High-end grocer coming to South Side food desert

Whole Foods will partner with Washburne Culinary Institute at Kennedy-King College.

September 4, 2013

(Updated at 3:20 p.m.)

Whole Foods is coming to Englewood.

The posh organic grocery store plans to open in 2016 in an area that’s been an emblem for food deserts in Chicago.

Currently, only corner stores and discount grocers occupy Englewood, a low-income African-American community on the city’s South Side. The grocer estimates it will bring 100 jobs and fresh, organic food to an area starved for development. Located at 63rd and Halsted, the new 18,000 square-foot store will be across the street from Kennedy-King College, which has a lauded culinary program.

Whole Foods may seem like an unlikely chain to open in an area with high poverty and unemployment. But Michael Bashaw, Midwest regional president, said the location’s busy intersection is surrounded by public transportation. He said it’s expected to draw customers from outside of the community as well.

“It’ll be a profitable store. It could be that there’s lower sort of price points per item that are purchased. But we believe that we’ll make up in volume what we’re doing on lower price points,” Bashaw said.

Bashaw said Englewood residents want healthy food choices and so the company sees an opening.

“We think this is an opportunity to bring a store to a community that would like us to be there and we would like to be a partner with the community,” Bashaw said. “Some items may be somewhat cheaper and some will be similarly priced. We do competitive pricing analysis constantly. And we know that we are more competitively priced than what some people would perceive based on identical items.

The store will have more self-serve items and Bashaw pointed to the private, in-brand 365 label that he said is competitively priced.

Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods, made the announcement Wednesday at Kennedy-King College and said he’s looking to the community for the vision of the market.

“We realize the first step is to listen to what people in Englewood actually want. We know that we can do certain things but we know without partnering with the community, it doesn’t really amount to anything. This is not a helicopter-in drop, build a store. This is a situation where we start to meet people and learn and listen to what’s needed here,” Robb said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Whole Foods is “not doing this out of charity.”
 
“This was a 14-month long wooing process for lack of a better term. It almost fell apart about three or four times. A significant nail in the coffin in securing this was linking up with Kennedy-King and their culinary program.”
 
When Emanuel took office two years ago, he promised to eliminate food deserts — areas lacking a variety of healthy food options — as part of his political agenda. The Chicago Tribune recently took the mayor to task by pointing out that many of his announcements have fallen short.
 
Breaking ground in the middle of food deserts is a new frontier for Whole Foods — despite its reputation for sticker shock at the checkout line. This summer, the chain opened a much ballyhooed store in Detroit. Executives have said the company wants to bring fresh food to underserved areas in cities around the U.S.
 
Englewood is short on retail in general, not just in the grocery arena. The idea is that the commitment of an upscale grocer could help lure other national name brands.
 
Whole Foods is sometimes seen as a symbol of gentrification. That notion is complicated by the company’s decision to bring its upscale, organic store to Englewood. A quarter of the residents are unemployed and 42 percent live in poverty. Vacant lots abound.

Juandalyn Holland, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, said people have low expectations about the neighborhood.

“We cannot keep utilizing Englewood as an excuse to say it’s Englewood so therefore it’s going to be terrible. Right now it’s Whole Foods —  who’s to say next it won’t be a Macy’s or something like that,” Holland said.

University of Illinois-Chicago nutrition professor Angela Odoms-Young is hopeful the high-end grocer won’t bring a knockoff version to Englewood.

“People talk about equity, justice and having options. In communities of color, it’s really important,” Odoms-Young said. “I’d like to see a diversity of healthy products at a reasonable price.”

Odoms-Young is ecstatic that Whole Foods sees value in Englewood and said there are ample opportunities for community engagement and nutrition, from cooking demonstrations to working with mothers of infants on public assistance. Whole Kids Foundation, the company’s nonprofit, plans to make its teacher nutrition education and cooking program available in Englewood.

But she says the grocer can be an asset not just for poor people.

“There’s a lot of us on the South Side that eat healthy and want healthy options. We drive and spend our gas to go on the North Side. This will help these folks as well,” Odoms-Young said.

According to Target Market News, which tracks black spending, black consumers are more likely to cook meals at home and willing to spend more for quality vegetables and fruits. Black households traditionally outspend whites and Latino households on fruits and vegetables.

Their latest edition of "The Buying Power of Black America" analyzed consumer data compiled annually by the U.S. Department of Commerce. They found that black households in the Chicago metro area spent $3.1 billion on food including: approximately $130 million on fresh fruit annually and approximately $110 million on fresh vegetables annually.

Researcher Mari Gallagher, a food desert expert, said it will be exciting to see how the Whole Foods experiment does in Englewood.
 
“Retail attracts retail. One of the problems Englewood has is it hasn’t had a lot going on in terms of retail. It tends to attract the same: dollar stores, liquor stores,” Gallagher said.

 

Natalie Moore is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @natalieymoore.