WORK IN PROGRESS IN CHICAGO

The Gulf Today - Business - - Special Report5 -

About one year ago, the doors of a Whole Foods Mar­ket swung open in Chicago’s Englewood neigh­bor­hood, mark­ing the cul­mi­na­tion of a bold plan to open an up­scale gro­cery store in one of the city’s most chal­lenged ar­eas. No “mis­sion ac­com­plished” ban­ner has yet been hoisted.

Whole Foods an­chor of the city-sub­sidised Englewood Square de­vel­op­ment has made good on prom­ises of pro­vid­ing jobs, sup­port­ing lo­cal ven­dors and boost­ing healthy food op­tions. The store has, for some, im­proved qual­ity of life and per­haps even paved the way for fu­ture large-scale in­vest­ment in Englewood.

But Whole Foods ac­knowl­edges there’s still much work to be done, par­tic­u­larly in con­nect­ing with shop­pers on a tight bud­get who may be un­fa­mil­iar with nat­u­ral and or­ganic prod­ucts. And the mostly black neigh­bor­hood’s well­doc­u­mented strug­gles of poverty and crime, ex­ac­er­bated by lack of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, re­main steep chal­lenges for busi­ness.

As the hype has died down, some ques­tions still linger: Will it work? Will the South Side com­mu­nity sup­port the store?

“That’s some­thing we’re still find­ing out from week to week,” said Michael Bashaw, Whole Foods Mid­west re­gion pres­i­dent. “Peo­ple will make their choices and in the end, the busi­nesses that reach out to the com­mu­nity and try to meet their needs are the ones that will sur­vive.”

Whole Foods doesn’t dis­close sales or prof­its for in­di­vid­ual stores. Bashaw also wouldn’t say how the Englewood store per­formed in com­par­i­son to other Whole Foods lo­ca­tions in the city, but said the store is match­ing ex­pec­ta­tions spe­cific to Englewood.

“Cer­tainly we’re a com­pany, and com­pa­nies eval­u­ate their busi­ness all the time. But we got into this (lo­ca­tion) from a mis­sion-based per­spec­tive and we’re still look­ing at it that way,” Bashaw said.

For the now-ama­zon-owned Whole Foods, the Englewood store rep­re­sents a rar­ity. Of the gro­cery chain’s more than 460 lo­ca­tions in the US, four of them are sit­u­ated in im­pov­er­ished neigh­bor­hoods, in­clud­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Detroit, New Or­leans and Ne­wark, N.J. None is more dif­fi­cult than Englewood.

“Englewood is the big­gest chal­lenge we’ve ever un­der­taken as a com­pany try­ing to serve a com­mu­nity. It’s been the most chal­leng­ing, and not nec­es­sar­ily in a bad way. But it’s only one year in,” said Wal­ter Robb, for­mer CO-CEO of Whole Foods who is now chair­man of Whole Cities Foun­da­tion, an af­fil­i­ated non­profit that’s also ac­tive in Englewood.

Bashaw said he didn’t ex­pect Ama­zon’s own­er­ship of the com­pany to have any bear­ing on the Englewood store.

More busi­nesses mov­ing in nearby could help bring more foot traf­fic to Englewood Square, which also in­cludes a Star­bucks and a Chipo­tle Mex­i­can Grill. Ne­go­ti­a­tions are on­go­ing for the de­vel­op­ment of the seven city-owned acres ad­ja­cent to Englewood Square, said Deputy Mayor An­drea Zopp, who de­clined to pro­vide fur­ther de­tails.

“We have a lot of work to do (in Englewood) and we’re not done yet,” Zopp said. “One of the things we push back on all the time is peo­ple want these neigh­bor­hoods flipped overnight. They didn’t get this way overnight. But we are com­mit­ted.”

The Englewood Whole Foods clearly has ben­e­fited some peo­ple who live and work in the com­mu­nity.

When it opened, Whole Foods hired about 40 of its 100 em­ploy­ees from Englewood, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany. It also pro­vided shelf space for al­most 40 lo­cal ven­dors, many of whom now also sell their wares in other Whole Foods lo­ca­tions in the Chicago area. Some of them have since hired more peo­ple from Englewood.

And some res­i­dents and com­mu­nity lead­ers say the Englewood Square de­vel­op­ment has made that part of the neigh­bor­hood feel safer.

Englewood Dis­trict Cmdr. Ken­neth John­son de­clined to com­ment on the im­pact of spe­cific busi­nesses, but said “eco­nomic and com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment are in­te­gral to mak­ing neigh­bor­hoods safer.”

