Lost at Jungle Jim's? Just look up.

Posted at 8:09 AM, Mar 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-07 09:34:20-05

FAIRFIELD, Ohio -- Before Jared Bowers became the marketing and content coordinator last year for Jungle Jim’s International Market, he was a regular customer.

But the exotic foods were just part of the draw.

“I really enjoyed the overall weirdness of the store,” he said, referring to the hundreds of quirky displays at the Fairfield and Eastgate locations.

It’s now Bowers’ job to promote that weirdness.

“How could I not want to talk to people on such a big scale about the boat office or the singing Elvis lion?” Bowers said.

Photo by William Croyle

Jungle Jim’s is known for stocking just about everything edible, from ostrich eggs to Costa Rican yucca roots to alligator meat.

But customers can’t shop without noticing the old Coney Island bumper cars used as candy displays, the 1950s fire truck exhibiting hot sauces from around the world or the authentic battleship artillery in the seafood aisle.

Photo by William Croyle

The method to the madness of how the grocery store acquires these items is rather simple.

“Jungle goes out junking, buys stuff all over town, then sits on it until he comes up with some crazy idea for how to use it,” said Jimmy Bonaminio, the company’s creative director and son of owner Jungle Jim Bonaminio. “But he’s very thoughtful in how he does it. We like to be everything to everybody.”

Photo by William Croyle

The company has a warehouse full of Jungle’s treasures, some that might sit idle for years. When Jungle thinks of a way to use something, the graphic design department and fabrication shop get to work.

“It’s pretty cool; definitely something different all the time,” said Mike Eiseman, lead graphic designer. “Sometimes we’re printing stuff and other times we’re building things.”

The Fairfield store features shelving built with wood beams salvaged from a World War II submarine plant, a wine display made from a bowling alley lane, the Elvis lion Bowers spoke about that came from Chuck E. Cheese and a large artificial tree that was originally a trade show display for International Paper.

“Jungle was at a warehouse looking at something else when he saw the tree,” Bonaminio said. “The guy said it wasn’t for sale. Jungle said, ‘I don’t want anything else in here unless you throw that tree on the truck.’”

Photo by William Croyle

Annie Burkhart, the Fairfield store’s tour manager, said Jungle “isn’t so much a foodie as he is about the vision.”

She said many displays are strategically placed to help customers, especially those who don’t speak English.

“I tell them that looking up will help them find what they need,” she said.

For example, there is a giant birthday cake above the bakery, a taxi from India suspended over the Indian food aisle and an Amish buggy above the Amish chicken display case.

An Indian taxi, also known as a tuc tuc. Photo by William Croyle.

But some items have no relevance to anything in the store. They’re simply interesting to observe.

One shelf has an accordion, an old Cleveland Browns helmet and a fat-melting vibrating machine from the 1950s.

“It’s like an antique store,” Burkhart said. “Jungle’s mind never turns off. Never.”

Photo by William Croyle

The Eastgate location opened in 2012. Though it’s newer than the Fairfield store that opened in 1975, the theme of showcasing funky items at Eastgate is the same.

“We probably spent two years working on it before we opened, just making it as crazy as we could,” Bonaminio said.

Photo by William Croyle

Customers are greeted inside by a 1963 trailer flanked by a clothesline of 1960s garments. Other eye-catching items include part of a DC-8 airplane, a Kellogg’s cereal display featuring a talking Tony the Tiger and first-class Delta seats for customers to relax.

Nearly 12,000 people take guided tours annually in the two stores.

“Tours last over an hour. We walk more than a mile, and we still have to skip a lot because there’s just so much,” said Chelsea White, Eastgate’s tour manager.

Photo by William Croyle

No matter how many times people visit either location, they will likely see a display they didn’t notice previously.

“It’s about getting something cheap and being a visionary with it,” Bonaminio said.

That’s what makes Bowers’ marketing job so interesting.

“We do our best to make sure (these items) remain a big part of what make our stores so unique,” Bowers said. “Those are the things people are going to notice immediately.”