Treasure Island Foods, Inc.

3460 North Broadway Street
Chicago, Illinois 60657-2516
U.S.A
Telephone: (773) 327-4265
Web site: http://www.tifoods.com

Private Company
Founded:
1963
Employees: 500
Sales: $93 million (2017 est.)
NAICS: 445110 Supermarkets and Other Grocery (except Convenience) Stores; 445310 Beer, Wine, and Liquor Stores

Treasure Island Foods, Inc., operates a chain of seven grocery stores in the Chicago, Illinois, metropolitan area, with plans to open an eighth in 2018. Besides traditional staples and popular name brands, Treasure Island stores stock a wide selection of specialty items, ethnic cuisine, and imported goods that are not always available in chain grocery stores. Treasure Island also offers prepared foods, catering services, and a larger-than-usual wine inventory. The company is owned and operated by the family of its principal founder, Christ Kamberos.

GREEK AMERICAN ORIGINS

Christ Kamberos was born into the grocery business in 1926. His father, a Greek immigrant, sold produce from a pushcart on the streets of Chicago's West Side, and, as was typical of the day, put Christ and his other sons to work in the family enterprise at a very early age. While still in grade school, Kamberos watched his father select fresh fruits and vegetables from wholesalers, a process that involved considerations of quality, customer demand, and overall profitability. He then walked the streets beside the cart as the elder Kamberos hawked his wares, bantering with customers, cutting deals, and promoting whatever items were of particularly high quality that day.

After graduating from Crane Tech High School, Kamberos entered the U.S. military, serving in Germany at the end of World War II. Upon his return to the United States, he was ready to enter the family business. Pooling his resources with those of his brother Frank and an uncle, Kamberos opened a small grocery store at 1055 Bryn Mawr in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood in 1947. The partners named their new enterprise Sure Save and concentrated on offering shoppers basic, quality staples at a low price point. The concept proved popular, and over the next decade, the partners built Sure Save into a 10-store chain. By 1961, however, they were ready for a change of direction, and sold Sure Save to the National Tea Company, one of Chicago's largest grocery chains.

COMPANY PERSPECTIVES

As a family owned and operated company from Chicago since 1963, we know how to deliver topnotch service and selection.

The new store's name had been carefully chosen to emphasize its selection of hard-to-find, high-quality imports from a variety of international sources. The partners had avoided using their own name or anything else that suggested a specific country or culture, hoping to establish a brand identity as a general supplier of exotic foodstuffs from all over the world, with the look and feel of a traditional European grocery store. Mindful that many consumers preferred the convenience of one-stop shopping, Treasure Island also stocked a full selection of common North American groceries and name brands. About one-third of Treasure Island's store space was devoted to fresh produce.

“THE MOST EUROPEAN SUPERMARKET IN AMERICA”

Treasure Island prospered over the next two decades, adding six more stores across the Chicago metro area by the mid-1980s and generating sales estimated at nearly $50 million per year. In its advertising, the company often boasted of an endorsement it had once received from chef Julia Child who dubbed it “the most European supermarket in America.” Like traditional European markets, Treasure Island lacked the bright fluorescent lighting and wide aisles found in most U.S. grocery stores. Whereas most supermarkets simply grouped ethnic foods together on the same section of shelving, Treasure Island arranged each ethnic section as a sort of store-within-a-store, with its own decor and shelf and counter arrangements, conveying the impression that the store prioritized the proper selection and presentation of ethnic foods, rather than just stocking them as an afterthought.

The stores also cultivated a friendlier, less-formal atmosphere. Although most U.S. grocery chains did not offer hot and prepared foods until late in the 20th century, Treasure Island stores usually had a selection of ethnic dishes available from a self-service steam table. Besides generating sales, the hot food offerings also served as a marketing tool to introduce customers to new cuisines and recipes that used ingredients straight from the stores' shelves. As the majority owner and CEO, Christ Kamberos also became the public face of the company and maintained a steady hands-on approach to managing virtually every aspect of the business. According to Stefano Esposito in the Chicago Sun-Times in October 2009, “Kamberos was the gregarious grocer whom many customers knew by name. He often wandered out of his office at the Broadway store … to help customers find a perfectly ripe melon or pineapple.”

As the company approached its 25th anniversary, changes were afoot in the leadership dynamics at Treasure Island Foods. Kamberos had divorced his first wife and married for a second time. His new spouse, Maria Mansour Kamberos, soon took an active role in running the business, alongside several other Kamberos family members. While this development appeared to be a source of tension, an undeniable schism had opened up between the Kamberos family and cofounder Allen. Far from a silent partner, Allen spearheaded an overhaul of the chain during this period. The overhaul was credited with revitalizing flagging sales by drawing in younger shoppers with trendier foodstuffs and a more contemporary feel. By 1990, however, lingering disagreements between the partners regarding operational philosophy had devolved into charges of outright criminal conduct.

