Liz Abunaw is bringing healthy, fresh produce to Austin — with white glove service

WBEZ spent a day with this one-woman market wiz, who is trying to fill big gaps in the local food ecosystem.

Liz Abunaw
Liz Abunaw, 42, runs a farmer's market and manages a business that delivers fresh produce to West Side homes. She aims to open her own market in 2023. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Liz Abunaw
Liz Abunaw, 42, runs a farmer's market and manages a business that delivers fresh produce to West Side homes. She aims to open her own market in 2023. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Liz Abunaw is bringing healthy, fresh produce to Austin — with white glove service

WBEZ spent a day with this one-woman market wiz, who is trying to fill big gaps in the local food ecosystem.

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On a chilly Thursday morning, Liz Abunaw weaved through stacks of boxed produce and vegetable coolers at her refrigerated warehouse in Pilsen. She was getting ready for the last farmer’s market of the season.

“It’s been a little chaotic this morning,” Abunaw confessed, as she placed bundles of kale in a large cooler full of ice. “I think an employee lost some equipment we need for today. We’ll see if it turns up.”

Abunaw, 42, was preparing for the Austin Town Hall City Market, a city-sponsored weekly event she manages and uses to sell produce. The event draws West Side residents who consider the market a temporary solution to the abrupt closing of Save A Lot in 2020 that left many without a place to shop fresh locally.

Forty Acres
Abunaw and her team know many of their customers at the weekly Austin market by name. Samantha Callender / WBEZ
Since 2018, Abunaw has been changing how fresh food is purchased and consumed in neighborhoods like Austin, North Lawndale and West Garfield Park, assiduously running each of her pop-up markets with limited resources. Despite the challenge, Abunaw has big ambitions: She is renovating a vacant, former Salvation Army on a stretch of Chicago Avenue called the “Soul City Corridor” with plans to move from pop-up markets to a permanent store.

A day in her life shows how much sweat and dedication that will take — and how complex the local food ecosystem can be. Even something as simple as lost equipment can derail the day.

Abunaw sounded a bit worried about finding the equipment as she loaded a cooler of greens into her gray Camry.

“Sometimes we get these pieces [like display bins and stands] for free when stores close. If they’re not free I get a good deal on things at auctions,” she said. “So if this piece is lost I have to rebuy it at full price, which can really eat into costs.”

Forty Acres Fresh Market
Abunaw (left) stands in her storage space in Pilsen. (Middle) Donated bins and carts are a few of the essential supplies needed to run her business. Samantha Callender / WBEZ
At a self-storage facility, her third stop of the morning, she found what she was looking for behind a bold-blue door: rows of neatly organized secondhand bulk bins, crates and boxes. As she made her way through the rows, her face lit up.

“These are it!” she exclaimed, as she raised a stack of bins in triumph. Relieved, it was back to the car.

Until now, Abunaw’s business model has relied on home deliveries and pop-up market events like the one on a recent Thursday. To raise enough for a retail space, she has saved and pinched where she can, though she never scrimps on food quality. Sourcing from local growers like Windy City Harvest and Urban Growers Collective, her plans to open Forty Acres Fresh Market in 2023 are rooted in a mission to democratize fresh and healthy food — and do so with white glove service.

For Abunaw, the white glove standard is not only about offering food access in communities where fresh food isn’t widely available — it’s about creating community. She prioritizes knowing her customers on a first-name basis and helping tailor each shopping experience to personal needs.

While big box grocers have advanced registers that allow them to ring up totals and apply programs such as LINK Up Illinois (also referred to as LINK Match) and Senior Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) coupons, Abunaw and her team must tally totals for customers by hand. This process slows down the line a bit, but some of her customers are seniors on a tight budget and Abunaw wants to ensure her customers know where discount opportunities exist.

Accessibility is at the core of Forty Acres, which got its name from the “forty acres and a mule” promise issued to newly freed slaves at the end of the Civil War. Pulling up at the market in Austin, Abunaw spotted a regular customer already hanging around the Forty Acres tent.

“Hey, Peaches! Give us a few minutes to set the display up and we’ll be ready for you,” Abunaw said with a smile to the woman whom she and her staff had nicknamed because of her weekly purchase of a bunch of peaches.

The missing bins were only one of several fires Abunaw would tend to that morning. A delivery van had malfunctioned the day prior, and she was still catching up on orders that had been missed. A record-keeping error caused a customer’s order to be delivered twice.

“That’s no big deal to the customer, but for the business that $30 worth of free food is a loss somewhere else in our operations, like gas for deliveries,” Abunaw said.

With a small team of just four employees and limited capital, keeping errors to a minimum matters. Beyond being the owner and operator of Forty Acres, Abunaw serves as the operations manager, social media manager, sales leader, administration associate and customer service rep.

As she listed off her duties, she took a call from a customer who had been impacted by the grocery delivery delay. She lets him know that his order was in route and that she made sure they put some “beautiful kale” and other produce in his bag. She thanked him for his patience.

Forty Acres Fresh Market
Fresh beets and greens filled the stand at the last market for fall organized by Forty Acres Fresh Market in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Samantha Callender / WBEZ

The transactions show the complexity of the local food system and what people who rely on public food subsidies must navigate.

“The apples are local, and you can use a coupon on that item,” Abunaw told one shopper, “but this pineapple is imported, so it’s not discount eligible. You can use your LINK Match dollars to buy this item.”

Between customers, Abunaw answered phone calls from customers checking on a delivery order status. Even though she was pulled in a million different directions, Abunaw kept a calm, cool and collected energy that made customers feel as though they’re a part of the Forty Acres community.

“I could go to Pete’s [Fresh Market] or Jewel-Osco and use my LINK and buy produce, but I like coming to the market. It’s closer to my house and I don’t mind the wait because, while I’m waiting, I can chat with Liz and the girls [staff],” said Debra Wilson, who often frequents Liz’s pop-ups. “I can’t wait to go to the store when it comes.”

Abunaw plans to open her brick-and-mortar store in 2023 to help to bring a centralized community to Austin. Having won a $2.5 million grant through a COVID relief grant program for small businesses to open the permanent location, many are excited for the possibilities Forty Acres can bring to a community like Austin.

“From the beginning she’s had a clear vision of what her business looked like,” said Ald. Chris Taliaferro, whose ward includes the stretch of Austin where the store is planned. “I know it’ll be challenging to open up the store, but one thing I know about Liz is that she isn’t going to give up.”

One of the day’s final customers was an elderly woman with a cane who purchased several bags of fresh kale. With her free hand full, she mentioned she would come back for her other bags since she lived just two blocks over.

“No need! Lindsey here can help you take your bags home,” Abunaw says. A joy of relief swept across the woman’s face as Lindsey grabbed the rest of the bounty and the two began the two-block trek.

Meeting customers where they are by paying attention to their needs was the overall theme of the day, and something Abunaw says is the intentional little thing that makes a big impact on her customers.

“Customers have my number. I think that’s what really stands out about what we do is that we’re real people. People know me. They know our delivery drivers. They know the staff,” she said. “We’re not faceless — we’re accessible.”

Samantha Callender is a digital reporting fellow for WBEZ. Follow her on social media @OnYourCallender