One year in, has Whole Foods helped fix one of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods?

Published on
May 22, 2018

Have organic veggies, a full butcher’s case and stacks of sparkling LaCroix at Whole Foods helped transform one of Chicago’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods?

It’s been one year since the long-anticipated Whole Foods Market opened in Englewood, a contributor, mostly through gang activity, to Chicago’s infamously high murder ranking. It’s also home for hard-working families struggling to thrive in a “food desert” that lacked supermarkets much beyond the couple of grocery aisles in the drugstore or liquor store.

The resounding response to its retail landmark? There are measurable changes — when it opened, Whole Foods hired about 40 of its 100 employees directly from Englewood — but it’s too soon to declare mission accomplished.

The typically upscale, Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market occupies an 18,000-square-foot store in the newly constructed Englewood Square. Ambitions for its impact as an anchor were high after three years of planning and construction. Local media reported that some customers waited for as long as four hours for the store’s 9 a.m. grand opening on Sept. 28, 2016. Store officials said then that more than 3,000 people had shopped by the end of the first day.

And now?

The company, which won’t issue store-specific sales figures, argues that it is making a difference.

“During our first year of serving the Englewood community, we’ve been able to increase access to fresh foods and offer healthy eating education to residents and families,” Whole Foods spokesperson Allison Phelps told MarketWatch.

Another official told the Chicago Tribune that it’s difficult to compare Englewood’s results with other stores, even those in the Chicago area, because the company approached the Englewood store less from a purely profit perspective and more from a “mission-based perspective.”

Company-wide, a presence in impoverished neighborhoods is clearly still experimental. Of the grocery chain’s more than 460 U.S. locations, just three more can be found in neighborhoods resembling the demographics of Englewood, one each in Detroit, New Orleans and Newark, N.J.

The Englewood location features organic produce, unique and traditional pantry items, an indoor cafe and a lengthy menu of prepared food for takeout, an inventory model that Whole Foods largely uses no matter where it operates. Executives said they’ve trimmed prices for the neighborhood because of a smaller footprint and lower negotiated wholesale costs. The median household income in Englewood is under $20,000, according to Census data.

A local teacher told the Tribune that he sees teachers, cops, social workers and people aimed at “gentrifying” the neighborhood shopping when he shops there, but doesn’t feel it’s yet the go-to for locals.

German-owned discount grocery chain Aldi, with its no-frills format, now operates a store a few blocks from the new Englewood development. Some residents told local media they like having Whole Foods around, but remain willing to travel the longer distance for Aldi’s pricing.

Since the Englewood opening, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods has been sold to online retail giant Amazon AMZN, -0.39%  and some changes, including limiting the input on sales strategies for local items by local vendors themselves, are expected. Analysts also think that Amazon’s scope could help Whole Foods contain costs, including in Englewood, and help it shake off its “Whole Paycheck” mocking, ideally while preserving its unique cache.

Read: Amazon’s changes leave Whole Foods on fast track to mimic conventional grocery stores

And: Whole Foods can kick its overpriced reputation with Amazon’s help

With Whole Foods as the anchor, the Englewood Square shopping complex, which also includes a Starbucks SBUX, -0.08%   and a Chipotle Mexican Grill CMG, -1.57%  , was a $20 million project financed with a combination of city land subsidies, crowdfunding and federal tax credits. The center had leased all of its retail space except for one storefront as of this month, Leon Walker of DL3 Realty told DNA Info. Next fall, a microbrewery called Englewood Brews plans to open just across the street from Whole Foods.

There’s a growing sense of hope in promoting other local businesses and entrepreneurs. Some 35 Englewood-made products, which include baked goods, beauty items targeted at African-American women, and more, have been stocked since opening. For some of these vendors, securing a Whole Foods contract allowed them to boost their own staffing, and Chicago officials claimed that 200 neighborhood jobs were newly created as a result of the Starbucks and Whole Foods openings.

There’s clearly some inherent publicity with the product placement. “Many of our 35 local suppliers have been able to expand into multiple stores across the region, including Imani’s Original Bean Pies, Justice of the Pies, Tea Squares and Lanie’s Bakeshop,” said Phelps.

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, cited by the Tribune. The report noted some caveats: store hours vary by location and fewer incidents could be tied to less foot traffic.

The store can serve as a social hub. Every week, more than 100 people show up for the wine and food pairing promotion — one of the unexpected successes for the store in its first year of operation.

Andrea Watson, writing about the neighborhood for DNA Info, says that many retailers and residents are simply asking, What’s next? They remain energized by the possibilities.

It leaves little doubt that there are times when a grocery store is so much more than just a food seller. But the question remains whether Whole Food’s impact is the kind of immediate help needed in a neighborhood that was only recently hungry for any old grocery store, period.

The Englewood Whole Foods, on Chicago’s South Side
The Englewood Whole Foods, on Chicago’s South Side
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