Almost one year ago, the doors of Englewood’s Whole Foods Market swung open, the culmination of a bold plan to open an upscale grocery store in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.
No “mission accomplished” banner has yet been hoisted at 63rd and Halsted.
Whole Foods — anchor of the city-subsidized Englewood Square development — has made good on promises of providing jobs, supporting local vendors and boosting healthy food options. The store has, for some, improved quality of life and perhaps even paved the way for future large-scale investment in Englewood.
But Whole Foods acknowledges there’s still much work to be done, particularly in connecting with shoppers on a tight budget who may be unfamiliar with natural and organic products. And the mostly black neighborhood’s well-documented struggles of poverty and crime, exacerbated by lack of economic development, remain steep challenges for business.
As the hype has died down, some questions still linger: Will it work? Will the community support the store?
“That’s something we’re still finding out from week to week,” said Michael Bashaw, Whole Foods Midwest region president. “People will make their choices and in the end, the businesses that reach out to the community and try to meet their needs are the ones that will survive.”
Whole Foods doesn’t disclose sales or profits for individual stores. Bashaw also wouldn’t say how the Englewood store performed in comparison to other Whole Foods locations in the city, but said the store is matching expectations specific to Englewood.
“Certainly we’re a company, and companies evaluate their business all the time. But we got into this (location) from a mission-based perspective and we’re still looking at it that way,” Bashaw said.
For the now-Amazon-owned Whole Foods, the Englewood store represents a rarity. Of the grocery chain’s more than 460 locations in the U.S., four of them are situated in impoverished neighborhoods, including communities in Detroit, New Orleans and Newark, N.J.
None is more difficult than Englewood.
“Englewood is the biggest challenge we’ve ever undertaken as a company trying to serve a community. It’s been the most challenging, and not necessarily in a bad way. But it’s only one year in,” said Walter Robb, former co-CEO of Whole Foods who is now chairman of Whole Cities Foundation, an affiliated nonprofit that’s also active in Englewood.
Bashaw said he didn’t expect Amazon’s ownership of the company to have any bearing on the Englewood store.
More businesses moving in nearby could help bring more foot traffic to Englewood Square, which also includes a Starbucks and a Chipotle Mexican Grill. Negotiations are ongoing for the development of the seven city-owned acres adjacent to Englewood Square, said Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp, who declined to provide further details.
“We have a lot of work to do (in Englewood) and we’re not done yet,” Zopp said. “One of the things we push back on all the time is people want these neighborhoods flipped overnight. They didn’t get this way overnight. But we are committed.”
The Englewood Whole Foods clearly has benefited some people who live and work in the community.
When it opened, Whole Foods hired about 40 of its 100 employees from Englewood, according to the company. It also provided shelf space for almost 40 local vendors, many of whom now also sell their wares in other Whole Foods locations in the Chicago area. Some of them have since hired more people from Englewood.
And some residents and community leaders say the Englewood Square development has made that part of the neighborhood feel safer.
Englewood District Cmdr. Kenneth Johnson declined to comment on the impact of specific businesses, but said “economic and community development are integral to making neighborhoods safer.”
From Sept. 28 of last year, when the store opened, to Aug. 1 of this year, police have responded to fewer calls for assistance at the Englewood store than almost every other Whole Foods location in the city, according to Chicago Police Department data. There are some caveats: store hours vary by location and fewer incidents could be tied to less foot traffic.
There’s also the ripple effect on other businesses. One example: Next fall, a microbrewery called Englewood Brews plans to open just across 63rd Street from Whole Foods.
Co-founder Lesley Roth cited the recent and planned economic development in the neighborhood, as well as an underlying feeling of community hope, as reasons for locating her business in Englewood. The brewery won $10,000 last year through a business plan competition organized by the nonprofit Teamwork Englewood and funded by Whole Foods, as well as a $250,000 small business grant from the city — part of almost $1 million total awarded to nine Englewood businesses through the citywide retail thrive zone program.
