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Last Full Service Black-Owned Grocer in Chicago Changes Ownership

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Chatham Food Center has been at the center of life in its South Side community for 25 years. A big reason for that is that it is the only black-owned full grocery store in the area. That means stocking specialty items such as sunflower seed pate that can be hard to find at other supermarkets. However, the longtime owners of Chatham Food Center recently sold the store to non-black owners marking the end of an era for black shoppers.

Chatham Food has the familiarity of a long-time, next-door neighbor. Clerks recognize customers. And the store, at the corner of 79th and Calumet, stocks its freezers and shelves with local black-owned products like Reggio's Pizza and the curious-sounding sunflower seed pate. Chatham Food meat manager Robert Durr brags that people trek from as far as the West Side to buy his meat.

DURR: I make my own hot link. I make the pork. I make the beef and I make Italian. 

Owners Leonard and Donna Harris opened Chatham Food 25 years ago. But Leonard Harris says they are tired. The business is open 24 hours and there are challenges like theft and developing employees.

HARRIS: What I've learned recently is that either you're working in your business or you're working on your business. And because of the size of this business and our inability to grow it physically, we can't add more parking, we can't add more store because we're landlocked here.

Chatham Food Center tried to expand. Harris went through the Chicago Urban League's entrepreneurial program designed to help black businesses grow. Cheryle Jackson is president of the Chicago Urban League. She says including Chatham Food in the program was a way to address food deserts. But Jackson says she won't second-guess the Harris' decision. She's glad they participated in Next One.

JACKSON: I was disappointed. We took them into the Next One program, the Chicago Urban League. Not only because they were a black-owned business- because they were the only black-owned full grocery in the community. From a mission standpoint it was important.

Harris says he tried to lure his sons to takeover the business. They turned down the offer. He says he and his wife tried to find a black owner to keep up the legacy. No one stepped up.

Two Arab businessmen did. And Harris said Ahamd Kleit and his business partner showed a commitment to the Chatham neighborhood. They have promised to keep the employees and black contractors who do things like fix the roof.

KLEIT: We did have a meeting with the alderman. And we did have a meeting the first meeting with the community leaders. And we're planning to be very involved in the community.

Kleit says he knows people in the community might be skeptical.

KLEIT: We do expect some resistance but we're going to kill you with kindness.

In the Chatham community, the eponymous grocery store has been a staple – just like the hot links and collard greens on the shelves. That's why Keith Tate felt deeply saddened when he heard about the Harris' selling the business.

TATE: I almost started to cry.

Tate is president of the Chatham-Avalon Park Community Council. He's met with the new owners and is optimistic about their commitment. But Tate says savvy Chatham residents haven't always been pleased with Arab business owners in the neighborhood.

TATE: One of the things that we know happens in our community is that we will give any business an opportunity. But if they fail or become disingenuous with the people in the community, then we know what to do and how to do it. And that's very simply not crossing the threshold.

A few years ago a black-owned grocer in Chatham sold to an Arab owner. Tate says residents weren't happy with customer service and stopped shopping there. The grocer is now a dollar store. There are other options for Chatham residents, big-box grocers not too far away. But they aren't in the neighborhood. And Chatham Food Center is enough for many people.

WREN: They have products that we like.
REPORTER: What kind of products can you get here that maybe you don't see other places?
WREN: Bean pies, potato pies. And buttermilk to our liking.

Benard Wren says he hopes the new owners leave some of the profits in the community. As long as the buttermilk is in the cooler, so he can make biscuits, Wren will continue to shop at his neighborhood grocer.

Music Button: Harvey & the Phenomenals, “Soul & Sunshine”, from the CD Midwest Funk: Funk 45's from Tornado Alley (Jazzman records)

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