TURMOIL

In the spring of 1990 Christ and Frank Kamberos filed three lawsuits against Allen, alleging various forms of malfeasance. One of the more serious accusations held that Allen and another executive had embezzled nearly $2 million from the company. By this point, Allen had largely removed himself from the chain's day-to-day operations and filed two suits of his own, alleging that the brothers still had personal items of his that they refused to surrender and that, following his departure, they had declined to pay him money he was owed. Furthermore, he suggested that they had themselves embezzled as much as $7 million. As the legal battle progressed, Allen also accused the Kamberos brothers of committing fraud by redeeming more than $5 million in manufacturer coupons that had simply been clipped from newspapers, rather than used by paying customers.

KEY DATES
1947:
The Sure Save grocery store is opened by the Kamberos family.
1963:
The first Treasure Island Foods store opens for business.
1990:
A legal feud erupts among Treasure Island's founding partners.
2007:
The company's employees vote to leave their union.
2018:
The company opens its first new store in nine years.

Meanwhile, the two sides were also battling in court over Allen's desire to exit the partnership. Much of his equity in the company took the form of his ownership of the original Broadway store, but when the trio, perhaps predictably, could not agree on a buyout price, they took the matter to arbitration. After the Kamberos brothers rejected the $2.9 million value assessed by the arbitrator, Allen sued them again in an attempt to begin eviction proceedings and collect back rent for the store. When Allen's attorneys successfully negotiated a settlement agreement with the brothers in early 1993, Allen rejected it and obtained new legal representation.

The accusations and counteraccusations leveled in civil court between the partners eventually led to a series of criminal investigations. In 1999, after most of the civil issues had finally been settled confidentially and Allen had cashed out his partnership, he was sentenced to probation for conspiracy to commit tax fraud. The Kamberos brothers were not officially charged with any criminal wrongdoing. By this point, well into their 70s, the two remaining owners of Treasure Island were easing toward retirement. In 2000 Christ Kamberos turned over the reins of the company to his wife, Maria, who was 31 years his junior.

LABOR DISPUTE

The first decade of the new millennium brought further trouble for Treasure Island, in the form of a major multiyear labor dispute. The company had always been a union shop, with fairly generous contract terms and compensation packages negotiated by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881. By 2004, however, Treasure Island's profit margin had tightened considerably as competition from independent and chain gourmet food stores ramped up. Once a pioneer in its market sector, the company was now struggling to maintain its position.

During contract negotiations in February 2004, faced with health insurance costs that had more than doubled in three years, the company proposed withdrawing from the union's insurance plan and replacing it with private coverage. At the same time, Treasure Island asked to replace the union's pension plan with a private 401(k), and significantly increase the number of weekly hours employees had to work in order to qualify for insurance. Maria Kamberos and her team took their case directly to the employees, holding a series of meetings pitching the changes as necessary for the survival of the company. Apparently, the approach worked. When the union refused to accept the proposals and began picketing the stores, 80 percent of the company's employees signed a petition to decertify the union as their collective bargaining representative.

After Treasure Island began implementing its proposed changes, the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that the company had unfairly pressured and misled its employees. The company then lodged its own countercomplaint against the union, alleging unfair tactics. After a three-year bureaucratic battle, the NLRB agreed to allow an official decertification vote in the summer of 2007. Treasure Island's employees voted two to one to exit the union, ending the matter.

Christ Kamberos passed away in 2009 at the age of 83, leaving primary control of the company to his wife, Maria. In 2010 a court battle erupted between Maria and her stepdaughter Christine, who alleged that Christ's younger second wife had manipulated him into partially disinheriting some of his children and freezing them out of the family business. The suit was eventually settled privately.

Chris Herzog

PRINCIPAL COMPETITORS

Caputo's New Farm Produce, Inc.; Jewel-Osco Inc.; Lakes Venture, LLC; Pete's Fresh Market; Whole Foods Market, Inc.

FURTHER READING

Auman, Chris. “Chicago Retail Profile: Treasure Island.” Produce Business, June 1, 2016.

Esposito, Stefano. “Treasure Island Market Founder.” Chicago Sun-Times, October 30, 2009.

Hayes, Christopher. “The Battle for Treasure Island.” Chicago Reader, June 24, 2004.

Jensen, Trevor. “Christ Kamberos, 1926–2009: Co-founder of Treasure Island Grocery Chain.” Chicago Tribune, October 30, 2009.

Karp, Gregory. “Family Feud over Treasure Island.” Chicago Tribune, August 12, 2010.

Trotter, Greg. “Treasure Island Plans New Uptown Store with ‘Produce Butcher,’ Cocktails and More.” Chicago Tribune, October 2, 2017.