three or four of a kind on your register tape and you win your groceries free; I love my customers. This lady here, see this lady right here? See that big smile on her face? She just won $350. See my face? I’m not smiling anymore. She’s smiling.

WAILIN: The voice in the movie belongs to a man named Jim Bonaminio, although he’s just known as Jungle. He’s the owner of Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield, Ohio. And even though he’s still at the store all the time, he can be hard to pin down. So this movie, which plays on a continuous loop at Jungle Jim’s, is the closest we’ll get to hearing from the man himself. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, we explore how Jungle Jim’s made grocery shopping fun, and in the process, pushed the boundaries of what a supermarket can be. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.

JUNGLE JIM: The evolution of the Jungle. Here’s how it all got started, folks. 1971 Erie and High Street, our first fruit stand on a vacant used car lot. We put together stands from old camper tops from the junkyard because the city of Hamilton wouldn’t give us a permit for roofs.

JIMMY BONAMINIO: Hi, my name is Jimmy Bonaminio. I work at Jungle Jim’s International Market. I am the director of the creative services department.

WAILIN: And you’re also the son of the founder.

JIMMY: I’m also one of the sons of the founder, yes.

You know, the lore is that he’s 20, he’s 21, he’s hustling, he’s buying produce, he’s running in and out of coolers down at the bottom of the place he used to buy produce in Cincinnati and he’s running in and out and he’s sweating and he’s going in coolers and he comes out and there’s just steam emanating from him, you know, in every direction. And some bystander saw him and said, “Daddy, who’s that?” And the father said, “That’s Jungle Jim.” I don’t know.

JUNGLE JIM: Hey, who’s that good-looking guy? There I am, look at that black hair. Man, those were crazy days back then. I’d get up in the morning about 3 o’clock in the morning. I’d go buy the produce, I’d come back to the stand, I’d do the chalkboards ’cause that was our only form of advertising.

WAILIN: Jungle and his wife, Joanie, moved the business from lot to lot during the early 1970s, at one point converting an old gas station behind the produce stand into their home. In 1975, Jungle opened a permanent location and started to add more categories of groceries as customers requested them.

JIMMY: In the 80s, he, like, just out of the blue created this waterfall jungle scene outside of the store and that’s really when the store took a turn to become more of an attraction, from a cool farmer’s market to this wild place. We had palm trees and sand that they would bring up from Florida every year and they would last for about two years and they would die; then we’d get another load of palm trees. They didn’t grow here but we kind of pretended like they did grow here.

WAILIN: As the exterior of the store took shape, the inside of Jungle Jim’s also started to look radically different from your typical American supermarket.

JARED BOWERS: The cereal bowl band is on a boat. The best part? This is, the boat is also the seafood department’s office.

WAILIN: They’re inside the boat?

JARED: They’re inside the boat.

WAILIN: With, like, the cereal band playing on top?

JARED: Yeah, yeah. I’ll show you the offices, you can see. It’s pretty wild.

WAILIN: That’s Jared Bowers, who handles Jungle Jim’s newsletters and social media. He’s giving me a tour, which includes a stop at the cereal bowl band, featuring a trio of animatronic breakfast cereal mascots playing instruments. Other notable fixtures include a talking Campbell’s soup can on a swing, a lion singing Elvis songs in the candy department and a Marilyn Monroe statue with a little fan behind her skirt over by the wine. The eclectic decor is a reflection of Jungle’s personal aesthetic, but it’s also a major part of what draws shoppers to the store. Visiting Jungle Jim’s is like going to a mini theme park, and because the interior is constantly changing, there’s always a reason to go back. Jared didn’t discover the Marilyn Monroe statue until recently.

JARED: I was a little surprised when I walked down and saw it because everyone was like, “ Hey, did you see Marilyn downstairs?” No idea what you’re talking about. Things just pop up and we say, “Wait, where did that come from?”

I think our toy store — ’cause we have a toy store, obviously — I’m pretty sure that’s moving over here. The pharmacy and all of that is shifting. We have a post office; I think that’s moving somewhere else. I mean like, this whole front section of the store is gonna be a completely different thing. I jokingly say that Jungle Jim’s just kind of happens every day and I don’t think I’m that far off. I don’t even want to go as far as to say it’s organized chaos. ’Cause some of it is very disorganized, but it works somehow and it’s awesome to see it kind of happen day to day. Every department’s kind of its own thing and you feel like you’re walking through different stores as you’re walking through just this one big space, and you don’t really realize until you leave and you’re like, I was just assaulted by so many sights and sounds and things and smells and tastes and you’re either kind of like, Yes! Let’s do that again!” or “I’m good for a little while. We’ll come back in a couple months.”

WAILIN: One thing you have to know about Jungle is that he loves junk. Some of the large-scale fixtures in his store are custom built in a dedicated workshop across the street, but other pieces are things that Jungle picked up for cheap. Outside the store is a real working monorail, which he bought from a safari park in Ohio that was decommissioning the ride.

JIMMY : There was no track, so it was kind of a bear. It was like a couple bucks or something, if you can haul it off, you can have it. He built the track for it—massive amount of work there and we haven’t completed the ring yet. You know, maybe someday, but it’s supposed to ring the property. So that’s kind of an allegory for how the store works, like little by little sometimes. So yes, it goes up and back from our events center to the train station. But then we might change the train station to something else. We have ideas about making it something totally different, so where does the monorail fit into that future? Who knows. It’s sort of like, everything’s constantly in flux.

I think the boat in the seafood department is really cool and Jungle personally went down to Florida and did some boat shopping and found like a big junker and had it shipped up here. They built one of the additions around that boat because it was so big, so and then realizing all of these — we call them attractions—the large scale decor, those things help the shopper navigate the store. So I see what it is now and I see why they’re there.

