Jungle Jim's International Market
Jungle Jim's International Market was built to appeal to foodies -- and to people like us, who choose where to shop based on the presence of robots.
Jim Bonaminio opened his grocery store in Fairfield in 1975. He started turning it into an attraction in 1988. Around the store, Bonaminio is known simply as "Jungle" -- even his adult children call him that. He zips down the aisles on a Segway, stopping to sign autographs, sometimes draped in a foam rubber snake or dressed in his "Price Wizard" robes.
Jimmy, his eldest son, showed us around. "Growing up, we never knew this wasn't normal," Jimmy said as we stopped to admire Singing Elvis Lion, the animatronic mascot of the candy department. Another attraction, The Big Cheese, hangs like a trophy whale in a towering refrigerator case. It weighs nearly a half-ton and is eaten and replaced every year or so. "If you're feeling provolonely, come watch us cut the cheese," said Jimmy, a promotional line he admitted he coined himself.
The cheese and Elvis, like many of the attractions at Jungle Jim's, have their own postcards, displayed on racks next to a bank of old barber chairs at the checkout. The chairs were purchased in bulk by Jungle, and are simply for the comfort of customers, who may need a place to sit after hiking around the 300,000-square-foot store. "It's all about junk," said Jimmy. "Jungle doesn't sit around, saying, 'Oh, it would be so cool to have this.' He buys junk, and then we figure out what to do with it."
Two of Jungle's more impressive purchases are outdoors: an 80-foot-long sea serpent that he bought from a Kentucky aquarium, and an elevated "World of Food" monorail -- formerly at King's Island amusement park -- that carries people across the parking lots to a monorail station wrapped in a giant snake. Huge letters, salvaged from the old Cincinnati bus depot, offer shade for the garden center, next to an African water hole populated with full-size fiberglass elephants from defunct mini-golf courses. The store's windows have bulletproof glass, not because it needs it, but because Jungle got a good deal.
Back inside, we noted the "international" aspect of the store with items such as shrink-wrapped lamb heads (complete with eyeballs, a delicacy); canned caterpillars; and bagged kangaroo meat. "We sell 100 a week," said Jimmy of the lamb heads. A robot Robin Hood greets customers to the foods of England, while a vintage fire truck is parked atop a display of 1,400 south-of-the-border hot sauces, with names such as Sudden Death and Road Kill. An "Adult-Oriented" selection is displayed up high, out of eyesight from children.
Jungle Jim's is considered such an oddity that it has its own tour guides, who lead hour-long treks everywhere from the anthropomorphized soup can to the Gilligan's Island shrimp boat, populated by a robot rock band of breakfast cereal creatures -- and tour-goers pay for the privilege (defrayed by a $2.00 gift certificate and food samples).
Our walk with Jimmy ended at the store's public bathrooms, voted "America's Best Restroom" in 2007 when Jungle replaced each entrance with a real porta-potty (Inside, they're normal restrooms). Above the entrances, a line of five video monitors played clips of TV newscasts, endlessly reporting the breaking news of the bathrooms. Jimmy watched the screens, as pleased as we were, and said that the media coverage stretched around the globe. "It was so simple," he said, awed by his father's gift for publicity. "Genius!"