On May 11, a Save-A-Lot grocery store opened in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, in the face of intense opposition from residents concerned about the chain’s reputation for having low-quality food and an unpleasant atmosphere. This controversy over Save-A-Lot is the latest development in Englewood’s decade-long struggle to find a grocery store that adequately serves the community’s needs.
In September 2013, Whole Foods, the upscale organic grocery chain, announced it was partnering with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to open a store in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Englewood is located just two miles southwest of UChicago, yet, reflective of Chicago’s extreme segregation and economic inequality, Englewood is starkly different from Hyde Park. A century ago, Englewood was a wealthy and diverse community with one of the most bustling shopping districts outside of the Loop. But due to white flight, redlining, and a pattern of disinvestment, Englewood has declined significantly since its heyday. Almost one quarter of Englewood residents are unemployed, and almost a third of housing units in the neighborhood are vacant. Englewood has one of the highest crime rates in the city, 45 percent of residents live in poverty, and 54 percent of households receive food stamps. In 2013, there were few grocery stores in Englewood that sold fresh produce.
That’s why Whole Foods’ 2013 announcement that it was building a new store at 63rd and Halsted, anchoring a new shopping center on a vacant lot in the heart of Englewood’s former commercial district, generated so much attention.
While business owners and city leaders welcomed the new development, local community members had mixed feelings. “Whole Foods in Englewood is a game changer,” said Mari Gallagher, a Chicago-based consultant. In a press release, then-CEO of Whole Foods Walter Robb, said, “We look forward to joining organizations and community members to envision and develop a store that meets the needs of Englewood,” adding, “we hope that our efforts on Chicago’s South Side…will help make a meaningful impact on the health of our nation.” The then-Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel said he was “committed to ensuring all Chicagoans have access to fresh, quality and affordable food in their neighborhoods,” adding that the new grocery store will “create jobs and spur economic growth – a true win-win.”
Many Englewood community leaders applauded the fact that Whole Foods sought local input for how to best meet the needs of the community. Based on community suggestions, Whole Foods offered lower prices on essential items like milk, bread, and eggs, and sold produce ‘by the each,’ instead of by weight. The store also planned to host cooking classes and workshops on healthy diets and budgeting for groceries.
Whole Foods opened in Englewood in September 2016, with a grand opening celebration attended by politicians, business leaders, and shoppers. But, the community’s high hopes for a collaborative partnership with the organic grocery store were quickly dashed. In June 2017, Whole Foods was purchased by Amazon, a multinational corporation notorious for maximizing profit. Over time, and especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, the Englewood store offered fewer workshops on healthy eating and budgeting. It phased out low-price deals on grocery essentials. Mayor Lori Lightfoot noticed that the Englewood store was often empty, even on Saturdays when grocery stores are usually filled with shoppers. Over time, it seemed like the vision of Whole Foods as a community institution was not panning out.
From the moment Whole Foods announced it was opening in Englewood, many residents were skeptical if it was the right fit. Whole Foods is “a bit too pricey for this area…I don’t see it making it in this neighborhood,” said Patricia Jackson, a 57-year-old Englewood resident. Asiaha Butler, president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.), said of the announcement, “It’s not your typical marriage in terms of economic development…we’ve had a lot of mixed reactions and concerns about the affordability of the food and the motives behind the project.”
Briana Hobbs, the health and wellness coordinator at Teamwork Englewood, said “Whole Foods is based on being organic… in a community like Englewood, we’re trying to incorporate that healthy eating and lifestyle change, but that’s a very slow process.” Hobbs added, “Whole Foods was a big push, and we’re not quite ready for that yet.” Whole Foods’ arrival in Englewood also caught the attention of national media. The Economist magazine, known for its conservative bent and politically-incorrect headlines, published a scathing critique of the development, entitled “Whole Hoods.”