The mere fact that Whole Foods is in Englewood signals opportunity to other businesses, said Perry Gunn, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, which partnered with Whole Foods on job training and recruitment for the store’s hiring.
“It’s like an economic engine. People see Whole Foods and they see a store like this can make it in Englewood,” Gunn said.
Leon Walker, managing partner of DL3 Realty, the developer of the shopping complex, said the store’s already proven itself a success.
“(Englewood Square) was meant to be a ripple in the pond that would draw more businesses. It was never meant to be a silver bullet,” Walker said.
Prices an obstacle
Still, even some Whole Foods patrons cast a skeptical eye on who the store is really serving in the community.
Is this store for Englewood now, or for the bustling, revitalized neighborhood envisioned by developers and city officials?
“When I go in here, I don’t see the same people from the neighborhood. I see a lot of teachers and cops and people cruising through here trying to gentrify the area,” said Greg Goodman, 33, a teacher at the nearby Lindblom Math and Science Academy.
Prices — and perception of prices at Whole Foods — remain an obstacle. A couple of blocks east on 63rd Street, several Englewood residents leaving Aldi, a discount grocery chain, said they liked having Whole Foods in the neighborhood, but didn’t shop there often.
“I’ve been in there a couple times, but I try to stick to my budget. I have kids,” said Donte Jackson, 29, a prep cook at a barbecue restaurant and father of three young children.
Many Englewood residents want to eat healthier food, but can’t afford it, said Vince O’Neal, 42.
“If Whole Foods could come up with more affordable prices, they would reap the benefit. I promise you that,” O’Neal said.
Whole Foods did price staple items throughout the Englewood store lower than at other locations. And after Amazon bought Whole Foods over the summer, the company further reduced prices on some other products companywide — though some industry analysts concluded those price cuts were more about marketing than substantive change.
Englewood remains one of the city’s areas of concentrated poverty, ranking fifth in economic hardship out of Chicago’s 77 community areas, according to an analysis last year by the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Englewood had the highest percentage of households living in poverty, 48.3 percent, and the third lowest per capita income, $11,281, according to the study.
None of these challenges come as a surprise to Iris Patterson, one of the vendors who got a break with the Englewood Whole Foods.
Patterson, an Englewood native who makes hair care products targeted at black women, said she’s grateful for the opportunity that Whole Foods has afforded her in growing her business, Iris Botanicals, which is now in three other Whole Foods locations.
One year after opening, Englewood's Whole Foods store has had some success, but company officials say there's still work to do.
But she worries about the store’s long-term prospects for success.
“The No. 1 concern in that community is survival,” said Patterson, who now lives near the Chatham neighborhood. “Eating fresh is not top of mind.”
Connecting with community
The soft background music cut off, replaced with a sudden burst of ambient hip-hop beats from turntables near the registers. Heads began to nod. Shoulders started shimmying. The warm din of conversation and laughter slowly gained volume, punctuated by the occasional popping of wine corks.
It was Friday night at the Englewood Whole Foods.
Every week, more than 100 people show up for the store’s wine and food pairing promotion — one of the unexpected successes for the store in its first year of operation. On this particular night, the culinary theme was Cuban street food.
“I love it. People can talk and learn about food and wine — and it feels safe,” said Kathy Manuel, 59-year-old retired teacher and longtime Englewood resident who sipped prosecco with her daughter in the produce department.
In year one, the Englewood store has filled various roles in its quest to connect with residents: community meeting space, bastion of healthy food and, yes, a place to safely drink a glass of wine.
Over the past year, Addison Shields has observed the ebb and flow of cars in the Whole Foods parking lot from the window of Teamwork Englewood. A retired pastor, Shields, 68, works at the nonprofit as a part-time bookkeeper.
Addison Shields, 68, purchases groceries at the Englewood Whole Foods on Sept. 20, 2017, in Chicago. Shields took healthy cooking and eating classes at the store and says he was able to lose weight and reduce his blood sugar levels.