WAILIN: That’s the thing about Jungle Jim’s. On one hand, it’s like a protean organism where an impulse junk purchase can reshape the structure of the business and even employees are surprised by what’s happening on a daily basis. On the other hand, there is a bigger sense of purpose underlying the chaos.

JIMMY: There’s nothing coming from the top down saying, “Do this, do this, do this.” It’s sort of like these little pockets of energy and it all kind of swells up and affects everything else, and then we make it through a day and we go on to the next day.

My mom has told us, “When we got married, your father told me, ‘I want to have the biggest grocery store in the world,’” so there was a vision for sure. But we weren’t really privy to that ’til much later.

WAILIN: In 2001, Jungle Jim’s opened an events center for its food festivals, and to rent out for corporate functions and weddings. In 2012, it opened a second supermarket in Cincinnati. Both locations anchor big strip malls, and Jungle Jim’s leases storefronts in those strip malls to tenants like chain restaurants and retailers. This puts Jungle in the real estate business, and the retail complexes he’s created around his stores are part of his bigger vision to keep growing, even if that mission is communicated in far more subtle ways to his employees.

JIMMY: It’s all about energy to him, you know, are we creating the energy. So I think he says if he can make grocery shopping fun by adding all these peripheral thingsand even just in the grocery department it’s fun to shop there. There’s weird and odd things in there and the selection we carry is much more than you’d see anywhere else. On our grocery side, let’s be energetic. On our events side, let’s be energetic. Let’s just make it so people really love coming here.

WAILIN: Jungle Jim’s has a super-sized selection of the kinds of products you’d find at a typical American grocery store. But it’s known for its international section, where over 70 countries are represented. It’s an unexpected oasis of food diversity in a metropolitan area with only a small foreign-born population.

JARED: I think I see it more than anybody else. People from their countries of origin will come in and they’ll see something and be like, “I haven’t had this since I lived at home,” you know, and it’s a big deal to them to be able to find that piece of home. Even if they’ve traveled abroad and had an experience that was really kind of life changing, and food’s a big part of that, they’ll come here and be like, “I didn’t know I needed this as badly as I needed this.” You get this flood of memories, this like flood of nostalgia that’s just kind of built into what we do here every day and it’s just awesome to see.

JIMMY: Looking back, I can see how it happened. You know, he went to college down here. That was how he got down here, from Cleveland. Started a produce stand in kind of the biggest, city-ish area kind of close to the college and started to build from that, and then, you know, had employees as it grew. At one point they said, “Hey Jungle, we have to drive to Chicago to get some products that are not sold around here,” and he said, “Why don’t we try to bring them in, see if they sell?” So the fact that we weren’t in a very diverse area I think is why this store exists here. I think it actually helps the place. We’ve changed the environment. So this store has a way to kind of be transformative, which is cool.

WAILIN: Both Jared and Jimmy are always trying new products, like instant coffee from Colombia or cardamom cream sandwich cookies from India. But Jungle? He actually prefers Banquet pot pies, the kind you heat up in the microwave.

JIMMY: That used to be a big thing, like don’t tell anybody that he’s like that. Um but yeah, that’s very much him and he’s always been like that. He’s a businessman first and foremost. He’ll say that produce is a poor man’s business, you know, at least maybe in the 70s. You could buy produce relatively inexpensive and you could sell it relatively inexpensive and make a little money in the process, so yeah, but he’s a simple guy for sure and I think what he likes is creating energy and people and customers and so it just happens that it’s produce. And that’s part of the reason there’s all this decor around here, ‘cause he really likes collecting all that junk and kind of refurbishing it and just making this place wild. The products and the produce are sort of secondary to him. We expect a lot from our managers and stuff to keep the quality high. There’s a lot of energy that goes into that part of it. But for him personally, yeahpot pies are just great, a little bologna sandwich.

WAILIN: Produce may be a poor man’s business, but for Jungle, it was never really about the fruits and vegetables anyway. It was about making something as mundane as grocery shopping into a form of entertainment. Today, you can visit Jungle Jim’s just for its cigar humidor, for its annual hot sauce festival, for a class at its in-house culinary school, or for a slice of ibérico ham, one of the most expensive hams in the world. The store offers all of that, alongside a traditional produce section where the signs are hand-lettered the way Jungle did his chalkboards back in the 70s.

JIMMY: I think we have a grocery store within this whole experience, so we have a grocery manager that’s buying Tide and trying to buy it at the best price, just like a Safeway or some other store would be doing and that’s all he does, he’s committed to that. And he doesn’t worry about the events and the stuff that are happening. He’s the grocery guy. And then we have, like you said, events—the event center. They’re not worried about grocery, what grocery’s buying, they don’t think of us as a grocery store. They think of this place as an event center. So every department’s doing their own thing and it creates a really interesting mix of attitudes and experiences. I think we do think of ourselves as a grocery store first and foremost, but we’ve layered in all this other stuff and we spend a lot of time on those layers. So what is it? Good question.

JUNGLE JIM: I put this story together to let you know that we’re not a big corporation. We started on the bottom and worked our way up. And if you young people out there have an idea or a dream, don’t be afraid to go for it. If you get knocked down, pick yourself up again and keep on going. If I can do it, you can too. And just believe in yourself and your dreams will come true. Oh, and by the way, make sure you have fun along the way.

See you folks in five minutes for another show.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. Special thanks to Malia Jackson for telling me about Jungle Jim’s. It’s been a while since I groveled for ratings and reviews on iTunes, so if you like our show, please leave us a rating and review on iTunes! It just takes a second and it helps us get noticed by more listeners. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.