When Michelle Rashad got a new job in 2017 as executive director of the nonprofit Imagine Englewood if… , she knew exactly where she wanted to celebrate on a Friday night: a grocery store.
Not just any grocer, but Whole Foods at the corner of 63rd and Halsted streets on Chicago’s South Side.
“It was a great way to celebrate my accomplishment with the community, and we had a good time. We turned this into the club,” Rashad recalled. Back then the grocer held a Friday happy hour of sorts — $5 for five glasses of wine and five food-tasting stations. On that fall night, a DJ played music and a spontaneous dance contest erupted in the aisles.
Such memories — good times that aren’t typical for most neighborhood grocery stores — have been on the minds of Rashad and others since Whole Foods recently announced the Englewood store’s closure “in the coming months.”
In disinvested Chicago communities, grocery store openings yield press conferences. They’re inspiring. When grocers or other businesses close, they leave residents pondering how to create other retail or economic development opportunities. It’s deflating — and far too common.
“When I first heard the news, it was like a punch in the stomach. The Englewood community is not new to things just deciding that they want to leave the community or businesses deciding they want to close down and no further explanation. So it was triggering,” Rashad said. “But then I thought about the good times I’ve had in the store. And I also think about the fact that one institution isn’t going to change or change the community overnight right and that there’s opportunities for other grocers to come into the community.”
Whole Foods opened in 2016 as an anchor and the first tenant of the strip mall Englewood Square. The organic chain offered slightly lower prices there than it did at other stores; after all, the developer of the project bought the once vacant land from the city for one dollar. The city chipped in $10 million to prepare the land.
Whole Foods, dubbed pejoratively as “whole paycheck,” opening in a Black neighborhood with higher than average unemployment and poverty rates was deemed a risk at best and sparked disdain from others outside of the neighborhood. The project was part of a nationwide corporate strategy to bring healthy food to under-served areas. Local Black-owned businesses received opportunities to be vendors on the shelves. Vegan baked goods, sauces, spices and wellness products got their shot and some have expanded to other Whole Foods locations. The location hired Englewood residents and served as a community hub.
“Imagine Englewood if… hosted healthy cooking demonstrations in the store. We’ve had health and wellness task force meetings in the store. We’ve obviously partied in the store. We’ve brought our summer camp youth over to do a scavenger hunt of the different produce,” Rashad said.
It was a passion project for Walter Robb, the former Whole Foods co-CEO who stepped down in 2017.
“I died a few deaths on Friday. It broke my heart,” Robb said of the announcement of the store’s closure. “A lot of people poured their heart and soul in building this [Englewood Square] center. I personally recruited Starbucks and Chipotle to 63rd and Halsted. I am obviously very disappointed in its closing. That said, I understand that the store wasn’t performing at the level everyone [hoped] and COVID did have an impact on it.”
Whole Foods declined an interview nor would the company give specifics about store sales. Neither would Amazon, which bought the grocer in 2017. Englewood Square is privately owned, and Whole Foods has a lease for a portion of the complex. According to the city, the redevelopment agreement that was part of the sale requires a grocer to occupy the site through 2027. City officials say they learned of the closure last week and will work to find a new tenant.
Still, the second phase of Englewood Square is moving forward signaling the center has had success. In addition to Starbucks and Chipotle, other retailers are in the space. Englewood Connect is a $10.3 million culinary project planned for the area behind Whole Foods. A part of the city’s INVEST South/West initiative, the project will turn a former fire station into a commercial kitchen with a public plaza and event space. The Englewood Connect proposal will be heard by the Community Development Commission on May 10 and by the Plan Commission later in the month.
Years ago, as planning for the Englewood Whole Foods got underway, Robb spent a lot of time listening to the community. He attended meetings where residents offered suggestions about the design of the store and what should go on the shelves. He heard residents adamantly demand that the company not make the store a “half foods.”
“We gave it a really good try,” Robb said. “The center has made its impact with respect to the community having a safe place. I’m hopeful that the momentum that shopping center has provided will continue with the investment in housing.”
Asiaha Butler, of Resident Association of Englewood (R.A.G.E.), sat in on those meetings with Robb. With regard to Whole Foods’ decision to close the store, Butler said the company never communicated issues with the store, which perhaps would have activated residents to come up with solutions.
“We had so much trust prior to the opening … and we saw progress on the things that we requested. We kept seeing another victory, another victory, another victory. So we didn’t put anything in place in terms of the lease in case leadership changed. And that’s exactly what happened. Leadership changed. Amazon bought it,” Butler said.
Cecile DeMello was community engagement specialist for the store for three years until 2018. Whole Foods never replaced her. Today she is executive director of Teamwork Englewood.
“I want to learn more about the sales trends. I want to know more about what products were moving more than other products. This isn’t the first corporation that had openings in other communities, while simultaneously also closing in other communities,” DeMello said.
The same week Whole Foods announced it would close the Englewood store — its only location in any Black neighborhood in Chicago — the company announced the opening of a new store near the Gold Coast. In 2019, Target closed two South Side locations — the retailers only stores in any of Chicago’s Black neighborhoods — during the same time it received city assistance to open a store on the North Side.On Monday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot pledged not to leave the Englewood Whole Foods vacant.
“We’re going to work our tails off to get a new alternative, but one that the community wants and can access and participate in. It shouldn’t be that we’re plopping something down and we haven’t engaged with [the community,]” Lightfoot said.
Butler said residents are already musing about which chain should take over the space. The community expects a seamless transition in which Whole Foods isn’t boarded up but reactivated. She said co-ops should be on the table, too.
“What if it’s just a community store with multiple vendors — just rethinking the whole model,” Butler said.
That’s already happening right down the street. Go Green Community Fresh Market opened in March on West 63rd Street. It’s a fresh take on the old corner store model by the nonprofit Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) led by Rami Nashashibi. He said there’s an important dynamic to observe.
“Even with a Whole Foods that has been engaged by the community like this one is — when you’re community-owned versus corporate-owned, there’s a big distinction,” Nashashibi said. “You’re not beholden to someone’s decision making that really is not as deeply connected or concerned about the quality of a neighborhood like Englewood.”
Robb, the former CEO, said he has no regrets about Whole Foods coming to the neighborhood. The experience connected him to the community. He’s a member of R.A.G.E. and every year personally foots the $50,000 bill for its business pitch contest.
“I believe in Englewood and I believe the world should believe in Englewood,” Robb said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the leader of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. The correct spelling is Rami Nashashibi.