Best Independent Retailer 2024 — Chicagoland’s Caputo’s: The Heartbeat of The Community

Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets meets customers where they are, literally and figuratively, to increase produce consumption.

Originally printed in the February 2024 issue of Produce Business.

When a juggernaut conventional chain supermarket opens across the street, it is just an opportunity for Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets to redirect traffic and pierce more customers’ hearts — and their love of produce.

Caputo’s unique Norridge, IL, store features a modern architectural design, evoking the rolling hills of Italy, with an ode to the family’s Italian heritage.
As corporate takeovers and mergers forced smaller guys out of business, Caputo’s stays true to its family’s roots — and an emphasis on produce.

The family-owned and -operated, produce-centric stronghold, which started as a fruit market in 1958, now wields 10 distinct stores throughout the ethnically and culturally diverse greater Chicago area — navigating a competitive, crowded retail landscape.

Increasing produce consumption “The Caputo’s Way” is the essence of the Produce Business Best Independent Retailer Award. This industry-nominated recognition is part of a special award series to honor innovative companies and individuals that masterfully buy and sell fresh fruits and vegetables to drive overall consumption.

Robertino Presta Jr. is the general manager of Caputo’s and grandson of founder Angelo Caputo.

“On behalf of the whole family, we are very honored. That is our daily goal, and the secret for our success,” says Robertino Presta Sr., chief executive. “In a nutshell, that is what we’ve been doing for 66 years, since my father-in-law, Angelo Caputo, started the company. We have been going direct to the farmers, walking the markets every day to get the best products at the best prices, and passing those savings onto our customers. We’re a produce market with a specialty market all around it.”

Vince Ottolino, produce director, who joined Carol Stream, IL-based Caputo’s when he was 15, wears his Caputo’s jacket like a proud U.S. Marine puts on his uniform, in lockstep with the entire Caputo team.

“Caputo’s epitomizes the value of Old World, retail horse sense, with an innate understanding of how to build customer loyalty, homing in on the heartbeat and soul of the neighborhood,” says Gilbert “Gib” Papazian, president, Lucky Strike Farms, in Burlingame, CA, who has been working closely with Vince Ottolino for 30-plus years. Papazian lauds Ottolino’s in-depth market knowledge and merchandising skill to maximize sales, not only on a macro scale, but micro scale.

Vince Ottolino, produce director, has been a part of the Caputo family for 40 years.

“Chicago is still culturally balkanized, yet every Caputo’s store manages to be a centerpiece and supply point for the individual demographic of the local community,” Papazian says.

“We have been going direct to the farmers, walking the markets every day to get the best products at the best prices, and passing those savings onto our customers. We’re a produce market with a specialty market all around it.”

— Robertino Presta Sr., chief executive, Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets

“The day of the independents is coming back, and Caputo’s is the best indie I’ve seen in my 42 years of business,” says Papazian, to cap off his award nomination. To make his point, he juxtaposes Caputo’s to the “boring, milquetoast, soup-to-nuts, generic ways of so many of the large chains of the world — feeding off each other to offer a cross-section of generic stuff, and hope it sells.”


Caputo’s knows what products are important and not important, what to price cheaply, and what to market a certain way, and the company does not profiteer on everything, says Papazian.

 “It is a strikingly dynamic company culture, free of laser pointers and top-down initiatives that stifle creativity,” says Papazian, describing each produce department as a work of art, a reflection of the old-fashioned pride of presenting their best face to the community.

Stores range anywhere from 15,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet. The overwhelming commonality — breathtaking produce departments— is the cornerstone and occupies an outsized role, accounting for 25-30% of total store sales, as well as retail floor space, drawing in customers and enveloping their senses.

The newest and smallest footprint is a new urban concept store that just opened in May 2023, located at the bottom of an apartment complex. The whole idea is to offer all the fresh items in store, with easy access for customers, and then utilize online shopping for all the staple items.

