One year ago, the much-anticipated Whole Foods grocery opened in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, a black South Side community with corner stores more overstocked with junk food than groceries brimming with healthy options.
Questions swirled about how the store would be affordable to shoppers in this low-income community. While store officials said sales are not what the company had hoped, the store has emerged as a local hub and catalyst for bringing in new businesses to the long-disinvested corridor around 63rd and Halsted streets.
“It’s been definitely a mixed year in terms of results,” said Walter Robb, the former Whole Foods co-CEO who chairs the nonprofit Whole Cities Foundation. “Have we accomplished everything we wanted to? No. Have the sales been all that we hoped? No. Have we created a gathering place for people? Have we created some jobs? Have we brought some new choices to the community that perhaps didn’t exist before? Yes we have.”
On Thursday, the store celebrated its one-year anniversary with a free farmers market in the parking lot. Residents said there are advantages to note, and also more to be done.
Englewood residents Linda Love and Douglas Carr get free farmer’s market tickets from Vivana Proano, a regional marketer with Whole Foods. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)
Englewood residents have a place to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. This Whole Foods is also one of the few sit-down restaurants in the neighborhood. On Friday nights, the grocery hosts a happy hour with wine tastings, food stations, and music — either a live band or DJ — making it a community hub. The store also offers yoga, nutrition, and belly dancing classes.
The store stocks products from local vendors and has provided more than 70 jobs, according to store officials. Whole Cities Foundation has sponsored a business competition challenge for Englewood. The foundation has also given Englewood groups $74,000.
“This place has become a center for the community and that’s something that we all thought of, but it unfolded in a way past what I thought could happen, my vision for it,” said Cecile De Mello, community engagement specialist for the Whole Foods Englewood store.
Room for improvement
Community activists said the company has kept its promises to the neighborhood. Prices are cheaper than other area Whole Foods, but they’ve also fluctuated. When the store first opened, sandwiches were six dollars — now they are eight. Whole Foods officials said there are more opportunities for price reductions since Amazon acquired the grocer. For example, the price of bananas in Englewood have continued to decrease. Milk and eggs tend to be cheaper than other Whole Foods.
The price of organic shredded mozzarella cheese also dropped a few cents after Amazon bought Whole Foods. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)
There’s still the perception that the fresh and organic grocer lives up to the moniker “Whole Paycheck.” Asiaha Butler, of the community groups R.A.G.E. and Grow Greater Englewood, said while it’s a community hub on Friday nights, weekends tend to be empty.
Butler said the company appears to be committed to the store and the neighborhood, but more food education is needed.
“The community activists and advocates are totally aware of what’s happening at Whole Foods and love it,” Butler said. “It’s become a meet-up place. But those grandmothers on the block may not know what’s here and what’s accessible. Some more heavier marketing [is needed,].”
Other critiques are that the store needs to offer more cooking classes and lessons on how to shop at the specialty store.
A mural in the Englewood Whole Foods shows a child biting into a bright green apple. Some residents say awareness of increased options for fresh produce hasn't reached the community in the way the store had envisioned. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)
The Whole Foods helped attract a Starbucks and Chipotle to the Englewood Square shopping area, officials said last year.
“It’s brought a whole different type of energy to the corner of 63rd and Halsted. It’s bringing attention to get new investors to come back,” said Perry Gunn, executive director of the nonprofit Teamwork Englewood, which is located directly across the street from Whole Foods.
This year, the city named part of 63rd Street a retail thrive zone, which means local small businesses are able to get grants up to $250,000. Nine businesses have gotten grants to come to 63rd Street. They include black retailers from Englewood. By next year, a brewery, soul food restaurant, design firm, shared commercial kitchen space, and barber college are expected to open.