It’s been more than a year-and-a-half since Whole Foods announced it was setting up shop in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, and the store’s opening is still more than a year away.
But that doesn’t mean the community is sitting idly by. Residents are actively engaging with Whole Foods about the role of an organic grocery store chain in a food desert at the corner of 63rd and Halsted.
“It’s been wonderful. I think that Whole Foods has been very committed to everything going on here,” said Glen Fulton, executive director of the Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation, whose office is across the street in a U.S. Bank branch overlooking the construction site.
When the high-end grocer first announced it was moving to this high-poverty community some Chicagoans were shocked. But the company is trying to shed its elite label — it says part of its mission is bringing healthy options to areas riddled with junk food.
Store officials say prices will be competitive and affordable here. They also say Whole Foods is committed to being more than just an anchor tenant on a vacant lot.
The company first tested this food desert experiment a couple years ago in Detroit. It was the first national grocer to come into the city and so far it’s been mostly a success.
In Englewood, Whole Foods has held community meetings and listened to residents who want classes on nutrition and shopping on a budget.
Fulton said he went straight to Whole Foods’ CEO with one request.
“The first thing I wanted was for small businesses to be a part of this whole initiative for this Englewood community. Meaning that I need your support in trying to help them do business with Whole Food,” he said.
Fulton is a former director of supplier diversity at Albertsons, another major grocery chain.
“And the second part is that we include diversity as far as diverse suppliers are concerned. So if you’re a person of color or a woman, let’s break down the barriers of trying to do business with Whole Foods,” he said.
Rachel Bernier-Green, a black South Sider, attended a free small business workshop series and learned about proper licensing and packaging. She owns ‘Laine’s Bake Shop and met a Whole Foods district manager.
“He came out to our table and took the rest of the cookies of his favorite flavor, everything I had on display that day. So I think they enjoyed the texture of the cookies,” she said.
So much so that Whole Foods worked with Bernier-Green to find a distributor.
Soon her mocha raspberry, citrus spritz and butter pecan bites will be in three Chicago Whole Foods. Next year the desserts will be in the store at 63rd and Halsted.
“I think they were also impressed with the story of our company, why we exist and what we plan to do,” Bernier-Green added.
Her small family-owned business has a social mission: hiring those who have struggled with homelessness as well as the formerly incarcerated. Each year hundreds of parolees with criminal records return to Englewood and can’t find work.
“We wanted to know, Whole Foods, are you going to hire people with records? We had been previously told that hands-down no, they aren’t going to hire anybody with records,” said Sonya Harper, executive director of Grow Greater Englewood, a food justice group. “Whole Foods really heard our concerns as a community and they are now coming up with a program to hire people with records at that store.”
Whole Foods says it wants to partner with social service agencies to increase opportunities for those facing employment barriers.
Meanwhile, ‘Laine’s Bake Shop is the only new confirmed supplier for the Englewood Whole Foods.
Store officials say more shelf space is available and they hope to develop some brand new businesses in the process.
There’s still time. The next small business workshop series will be this fall.