Sept. 29--In the heart of Englewood on Wednesday morning, parking was hard to come by. Clusters of people walked along West 63rd Street carrying new grocery tote bags. Live music filled the air. Politicians sought out TV cameras. And shoppers in a persistent line out the front door withstood a passing rain shower to check out their new neighbor.
Englewood's Whole Foods Market was finally here.
Since it was announced in 2013, Whole Foods' plan to open a store in one of Chicago's most economically depressed South Side neighborhoods has drawn praise, excitement, scrutiny and some doubt. The big questions -- Will the community support it? Will the store be affordable to residents but still turn a profit? Will it work? -- won't be answerable for months or even years.
But Wednesday was reserved for exuberance and unchecked optimism. Many shoppers applauded the store's presence in a community with few options for fresh, healthy food. And more than 35 South Side vendors sampled their wares that will be sold in the store. Whole Foods is hoping that local connection, plus significantly lower prices on select items, keeps shoppers coming back after the hoopla has died down.
"I never in a million years thought Whole Foods of all places would be in Englewood," said Michael Daniels, a 34-year-old Englewood resident, loading groceries into his car. "This is a shot of pride in the arm for our community."
Daniels noted some of the lower-priced items, like milk, eggs, cheese and bread.
"Actually, it's a little better than I thought as far as the prices," he said.
That's been part of the Englewood plan all along, a different approach for the grocer often called "Whole Paycheck" because of its lofty prices. After community meetings with residents, Whole Foods identified about 30 staple items for a typical Englewood shopping cart that would be sold at a much lower price than at other Whole Foods -- and even lower than some competitors.
Ultimately, the 18,000-square-foot Englewood store will be able to operate on a lower profit margin than a Whole Foods store in, say, the Streeterville or Hyde Park neighborhoods because the rent is much less, Bobby Turner, Whole Foods vice president for the Midwest region.
The pricing and product mix likely will be re-evaluated after a few months of operation, Turner said.
"I'm sure there will be some growing pains. ... It's about adopting a new eating lifestyle. It's about educating people. That didn't happen overnight in Detroit, either," Turner said.
While the Detroit and Englewood locations are both cheaper than most Whole Foods stores, the approach is different in Englewood, Turner said. In Detroit, packaged goods in the center of the store were discounted by about 20 to 25 percent. Center-store products in Englewood aren't as deeply discounted but are still cheaper than other Chicago-area stores.
But in Englewood, more than 30 items will be much cheaper, including some fresh foods like milk, eggs, bread and some produce, Turner said. For example, a shopper at the Englewood store can buy a dozen cage-free eggs for $1.99, typically sold for $4.29 at other Whole Foods stores, Turner said. A gallon of milk, free of genetically engineered hormones, will cost $1.99, instead of $3.99, he said. And a loaf of wheat bread will cost $1.50 -- not $2.79.
About one-third of the produce is sold by the "each" instead of by the pound -- another way of offering healthy food for more affordable prices, Turner said. As one example, bananas were selling for 19 cents each.
And nothing in the meat and seafood cases will cost more than $20 per pound, Turner said, though some items, like the fresh Alaskan halibut fillets and yellowfin tuna steaks, come pretty close at $19.99 a pound. Other fish like salmon, catfish and tilapia are all sold for less than other Whole Foods stores.
That's good news for Englewood residents like Coree Parks, 44, whose 6-year-old daughter has developed a taste for salmon and sushi.
"These kids need to have better options out here," Parks said. "If you're feeding your kids junk, what you give them is what they're going to give out."
The $20 million Englewood Square project, which also features Starbucks and, soon, Chipotle as tenants, received about $10.7 million in city subsidies.
The Englewood Whole Foods is lacking some of the frills found at other locations. There's no wine bar, as some residents had hoped, but there is a modest wine selection. There's no full-service cheese counter or gelato stand, but there is a coffee and juice bar.
Some of the dollars spent at the Englewood store will support 37 local vendors based in Englewood and surrounding neighborhoods. That's a larger representation of community-based businesses than any other Chicago area store at the time of opening -- another part of the grocer's larger strategic effort to connect with South Side shoppers, Turner said.
For startup food businesses, some that are breaking into retail for the first time, making the cut at Whole Foods is an exciting first step -- followed by logistical and funding challenges that accompany meeting the company's quality standards and consumer demand.
Jimmy Prude, founder and CEO of Jimmy's Vegan Cookies, called those challenges "pain points" that are ultimately healthy for the growth of the business. Prude already sells his cookies in four other Chicago-area Whole Foods stores but said the Englewood store is special because he first sold his cookies at a festival in neighboring Auburn Gresham in 2011.
"For me, it's like coming full circle. It's a great opportunity to come back five years later and to serve the people who helped launch my product," said Prude, 33.
It hits even closer to home for Jennifer Alexander, a 42-year-old Englewood native who co-founded Island Indulgences, a line of body care products that will be sold in the new store, with her husband, Edward.
A former Chicago Public Schools teacher, Jennifer Alexander lives in Beverly now but still works in Englewood as an educator. Alexander said she was weary of seeing children in the neighborhood with "blue lips and red fingertips" -- tell-tale signs of junk-food consumption. She thinks Whole Foods can help.
"Whether or not it will work? It will work if we support it and recognize it's there to support growth in the neighborhood," Alexander said.
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