“We concentrate on produce. It is the first thing you see when you walk in our stores, and it is our passion. Different stores have different mixes, and we’re very conscious of the demographics to take care of their specific needs. And that’s probably what makes us a little different,” says Presta Sr.

Another aspect of the company culture is the objective to have children eat healthy foods, and to create healthy customers for the future.

One initiative is to hand out cards to the young ones in the store, and they can just present the card and get a free apple or banana or a more adventurous produce item — just something to get them excited to come into the produce department, says Ottolino, adding, “We have little kid-size shopping carts, too.”


When customers come into the store, they know the produce managers, and the produce managers know most customers by name, says Ottolino. “We notice if we see them at a different location from where they usually shop,” he adds.

Everyone in the neighborhood shops there, and it is also considered the neighborhood’s employer. So often, Uncle Joe is the produce manager, Aunt Rita is a checker, and nieces and nephews earn college money, says Papazian. “Working at Caputo’s is a rite of passage where everyone is family.”

Mainstream retail executives typically don corporate suits and ties, but Caputo’s is the kind of company where everybody from the chief executive to the person bagging groceries, rolls up their sleeves and gets their hands dirty, pulling their weight and pushing a broom.

According to Papazian, Presta Sr. is salt of the earth, hardworking, grinding it out, free of that corporate stand-offish air, but with an ability to navigate and differentiate Caputo’s from the sea of faceless chains. “He sees a piece of paper on the retail floor and walks to the other side of the department to pick it up and throw it away,” says Papazian.

At 88, founder Angelo Caputo was still working the retail floor, wearing a clerk’s apron, and meticulously trimming artichokes on the wet stand, says Papazian. He passed away at 89, in 2021, but his leadership style is still emblematic of the company culture.

Founder Angelo Caputo.

Multi-generational ties are a part of Caputo’s heritage. “There are farmers my grandfather dealt with, and now we’re talking to their grandchildren, some extremely local, in the west suburbs of Chicago, when it was mostly farmland all around here,” says Robertino Presta Jr., general manager and grandson of founder Angelo Caputo.


“Our thing we pride ourselves on is that we walk the markets [Chicago International Produce Market] every day, continually looking for new products, new ideas, and special deals to pass on to our customers,” says Ottolino.

“We check the products as they come in on the truck, interested to see if there are any unique items,” he adds. “We are open to suggestions for good deals at a fair return. We will push six pallets in a couple of days, with big promotional displays and cross merchandising. We want to ensure everybody is happy — our shippers, our distributors, and our customers, and we make a few cents, too.”

With a robust farmers market aesthetic of cascading bulk displays, fresh hand-picked daily deals in bins and crates, Caputo’s is known to “pile it high, and watch it fly.

“Caputo’s doors are always open for opportunity buys; they’re not just buying FOB,” says Papazian. “They don’t pay attention to what the big chains are doing and try to undercut them. They follow their own path.”

According to Presta Jr., decisions can be made quickly to take advantage of opportunities. “A shipper will call us to move extra pallets. We don’t have to run it up the corporate ladder, and it’s not going to take two weeks to get a decision. We’re able to turn on a dime.”

“We’re big enough to move the product, but small enough where we don’t need four truckloads to do a promo and put it on sale.”


Presta Jr. describes the realities of operating in a “fierce, oversaturated retail marketplace, especially in our area.” Corporate takeovers and mergers have forced smaller companies out of business, but Caputo’s stays true to its roots.

“My grandfather always had a saying: ‘If it grows now and it’s good, we’ll have it, and we’ll sell it at a fair price, and if we don’t have it, you don’t need it,’ meaning, if the market is $100 a box, you can find something else,” says Presta Jr., noting one of its biggest strengths is holding a close relationship with the customer.

“We do try to have a wide variety to keep traditions alive — that’s a big goal of ours as a specialty store, but it must make sense for the customer,” adds Ottolino. “We’re not just about what we have in the store for the moment. We’re in the stores talking with customers every day to see what they need and what they want, everything from turmeric roots to yucca to rambutan.”

