Jungle Jim’s offers food from over 70 countries in its two Cincinnati locations
By Robin Winzenread Fritz
Any Hoosier with a garden knows the thrill of picking a fresh tomato from the vine, but what is one to do when craving a more exotic treat? Say, for instance, a pound of cactus leaves or a fresh 4-foot-long sugar cane? The answer? Head southeast to Jungle Jim’s International Market with two locations in the greater Cincinnati area.
Since 1971, “Jungle” Jim Bonaminio has been selling homegrown Midwestern produce, starting with white potatoes sold out of the bed of a truck, but it’s the international and exotic offerings that have made his original Fairfield location and the more recent Eastgate location into worldwide, go-to destinations. From Scottish haggis in a can to Indian laddu flour to Chinese snake beans, the renowned grocery store has it, and if it doesn’t, store managers are willing to track it down.
According to Stephanie Adams, a marketing associate with Jungle Jim’s, Bonaminio began branching out into international foods in the 1980s, adding offerings one country at a time to see how each would sell. Apparently, sales were good, as the international options filling the shelves now come from over 70 countries from around the world. In fact, every continent is represented with the exception of Antarctica, though that may change should penguin ever land on any menus.
In fact, Jungle Jim’s offers so many products, some aren’t even on display and must be requested from the cavernous depths behind closed doors. For example, while the olive bar displays 50 varieties at any one time — with samples available and encouraged — the store actually offers over 100 varieties of olives (including blends), making it impossible to put every type on display at once.
That some things can’t be displayed for lack of space is mind-boggling given the grocery store’s 300,000-square-foot, 6½-acre footprint with more than 1 full acre alone devoted to fresh produce, including some that’s locally sourced. According to Adams, Jungle Jim’s includes fresh produce grown in its home state of Ohio as well as Indiana and Kentucky. Homegrown favorites include the Hoosier standards of corn, green beans and melons, though, surprisingly, not tomatoes.
Hoosier farmers interested in selling their produce to Jungle Jim’s need only call the store and ask to speak to one of its many buyers. While there are no guarantees, Adams said it is possible, though the international produce actually brings in more customers.
“Our ethnic produce is a huge attraction for so many international customers,” said Adams, “and an adventure for those who are unfamiliar with the produce. We carry such a great variety — around 200 specialties — from durian, jackfruit, taro root, lychees, passion fruit to kumquats and more. A lot of the ethnic produce comes from Florida and some other countries like Costa Rica.”
Given the store’s large footprint and overwhelming variety of both fresh produce and packaged goods, a 12-by-24-inch store map is available at the door, but a quick look at the store’s product numbers reveals why the commodities at Jungle Jim’s have to take turns sharing space on its many shelves and produce bins.
Think honey only comes in one flavor? Not at Jungle Jim’s. There are 100 types available — from in the comb to whipped to buttered — including the well-known Sue Bee brand to specialty flavors harvested from specific flowers, such as clover, tupelo, orange blossom, apple blossom and buckwheat.
Over 12,000 domestic and imported wines can be found on the shelves, along with roughly 1,200 types of beer, including micro and craft brews, many of which can be bought in single bottles. Adams said the store also carries some Indiana wine and beers, including those from Upland Brewing Co. and Oliver Winery.
Craving something spicy? Just head toward Jungle Jim’s hot sauce section complete with over 1,000 brands ranging from sweet to heat to just this side of hell, not to mention a wide variety of dried peppers and novelty hot sauce T-shirts. Just be sure to check the prices as one private-label reserve sauce in particular sells for over $1,500 a bottle. And, no, that’s not a typo.
Even given that hefty price, it’s not the most expensive item for sale at Jungle Jim’s. That honor goes to a bottle of 2005 vintage Petrus Pomerol merlot from France, which runs $4,999 and, incidentally, can also be purchased via the New York-based wine auction arm of world famous auction house, Sotheby’s. Other high-end products include a $231 bottle of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale de Reggio Emilia balsamic vinaigrette and Jamon Iberico, which is a type of ham made from hogs fed an exclusive diet of acorns and sells for $119 per pound.
The International Cheese Market at Jungle Jim’s is a huge crowd pleaser and carries so many varieties of cheese — over 1,300, in fact — that the section containing just blue cheese can be measured in feet, not inches — 6 feet, to be exact. If that doesn’t bring a Hoosier gourmand to his knees, perhaps the 70-pound wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano or the nearly 7,200-pound Wisconsin “Big Cheese” will.
And that’s just for starters.
Kangaroo, alligator tail and turtle are some of the many nontraditional offerings in the meat section, with one counter teeming with liver, brains, tongue and other assorted organs. Chicken feet — great for adding a velvety texture to homemade stock — are readily available, as are hog, calf and duck heads in addition to whole poultry, including geese, quail, duck and, of course, chickens, both with and without their heads.
If packages of chicken feet fail to impress, Adams said Jungle Jim’s also carries assorted exotic snacks that may pique an interest, including chocolate-covered ants. For customers who prefer the savory over sweet, larvae in cheddar cheese, barbecue and Mexican-spice flavors are available, too. And don’t forget the crickets, which, in this instance, are meant to be snacked on rather than used as fish bait.
In the seafood aisle, whole frozen octopuses lie near giant, swoon-inducing scallops, and live seafood — including catfish and bluegill — fill the tanks. Fresh fish and seafood, including live lobster, salmon and tilapia, are delivered to Jungle Jim’s as often as five days a week, and many more varieties are also available frozen.
Jungle Jim’s also features a large bakery, which pumps out more than 5,500 loaves of fresh baked breads weekly, not to mention cakes, pies, cookies and other treats. Other popular sections include a sushi bar, a deli, a gourmet cookware section and one section devoted to natural and organic offerings, including gluten-free items. Dry goods from various parts of the world, including but not limited to Japan, Belgium, Spain, China, Italy, France and India, also command their own spaces within the store, with the United Kingdom section hiding out in a Sherwood Forest setting where one can find the intriguing, but not necessarily tempting, haggis in a can.
Over 80,000 foodies visit the store in an average week with numbers swelling during the holidays. Weekends also tend to be a crazy time, according to Adams. The two-hour store tours, which include product samples, are also hugely popular and even the restrooms are worth a trip. Featuring actual port-o-let entrances, the restrooms are so unique the Cintas Corp. named them the ultimate winners of its 2007 “America’s Best Restrooms” contest. Cintas went on to add Jungle Jim’s restrooms to its public restroom hall of fame.
And should you feel overwhelmed by the myriad choices, Jungle Jim’s offers a cure for that, too. An on-site cooking school offers a tasting tour to provide tips and ideas on how to use different exotic ingredients, and classes often feature international themes, such as a German Oktoberfest or a Christmas in Italy cooking demonstration.
Jungle Jim’s has garnered its fair share of national notice. The store has been featured on “Good Morning America” as well as segments of the television shows “Unwrapped” on the Food Network and “Modern Marvels” on the History Channel.
From its humble beginnings as a temporary produce stand to its current status as the Midwest’s most popular grocery store, Jungle Jim’s is definitely worth a trip. Just be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring a cooler.
What to Know
Before You Go
Jungle Jim’s has two locations, the closest to Indiana being the original Fairfield store at 5440 Dixie Highway. The newest location, opened in 2012, is actually larger but further east at 4450 Eastgate South Drive, Cincinnati. Both locations are open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Jungle Jim’s also hosts theme events, including the Barrel Aged Beer Bash on Jan. 16 and 17 and the Big Cheese Festival on Feb. 7 and 8.
For more information, go to Jungle Jim’s website at junglejims.com