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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Scene in South Bend: Bamber’s Superette Food Market

Keri O'Mara | The Observer
Keri O'Mara | The Observer
Just off the South Eddy Street exit on Mishawaka Avenue sits Bamber’s Superette Food Market. The Italian delicacies shop lies amidst the usual concrete scenery of a normal South Bend road, with an unassuming façade plainly detailing some of the day’s specials in the windows. However, once you step inside the seemingly every-day building, the variety in selections that Bamber’s Superette stocks immediately overwhelms the senses.

Bamber’s history, though having opened in 1950, actually dates to 1915, when third-generation owner Gene Bamber’s grandfather founded a shop across the street from its current location. Although it had to close the store during the Great Depression, the Bamber family continued its foray in the food market business when Gene's parents established the store in 1950 at its current location, though not at its expanded size yet. Through the expansion of the surrounding community due to the growth of the area’s colleges and the wealth of diverse individuals attracted by many of the town’s burgeoning offerings, Bamber’s evolved from a more standard convenience shop to the specialty market it is now.

Largely coinciding with Gene Bamber’s inheritance as owner of the Superette in 1974, the store started taking consideration from its diverse clientele on what international fare to bring in. Bamber specifically remembers a possibly ironic moment of clarity during a huge snowstorm in 1976. When his milk deliverer could not reach his store due to unpaved roads, Bamber saw that “the gas station across the street was selling gallons of milk at some ungodly amount of money," and realized that consumers could get most essential items at 7-11 or a similar convenience store.  Coupled with his customers' recommendations, Bamber moved away from a convenience store model and transitioned to carrying specialized products, ones that could only be found at his store.

Now, Bamber’s appreciation for the food his store carries shines through the food itself. Working through the freezer section, he points out the pasta that was all prepared by chefs, the pizzas imported from Italy and the brand of sausages, Continental Sausage, he discovered through an episode of “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.”  And as much as he revels the foods he does stock, Bamber is just as excited about the products he anticipates tracking down in the future. An elusive Hungarian noodle has been slightly out of his reach, but he expects his hunt to near its end; by November, the store will acquire a pesto-infused biscotti, which alone speaks to the exclusivity of Bamber’s brands and products. An ice cream vendor from California named Dr. Bob’s Handcrafted Ice Cream, Bamber recollects, has been dealing with the store for over 10 years, after Bamber met the vendor at a trade show.

The one thing clearly as important to Bamber as food is people. He briefly paused our conversation in order to greet and help a customer, who also happened to be his cardiologist, move his bags to his car. Bamber showed care with every shopper that stopped in, either mentioning his relationship with him or her or simply helping him or her locate an item. The ideas of family and food are distinctly interconnected to Bamber. A question about braciole will lead to a great story about youth Sunday suppers with his grandparents, and a look into his family’s previous generations beckons recalling other recipes. This sense of inclusion so present in Bamber in turn pervades the market.

When walking through the doors to Bamber’s Superette, the open layout pours all its splendors directly towards its customers, both thanking them for stopping by and enticing them to jump right in. As you enter, to your near-left an open display with various pre-prepared sides and baked pasta dishes, ready to heat and serve, awaits. To your right, specialty bottles of hard-to-find sodas line the wall in a sweet, colorful mosaic. Brands and flavors range from classics like Boylan's Black Cherry and Grape soda to personal favorites, ginger beers and Spindrift Sparkling Half-and-Half. As for a section of freezer space, Bamber’s carries an adventurous, unmatched array of game meats, including pheasant, Kobe burgers, venison and sausage of any kind imaginable. Bamber’s prides itself on its quantity and quality of high-end produce options, also stocking Italian and international cheeses, wine, beer, spices, fresh bread, dry pasta and desserts. To list all their products would be exhaustive, and would ruin the delight in discovering the specialty gems.

Bamber truly has a passion for running Bamber’s Superette Food Market, as well as the variety of foods his store carries, and it comes out in his attention to detail and care. All the shelves are meticulously organized — each product given its own space for celebration — cleanly displaying the myriad of options. Anyone half as excited by food as Bamber undoubtedly is will get a serious rush and great appreciation from perusing Bamber’s aisles. Indeed, visitors may easily find themselves spending a good chunk of time working their way through the wondrous selection the market has to offer the South Bend and Notre Dame areas. Stop in not only for the quality selections, but also for the fascinating, rich history behind the market and the genuine, dedicated man at the center of it.