Mixed feelings has been the consistent theme of this story for the past decade. From the start, Englewood residents were both supportive and skeptical of Whole Foods. They wanted food that was both high-quality and affordable, a desire that a boutique grocery store like Whole Foods struggled to satisfy. Whole Foods sought to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to (what they believed was) a food desert – yet, there was already an Aldi nearby that sells produce at a reasonable price point. Also, a community-run produce store called Go Green Community Fresh Market opened in early 2022.
In November 2022, Whole Foods abruptly closed its Englewood location with little warning to employees or shoppers, and the community had mixed reactions about its closure. A discount grocery store, Save-a-Lot, has opened in the former Whole Foods location, but Englewood residents again have mixed feelings about the change.
In an interview with The Gate, Ashley Johnson, head of R.A.G.E. 's Economic Uplift Project, said when she heard Whole Foods was opening a store in Englewood in 2013, her initial reaction was, “this is stupid, nobody in Englewood is looking for a Whole Foods to shop at...it just didn’t make sense.” She noted that Englewood has multiple grocery stores selling fresh produce, saying, “there are a number of stores that are more adequate…the rationale that Whole Foods was the only place that could offer healthy options is kind of a joke.”
Johnson explained that there was hope for a close partnership between residents and Whole Foods executives early on. She said Whole Foods “wasn’t originally a community idea,” but “the community did come together and work with Whole Foods,” adding that it was “a good partnership.” Yet, Johnson marked Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017 as “the beginning of the end.” After buying Whole Foods, Amazon executives fired CEO Walter Robb, who Johnson described as “a friend of R.A.G.E,” and ousted the company’s community engagement coordinator.
Though it wasn’t the right fit for some Englewood residents, community leaders were dismayed after Whole Foods abruptly closed last year. Johnson said, “I don’t think anyone thought ‘good riddance,’” but also, “I don’t think anyone was happy,” because R.A.G.E. and other community leaders “put in a lot of work” to build and maintain the partnership between Whole Foods and Englewood.
“Nobody wants to put in years of work, and then it’s just like ‘oh well.’”
When asked how Englewood’s most vulnerable residents, like children and the elderly, would be affected by Whole Foods’ departure, Johnson said, “a poor family is not gonna shop at Whole Foods in the first place” and “the elderly? Well, there’s no pharmacy there.” Perhaps the loss of this organic boutique grocery store was not as much of a loss to the community as many people imagined.
A few months after Whole Foods closed, Save-a-Lot, a budget grocery store with a reputation for low-quality food, announced its plans to open in the former Whole Foods location. Though some residents were happy that the space would not be left vacant, most were upset that Save-a-Lot would be moving into the neighborhood. Johnson said of the new Save-a-Lot, “We’re being downgraded, we’re not being rescued.” Recognizing that Save-a-Lot has moved into other low-income neighborhoods in Chicago and nationwide with mixed results, Johnson added, “In the narrative, [Save-a-Lot] looks like the savior of these stories, but they look kind of like a villain in our story.” Johnson concluded, “No one wants a Save-a-Lot.” Save-a-Lot attempted a “soft opening” in early April, but postponed it after residents and community leaders, including Asiaha Butler of R.A.G.E., protested the store. Butler said, “Enough is enough. We have tried, we have talked, we have had conversations about how to respect this community. And enough is enough.” “This is no way to enter a community,” said Alderwoman Stephanie Coleman, who represents Englewood on the Chicago City Council.
Save-a-Lot’s sign adorns the facade of the former Whole Foods location in Englewood. Photo taken by Adam Sachs, March 27, 2023.
In an interview with The Gate, John Burton, a 73-year-old lifelong resident of Englewood, echoed the sentiments of other Englewood residents, saying,“I didn’t think Whole Foods was a fit for this neighborhood because of the economic situation – but I also don’t think Save-a-Lot is the right fit.” Burton is a Street Outreach Worker with the Centers for New Horizons, a local non-profit that works on violence prevention and helping those in need. “I don’t think [Whole Foods] had a legitimate dedication to the community,” Burton said. “I’m not at all surprised by Whole Foods leaving.”
