Food leaders in Englewood look ahead after Whole Foods’ departure

Hours after Whole Foods announced it was leaving Englewood late last month, community members gathered at Go Green Community Fresh Market on 63rd Street for an event with rapper Freeway.

The event was scheduled for Fresh Market, which opened the nonprofit Inner-City Muslim Action Network in March, before the Whole Foods announcement was made. Sanaa Sayed, director of strategic initiatives at IMAN, said the evening had turned into an “oasis and treatment hub”.

“There was a lot of hope, there was a lot of healing and there was a lot of motivation,” Syed said of that night. “We’re a resilient community, and frankly, if Whole Foods is going to leave, that’s a loss for them.”

Whole Foods opened its store on 63rd Street and Halstead Street with great fanfare in 2016, under the management of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Chicago neighborhood initiatives received $10.7 million in city funding to prepare the site before the city sold it to developer Leon Walker of DL3 Realty for $1.

Peter Strazabosco, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said the sale agreement requires a full-service grocery store to operate the Englewood Square development, where Whole Foods currently serves as a principal tenant, until November 2027. When Whole Foods leaves, the agreement requires the store to operate Grocery new in 18 months.

The plan to bring premium groceries to one of Chicago’s most deprived neighborhoods was a bold one. But despite any initial hesitation, community leaders remember that the partnership’s early days were fruitful.

The company initially priced about 30 items, such as milk, bread, eggs, and some products, much cheaper than other stores in the Chicago area. About 40 local vendors sold their goods on the shelves of Whole Foods. The company has hired a community engagement specialist, Cecil DeMelo, to help build relationships with the Englewood community. Residents gather at the store for cooking shows, yoga classes, and cocktail hours. When Deputy County Sonia Harper’s offices were under construction, she held meetings at Whole Foods.

“We’ve always called it the 63rd miracle,” said Walker, managing partner at DL3 Realty.

Englewood community leaders said that while the lockdown announcement had saddened them, they weren’t entirely surprised by the news. Some said rumors about the store’s closure had been circulating for some time. After Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2017, some of the optimism that characterized the store’s early days dissipated. Some said that in-store community events were becoming less frequent.

Whole Foods announced the closure of its Englewood store in late April, at the same time it announced the closure of another Chicago location at the DePaul University Welcome Center and four other stores across the country. The company said in April that the Englewood store would be closing “in the coming months”. Since then, a company spokesperson has declined to provide a more specific date.

The same week, the company announced the closure of Englewood, opening a roughly 66,000-square-foot site in the Lower North.

The developer, Walker, said there had been “some work to resolve” the shutdown this year, but discussions appeared to “accelerate” when Amazon reported first-quarter numbers earlier this spring. Amazon recorded a loss of $3.8 billion in the first quarter of 2022.

In Englewood, other grocery options include the recently renovated Aldi Street two blocks east of Whole Foods at 63, which has been around since the early 1990s, Food 4 Less in West Englewood and the Fresh Market, which IMAN opened in March as part of Go Green on Racine Project. Lots of Englewood Residents rely at least in part on corner stores, which food leaders say often don’t offer quality food or dignified shopping experiences.

Community leaders in food access work on grassroots efforts to connect residents to healthy, high-quality foods, especially fresh produce. They say having healthy food is so important in Englewood, that a 2019 study found residents’ life expectancy was 60-30 years lower than that on predominantly white Streetville, just 9 miles away. North.

A 2021 Chicago Department of Public Health report found that in 2018, just over 60% of black Chicagoans had easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, compared to about 73% of non-black Chicagoans.

In an interview, Walker said DL3 Realty I started discussions with a grocer about working at Whole Foods. “We had a lot of interest,” he said. “Many” local grocers and a couple of national stores are in the mix, he said.

Walker declined to name the groceries under consideration. He said the future operator should not be a “premium gourmet” grocery like Whole Foods, nor a deep-selling store.

“We’re looking for a middleman,” he said. “A product that delivers value, but also provides a great presentation, shopping experience, and product selection.”

Whole Foods didn’t say much about its decision to close the store, issuing a brief statement at the time of the announcement: “As we continue to position the Whole Foods market for long-term success, we regularly assess the performance and growth potential of each of our stores, and have made the difficult decision to close six stores”.

In an unrelated press conference shortly after the announcement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the shutdown a “blow in the stomach” and said the city was “working to get our tails off” to create a new grocery store.

She blamed Whole Foods’ pricing for the closure, saying the store is often empty, even on Saturdays.