“We have those hard-to-find items, products that can make any culture or ethnicity feel like they are at home,” says Rosella Presta, marketing manager, who mentions empress plums, dragon fruit, jackfruit, pitahaya, prickly pears and imported chestnuts having a dedicated customer base.

Caputo’s tailors its produce departments to reflect each neighborhood demographic, bringing in unique, and hard-to-find varieties to satisfy a diverse customer base.

“We love to try new items, whether it is a different variety of grapes or apples. We listen to our customers, and work with our growers to see what new items they are offering,” she explains.

Another differentiator is exclusive varieties from certain growers, and Caputo’s highlights these items with creative merchandising, marketing, and social media.

One example of this privileged relationship is with DePalma Farms, an Italian family farm in California, which has grown Percoca peaches exclusively for Caputo’s for the past 30 years. “They are a specialty grower for us, so 95% of their cling peaches goes to canneries, but they put some pallets aside for us to sell during the summer season,” Ottolino explains. Caputo’s also buys wine grapes from them, as well as almonds and walnuts.

DePalma Farms, an Italian family farm in California, has grown Percoca peaches exclusively for Caputo’s for the past 30 years.
Caputo’s Exclusive Parings: Vince Ottolino suggests soaking a DePalma Farms’ Percoca peach—grown exclusively for Caputo’s, in a glass of Angelo Caputo California Cabernet Sauvignon.

When it is an item that people don’t really know about, Caputo’s will do a demo or video on social media, says Presta Jr. “Sometimes I’ll even get on there and explain some health benefits,” he says.

Ottolino adds, “I’ll show what you can do with a Percoca peach, for example — cut it up, soak it in a glass of wine, drink the wine and then you can eat the peach after to see how delicious they are.”

The stores also offer recipe cards, especially for items that may be less familiar.


The stores have a robust farmers market aesthetic of overflowing bulk displays, fresh hand-picked daily deals in bins and crates, and hand-written styled signage. Presta Sr. compares the vibe to New York’s Fairway Market, where they are known to “pile it high, and watch it fly.”  For instance, “It’s not out of the ordinary to find a full pallet display of Andy Boy Rapini. That’s how we operate.”

Organic produce is merchandised separately, with signage above it, and special sales every week, says Presta Jr. However, he adds, if the price is similar on an item, “we’ll carry the organic and not the conventional, because why carry both if it’s the same retail.”

“We were one of the first independents to carry organics in our area. That was 25 to 30 years ago, when there was no USDA organic,” says Ottolino.

The stores have also been doing cut fruit in-house “before convenience was a thing.”

Even offering fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice is something you won’t find in too many places, Ottolino adds. “We also have store events like Hatch Chile Season, with roasters out front.”

Caputo’s was one of the first independent stores to offer online shopping, and it comes with a personal touch. We’ll put the extra effort (and expertise) into it,” says Ottolino, adding, “From the beginning, everything is done in-house from top to bottom.”

That means during the COVID-19 crisis, Caputo’s was prepared because it was ahead of the curve with online shopping.

“Before anyone was shopping at an online store, before the internet, we were racking our brains trying to get three systems to communicate with each other,” says Presta Jr. “We used to personally take people’s orders and hand-deliver food to people’s homes around the neighborhood.”

 That tradition has not been lost. “We’re very much a family here and a part of the community,” he says.

With its passion to bring fresh food and meals to all its communities, Caputo’s has partnered with the Northern Illinois Food Banks for many years. “The amount of produce that we’ve donated has provided more than a million meals,” says Presta, Jr.

Kids Klub: Creating healthy customers for the future, Caputo’s hands out cards to young shoppers for free pieces of fruit.

“In honor of my grandparents, we also have a foundation to help out in every neighborhood,” he says. The mission of the Angelo and Romana Caputo Foundation is to support local charities and make an impact on the lives of children and families in need of care.