In 2016, a new Whole Foods branch is set to open in Englewood, one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Whole Foods, typically recognized as a premiere grocery destination, is sometimes called “Whole Paycheck,” a name that is not unwarranted—the store costs twenty percent more than other similar brand stores. The high prices reflect Whole Foods’ target demographic: wealthier than average shoppers. Indeed, a section of the company’s website asks visitors if they know of any good locations for a new store; one of the conditions for store location recommendations is that the potential store must be situated in a neighborhood with a high number of college-educated residents. Considering that college-educated people are more often wealthier than those without a college education, Whole Foods is ensuring that it has customers that can afford its products in the neighborhoods where it typically builds stores. As such, the choice of Englewood as a location for this new Whole Foods may seem incongruous with the company’s tendency to target wealthier demographics. However, this Whole Foods may have a different aim: to make its new branch a thriving part of the neighborhood and consequently contribute to Englewood’s economic revitalization. A successful Englewood store would be a reminder of the neighborhood’s prosperous days, when a large Sears Roebuck cemented the neighborhood as a popular shopping destination in Chicago, and would hopefully spur more private investment in the neighborhood. While skeptics of the store brand might claim that it will do more damage than good, there is evidence to believe the store will benefit the low income neighborhood of Englewood
Englewood is not the typical target neighborhood for Whole Foods. The South Side neighborhood has a mean income of $11,993 and a poverty rate of forty-two percent. The neighborhood has the one of the highest crime rates in Chicago, and its population is ninety-nine percent black. Englewood is part of the 17th Ward, which also includes West Chatham, Marquette Park, Auburn Gresham, and West Englewood. The ward’s recently-elected Alderman, David Moore, believes that the city of Chicago as a whole must try to provide more resources to underprivileged communities, such as Englewood.
The new Whole Foods aims to embody Alderman Moore’s call to develop underprivileged Chicago communities. Three thousand residents will be able to reach the store on foot, and the store plans to employ 100 people. Although Whole Foods will undoubtedly provide the neighborhood with an increased variety of food, it is uncertain whether or not Englewood residents will be able to afford the store’s expensive products.
The Englewood branch is Whole Foods’ second attempt to become accessible to a wider demographic. The company opened up a store in Detroit, which has so far been successful. In fact, the Detroit branch met its ten-year sales goal in fourteen months, while simultaneously collecting the most food stamps out of any grocery store in the region.
Although the Detroit branch’s expected customers are wealthier than the Englewood branch’s expected customers will be, the Detroit branch can be seen as a model for how the Englewood branch will operate. One reason the Detroit store has been so successful is because at that store, the company set their prices relative to other grocery stores in the area, not relative to other Whole Foods stores across the country. The company’s CEO, Walter Robb, implies that in Englewood, prices will be lower than in most of Whole Foods’ other locations.
The store’s location within Englewood is significant: the new branch is very close to a Green Line stop, at 63rd and Halsted, which indicates that the company expects to draw commuters from other locations outside of Englewood as well. Even if this new Whole Foods does not attract many customers from Englewood, the store’s location next to an “L” stop ensures that the store will do business with others who pass through Englewood via the Green Line stop.
Although Whole Foods’ main goal in opening up a location in Englewood may not be to act as a charity, it will nevertheless act as a resource for the community. For example, the Englewood branch is already planning outreach programs in order to engage with the community at large. Near the Englewood Whole Foods is the culinary school at Kennedy-King College, the Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute. Whole Foods plans to utilize Washburne’s kitchen space to host cooking classes for Englewood residents, as well as other classes that aim to teach residents how to shop for food on tight budgets. It is clear that these initiatives are the company’s way of attempting to draw as many Englewood customers to the store.
In this way, this branch of Whole Foods is fulfilling Alderman Moore’s intentions of providing more resources to low-income neighborhoods of Chicago. This occurrence—where private companies indirectly act as a catalyst for change—can be seen in the opening of the Whole Foods in Detroit. Although the Detroit store was not opened in an extremely poor area, the number of food stamps used at the store suggests that poorer people do frequent the store. The Detroit store is acting as a resource for the poorer parts of the community, as will the Englewood store. The new Whole Foods will work in much the same way. By engaging with the community at large, determining product value based off local prices, and situating itself near a main transport, this typically expensive store will hopefully spark a revival of private investment in the South Side.
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Riddhi Sangam is a third-year Economics major. This past summer, she interned with Rutberg & Company, a boutique investment bank located in San Francisco. On campus, she is a Research Assistant at the Becker Friedman Institute and is also a member of the Women in Public Service Program.