The arrival of COVID-19 has turned the restaurant world upside down. When states started to ask residents to shelter in place, it forced businesses to get creative. For the Jetro/Restaurant Depot brand, the pivot to allowing the public to shop there was an obvious one.

Chicago’s restaurant owners will routinely trek to their beloved depot for supplies. Most have a love and hate relationship with the Goose Island spot. Now, during the pandemic, the general public has the chance to explore the members-only store.

A sign off a parking lot.
The entrance off Division Street.
A entrance of Restaurant Depot.
The entrance feels like a Costco blended with an Ikea.

The history of the nation’s leading wholesale grocer can be traced back to 1976 when private investors opened a wholesale cash and carry store in New York called Jetro. By the mid-1980s, Jetro Cash & Carry had locations across the country. Fast forward to the ‘90s, which is when the Restaurant Depot name was born in Elmhurst, Queens. Like Jetro, Restaurant Depot focuses on getting direct savings to restaurateurs by purchasing goods in high volumes and cutting out the middlemen as far as delivery and trucking overhead. During the summer of 1994, Restaurant Depot became a division of Jetro and today it has more than 130 locations across 33 states. The Chicago area is home to five of them.

I’ve always used the term “Costco on steroids” to describe Restaurant Depot to those curious about what it is. My first experience with the store came in my high school days (2000s) when my mom ran a local non-profit that allowed her to have a membership, which is free to anyone who can provide proof of a business license. Having access to that membership card gave me the experience needed to navigate the massive warehouse that stocks a full range of fresh meats, seafood, produce, frozen products, dry groceries, cleaning supplies, beverages, and restaurant equipment. So where does one start? These are my tips for the Goose Island location on Division Street.

The aisles at Restaurant Depot.
A Costco on steroids.
  • Bring a sweater, even if it’s warm outside. All the meats, most of the produce, and the seafood department are located in a huge walk-in fridge. It can get cold in there quickly.
  • Give yourself some time to explore the entire store. No matter how many tips I give you, it will be intimidating at first. If it’s your first trip, you can grab a map at the front desk but it’s best to commit to walking around the entire store. This way you won’t miss anything.
  • While the typical home chef may not have use for a 10-pound tube of ground beef, most of the seafood is sold based on how much you want. I buy the regularly available fresh U.S. Gulf shrimp more than any item. Note: The seafood department has started pre-packaging for safety reasons.
A person wearing a mask wheels out a pallet.
A customer wheels out of the walk-in fridge.
  • Stock up on cooking oils. Customers can buy larger individual bottles of vegetable, olive, canola oils, and more for a very nice price.
  • Canned goods are much cheaper too. You do have to buy them in six-pound cans, but a trip to the container section will net you all the Tupperware you need. The same goes for measuring containers.
  • Though you’ll have to wait to throw a Chicago-style hot dog party, you can stock up on the non-perishable toppings now. Natural casing wieners, tubs of mustard, neon green relish, sport peppers, pickles, and celery salt are great long-term investments — as is a restaurant-sized bottle of giardiniera.
The meats.
A seafood section with fish in a cooler display case.
Gulf shrimp is a popular item.
  • I always grab a package of Martin’s Potato Rolls when checking out. I consider these to be the top shelf of commercial made burger buns and they’re always in stock.
  • Jetro/Restaurant Depot is also a popular supply chain with convenience stores. That means both the candy aisle and the beverage sections are stacked.
They’ve got all the cleaners.
  • It has all the flour you need and lots of baking supplies to play with it.
  • In a time when gloves and cleaning supplies are in high demand, you can find nearly everything you need to kill germs and prevent the spread of them in the cleaning supplies section.
  • Don’t walk past the takeout supplies section without grabbing some plastic film, aluminum foil, and even butcher paper, which are all a bargain compared to other spots.
  • Even if you don’t need food, this is a great place to shop for kitchen supplies. Lodge brand cast-iron pans, pizza cutters, barbecue mops — you name it and odds are it’s there. You might even find something you didn’t know you needed.
It’s a cleaner’s paradise.

Other Restaurant Supply Stores around town to check out

Northwestern Cutlery (810 W. Lake Street)

Large collection of kitchen supplies that will impress even the most seasoned chefs. If you need your kitchen knives sharpened, this is your spot.

Park to Shop (1835 S. Canal Street)

You need to stock it all to become one Chinatown’s premiere grocers and that’s what they do here with an obvious focus on Chinese ingredients and supplies.

Qideas (1134 W. Argyle Street)

This mom-and-pop shop on Argyle focuses on restaurant supplies and plants like bonsai and bamboo.

Banner Wholesale Grocers (2639 S. Damen Avenue)

This family-owned restaurant supply store recently moved into new digs in Pilsen. It supplies many of the Mexican restaurants around the area and is always open to the public.

Stock ‘n Save (4535 W. Armitage Avenue)

A neighborhood-style wholesale food store where there’s always a line to get in on weekends.