From Sept. 28 of last year, when the store opened, to Aug. 1 of this year, po­lice have re­sponded to fewer calls for as­sis­tance at the Englewood store than al­most ev­ery other Whole Foods lo­ca­tion in the city, ac­cord­ing to Chicago Po­lice De­part­ment data. There are some caveats: store hours vary by lo­ca­tion and fewer in­ci­dents could be tied to less foot traf­fic.

There’s also the rip­ple ef­fect on other busi­nesses. One ex­am­ple: Next fall, a mi­cro­brew­ery called Englewood Brews plans to open just across the street from Whole Foods.

Co-founder Les­ley Roth cited the re­cent and planned eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in the neigh­bor­hood, as well as an un­der­ly­ing feel­ing of com­mu­nity hope, as rea­sons for lo­cat­ing her busi­ness in Englewood. The brew­ery won $10,000 last year through a busi­ness plan com­pe­ti­tion or­gan­ised by the non­profit Team­work Englewood and funded by Whole Foods, as well as a $250,000 small busi­ness grant from the city part of al­most $1 mil­lion to­tal awarded to nine Englewood busi­nesses through the city­wide re­tail thrive zone pro­gramme.

The mere fact that Whole Foods is in Englewood sig­nals op­por­tu­nity to other busi­nesses, said Perry Gunn, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Team­work Englewood, which part­nered with Whole Foods on job train­ing and re­cruit­ment for the store’s hir­ing.

“It’s like an eco­nomic en­gine. Peo­ple see Whole Foods and they see a store like this can make it in Englewood,” Gunn said.

Leon Walker, man­ag­ing part­ner of DL3 Realty, the de­vel­oper of the shop­ping com­plex, said the store’s al­ready proven it­self a suc­cess.

“(Englewood Square) was meant to be a rip­ple in the pond that would draw more busi­nesses. It was never meant to be a sil­ver bul­let,” Walker said.

Still, even some Whole Foods pa­trons cast a skep­ti­cal eye on who the store is re­ally serv­ing in the com­mu­nity.

Is this store for Englewood now, or for the bustling, re­vi­talised neigh­bor­hood en­vi­sioned by de­vel­op­ers and city of­fi­cials?

“When I go in here, I don’t see the same peo­ple from the neigh­bor­hood. I see a lot of teach­ers and cops and peo­ple cruis­ing through here try­ing to gen­trify the area,” said Greg Good­man, 33, a teacher at the nearby Lind­blom Math and Science Academy.

Prices _ and per­cep­tion of prices at Whole Foods re­main an ob­sta­cle. A cou­ple of blocks east, sev­eral Englewood res­i­dents leav­ing Aldi, a dis­count gro­cery chain, said they liked hav­ing Whole Foods in the neigh­bor­hood, but didn’t shop there often.

“I’ve been in there a cou­ple times, but I try to stick to my bud­get. I have kids,” said Donte Jack­son, 29, a prep cook at a bar­be­cue restau­rant and fa­ther of three young chil­dren.

Many Englewood res­i­dents want to eat health­ier food, but can’t af­ford it, said Vince O’neal, 42.

“If Whole Foods could come up with more af­ford­able prices, they would reap the ben­e­fit. I prom­ise you that,” O’neal said.

Whole Foods did price sta­ple items through­out the Englewood store lower than at other lo­ca­tions. And af­ter Ama­zon bought Whole Foods over the sum­mer, the com­pany fur­ther re­duced prices on some other prod­ucts com­pa­ny­wide though some in­dus­try an­a­lysts con­cluded those price cuts were more about mar­ket­ing than sub­stan­tive change.

Englewood re­mains one of the city’s ar­eas of con­cen­trated poverty, rank­ing fifth in eco­nomic hard­ship out of Chicago’s 77 com­mu­nity ar­eas, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis last year by the Great Cities In­sti­tute at the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois at Chicago.

Englewood had the high­est per­cent­age of house­holds liv­ing in poverty, 48.3 per cent, and the third low­est per capita in­come, $11,281, ac­cord­ing to the study.

None of these chal­lenges come as a sur­prise to Iris Pat­ter­son, one of the ven­dors who got a break with the Englewood Whole Foods.

Pat­ter­son, an Englewood na­tive who makes hair care prod­ucts tar­geted at black women, said she’s grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity that Whole Foods has af­forded her in grow­ing her busi­ness, Iris Botan­i­cals, which is now in three other Whole Foods lo­ca­tions.

But she wor­ries about the store’s long-term prospects for suc­cess.

“The No. 1 con­cern in that com­mu­nity is sur­vival,” said Pat­ter­son, who now lives near the Chatham neigh­bor­hood. “Eat­ing fresh is not top of mind.”

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