“There is a reason for that,” Lightfoot said. “I don’t know about most of you, but most Chicagoans are hard-pressed to pay, say, $15 a pound for a piece of meat. We have to make sure we make the investments that make sense for those neighborhoods.”

Former Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb disputed the mayor’s comments in an interview with Tribune last week.

“I think the mayor’s comments went too far, quite frankly, about saying he never got a chance. I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “I don’t agree 100%.”

Rob, who worked to bring the store to Englewood in partnership with Mayor Emmanuel, said he was “personally, heartbroken” by the closure. Rob said he couldn’t talk about the details of the store’s financial performance. “Ultimately,” he said, “a business must be profitable to be sustainable, and that is true for any business.”

“It’s hard to keep going when you’re losing money every month,” Rob said.

Community leaders acknowledge Whole Foods prices may be inaccessible to some Englewood residents. But they urged Chicagoans not to view the neighborhood as a monolith. Some said perception, more than actual pricing, was a hindrance, pointing to discounted store pricing on essential items.

“Some of the prices there are outperforming competitors in the community,” said DeMello, who worked at Whole Foods as a community engagement specialist. Before she left while the company moved to Amazon to take a job as CEO of Teamwork Englewood, a nonprofit organization. “But visualizing the store was difficult for people to hack.”

Asiaha Butler, co-founder and director of the Association for Residents of Greater Englewood, or RAGE, said her first choice would be for the former Whole Foods location to welcome a black grocer with a track record of social responsibility, which she would hire. Store locally. A second option, she said, would be a local grocery operator “perhaps not the size of Whole Foods.”

“A lot of community members are seeing how a national retailer can leave,” DeMello said.

Community members agree that what happens at 63 and Halstead is only one part of the story. Everyone said what Englewood needed were options.

“I lived on the North Side,” said Janelle St. John, CEO of Growing Home, a USDA certified organic urban farm in West Englewood. “There was a gem next to Dominic next to Aldi. People should be able to shop.

“For me, having one grocery store within blocks and blocks doesn’t mean a complete solution, we need more options. Just as Northside residents have options, residents of Englewood and South Side should have options.”

John said some grocery options should be available for walk-ins. It should be easy to drive to others. Some of them should be located on busy streets, so that people who take the bus can reach them.

“We have to ask ourselves in Chicago why communities like Englewood have limited storage options to begin with,” said Anton Sells Jr., executive director of Grow Greater Englewood, a nonprofit organization for Food Sovereignty and Land Sovereignty. “How did we, say, come to one community and one act?”

Harper, who was involved in Whole Foods Opening When she was at Grow Greater Englewood, she referred to Chicago’s history of white flying as part of the explanation. She said communities like Englewood that do not have adequate food options often lack other resources, such as health care or recreational resources.

“When we moved into these communities, they were provided with everything we needed, but over time, the companies chose to leave to go elsewhere,” Harper said. “In another place they thought it was more profitable, in another place they thought they liked customers better.”

Food leaders in Englewood are involved in a wide range of grassroots efforts to connect neighborhood residents to fresh, high-quality food at affordable prices. The Go Green Community Fresh Market, modeled on what a corner store might look like if it offered a full range of groceries and a decent shopping experience, is one example.

Syed said the store grew out of IMAN’s campaign to work with corner store owners to offer healthy options themselves. Across the street from Fresh Market is IMAN’s food store. Growing Home donates and sells organic products at discount prices throughout Englewood.

This summer, Grow Greater Englewood will launch a pilot program to connect local restaurants with fresh produce from local black and brown farmers, thus connecting Englewood residents with meals made with those products at free and reduced prices.

But leaders say no single solution is enough, and the neighborhood simply needs more groceries.

“Production is not enough, and one house is not enough. And while there are other local farmers in Englewood, none of us grow with a capacity to meet the needs of our community 100%,” said St. John. Nor whole foods.

A Harper-sponsored bill passed by both houses of the state legislature would provide funding and other assistance to grocery stores, farmers markets and other small retailers in areas that lack adequate access to healthy foods. It’s waiting for a signature from Governor J.B. Pritzker. If passed, Harper said, a funding mechanism for the bill would be determined during the appropriations.

Syed urged Chicagoans to remember that the people of Englewood had purchasing power. She said that when they leave the neighborhood to buy groceries, their dollars go with them.

“The same dollar that is spent on the north side is spent on the south side,” said St. John. “It’s not like it’s a different currency.”

Chicago Tribune reporter Gregory Pratt contributed.

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