Three years from retirement age, "Jungle" Jim Bonaminio shows no signs of slowing

Take a walking tour of retailer's junkin' treasure

Jungle Jim is forever in motion.

Pacing through his Jungle Jim's International Market Eastgate location, performing for the camera, James O. Bonaminio is easily distracted.

“Everything cool?” he asks a nearby shelf stocker. “This is the media. You alright? You’re not wanted anywhere are you?”

A customer’s worried look derails another train of thought. She can’t find the rye bread. He directs his son Jimmy to help.

Outside the store, a helicopter whirs overhead. “Hear the helicopter?” he asks, interrupting his own sentence.

Then, it’s back to the tour.

Fire truck. Pirate ship. Fish tanks. Hookahs.

“I believe in energy,” Bonaminio explains. “If you expend the energy, things’ll happen.”

Bonaminio didn’t get the results he wanted from his first year in business at the former Bigg’s Plaza retail center near Eastgate Mall. But it would be a mistake to assume he’s discouraged.

“I love the action,” Bonaminio said in an exclusive interview with WCPO on Sept. 24, one day before Eastgate’s one-year anniversary. During the interview, he let slip a few details about an expansion project at Eastgate. As WCPO reported , Clermont County’s Port Authority has agreed to issue $24.5 million in bonds to enable the project.

Because of its highway access and Clermont County’s growing suburbs, Bonaminio is convinced his 215,000-square-foot Eastgate store will outperform his Fairfield store, a 300,000-square-foot complex that draws 80,000 customers a week and generates an estimated $90 million in revenue.

So far, Eastgate is drawing about 40,000 shoppers weekly, less than half of its original projections. It is surrounded by rivals: Walmart, Meijer, Kroger, Sam’s Club.

Bonaminio embraces the challenge.

“I like the action, man. I love the action,” he said. “We used to play baseball. I’d rather play a tough team and lose by one than play some easy team and kill ‘em 10 to 1. I like the action. We’ll see what happens, alright?”

Challenging – But Never Dull – Boss

Bonaminio is again on the move. He talks about his next television commercial, which will debut in a few weeks.

“Last time we went on TV it was uh, I don’t know. I didn’t like the ads. This time I acted crazy. I went golfing in here,” he said. “So, we’ll find out what happens.”

He’s got thoughts and opinions on just about everything:

On competition: “I like my (back) against the wall, see what you’re made of.”

Recycling:  “I call it junkin’. They call it green. So cute.”

Will he add a third store? “You never know … Columbus is here quite a bit in this store.”

The Eastgate tour stalls when Bonaminio is again distracted. This time by a stack of tall Pepsi cans, priced at two for a dollar. The display is drawing too little attention on this particular Tuesday morning.

“That’s one of the hottest specials in the whole store and it looks like it’s a stepchild,” he explains after chastising an employee. “Make a bigger display. Put some more skids out there. Do something.”

His employees are used to this kind of feedback.

“He can be a challenging boss,” said Todd Wiggs, beer and wine manager at Jungle Jim’s.

Wiggs said department managers are given an “open checkbook” to fill store shelves, but that freedom comes with responsibility. “

Bonaminio  is prone to question any decision at any time. With 10,000 wines and 3,200 beers in stock, Wiggs is open to a lot of questions.

“Sometimes, I’m thankful I don’t sell produce,” he said.

In Search of an Ostrich Egg Vendor

That is where Bonaminio got his start four decades ago. He was a college dropout, selling produce from a roadside stand.

Always in motion, ever evolving, Jungle Jim built his quirky empire on specialty foods and public spectacle. His stores stock more than 150,000 items from displays that scream for attention.

He buys junk – airplane seats, a Sri Lankan taxi, the old Kings Island monorail – and weaves it all into the Jungle Jim experience.

“That’s why the families come, that’s why the kids come. You’re trying to make a shopping experience instead of a dull thing,” he said.

Specialty Food Manager Jim Beckett can attest to that lack dullness. He has sold to Jungle Jim’s for nearly 30 years before joining the company five years ago.

“Nothing like it,” Beckett said, “absolutely not like going to work.”

Where else could a food buyer spend weeks in search of an ostrich egg supplier?

After 50 calls, he found a petting zoo in Arizona that is now a Jungle Jim’s supplier.

Another example is the first and only memo he sent his boss shortly after joining the company.

“You wrote me a memo?” Bonaminio asked him, crumbling the paper as he advised, “We don’t write memos.”

Who Is Next King Of The Jungle?

Neither have they written a succession plan.

“We don’t really think too much about that,” said Jimmy Bonaminio, the founder’s 34-year-old son.

“Jungle is still so active in the business and it will probably be like that for quite some time.”

Jimmy Bonaminio is director of creative services. Brother, Chris, is general manager of the Fairfield store. Jungle’s wife, Joani, is a company vice president. But there is no heir apparent to Jungle Jim.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to have a father that has led by example,” said Jimmy Bonaminio. “We can see right in front of our eyes what it would take to carry the baton.”

When that stick will pass is anyone’s guess.

At 62, Bonaminio has friends who’ve retired to ocean views and card games, good wine and cigars. But he doesn’t seem able to quit the motion of a 70-hour work week.

When might he leave the Jungle?

“I dunno.  ‘Til I drop,” he said. “I got a sickness, waddya gonna do? A business sickness.”


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