Burton also said UChicago students should educate themselves on what’s happening in Englewood, because “they may one day be leaders in this city, in this community.” Burton called for students to break out of the Hyde Park bubble and see the reality of economic, racial, and social injustices in our backyard, because “until we turn this into one city, instead of a divided city, we’re gonna keep having these issues.”
Burton and other Englewood residents spoke highly of Go Green Community Fresh Market, a small independent grocery store operated by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). Since opening in April 2022, Go Green has received positive media attention as a cooperative community grocery store that could meet the needs of Englewood residents better than Whole Foods or Save-a-Lot.
Walking west on 63rd Street from Halsted, one soon finds Go Green Community Fresh Market, with its bright green walls, a well-stocked organic produce section, and a friendly vibe. Go Green’s space immediately feels more welcoming than most convenience stores in Englewood, which are typically lit with harsh fluorescent lighting and have bulletproof glass fortifying the checkout area.
A convenience store along 63rd Street in Englewood. Notice the harsh fluorescent lighting, bulletproof glass fortifying the cashier’s area, and lack of healthy food options. Photo taken by Adam Sachs, March 27, 2023.
Go Green’s manager Maurice Richmond previously worked for Whole Foods for 18 years, including as a manager at the Englewood location, until IMAN hired him to lead their newest community market. Richmond said the mission of Go Green is “to make the community feel more appreciated.” He said he learned lessons about community engagement from Whole Foods’ mistakes, and explained that Go Green’s goal is “building a relationship with the community,” and educating people of all generations on healthy lifestyles. Richmond also felt like IMAN was “more in tune with the community” than a multinational corporation like Amazon, and was optimistic that Go Green is a better fit for Englewood than Whole Foods had been.
Maurice Richmond, the manager of Go Green Community Fresh Market, standing in front of the store’s produce section. Photo taken by Adam Sachs, March 27, 2023.
“Everybody deserves fresh vegetables,” said Richmond, adding that he felt Whole Foods’ prices were unaffordable for most Englewood residents. By contrast, Go Green sells most vegetables for less than $3, while onions are 99 cents, apples are 89 cents, cabbage is 69 cents each, and eggs are $2.99 a dozen – significantly cheaper than the Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods in Hyde Park. Go Green Community Fresh Market also offers a 10% discount for students and senior citizens, and a 5% discount for Englewood residents.
Recent news that Save-A-Lot had been the intended lessee of the space in the original development contract has inflamed tensions between Englewood residents and store management, diminishing hopes for a close partnership between Save-a-Lot executives and the community. At a May 3 community meeting at a college auditorium across the street from the forthcoming Save-a-Lot, residents grilled the Save-A-Lot CEO Leon Bergmann and real estate developer Yellow Banana, represented by co-owner Michael Nance. Community leaders like Alderwoman Coleman and R.A.G.E.’s Butler expressed contempt for Save-a-Lot’s shoddy reputation, and one resident told Bergmann and Nance, “if you wanted us to buy into your Save-A-Lot slogan then you should have come in here prepared.” At the meeting, a group tasked with gathering community input on a grocery store for Englewood handed out flyers with photos of rotting fruits and expired meats they found at other Save-a-Lot locations around Chicago’s South and West side, and Bergmann promised the Englewood store would be cleaner and would have more stringent standards for disposal of expired foods. Employees of the soon-to-open Englewood Save-A-Lot wore matching blue branded hats and cheered some of Bergmann’s comments. Tensions were high, but the meeting was ultimately productive, with Nance saying it’s “admirable” that 16th Ward Alderwoman Coleman and R.A.G.E 's Butler “tenaciously” brought this community together to “hold private business to account.” The Englewood Save-A-Lot store opened unceremoniously on May 11, 2023.
Over the past decade, Englewood community leaders have been frustrated with how Whole Foods entered the community, making big promises, yet failing to deliver. Now, residents are doubtful that Save-a-Lot will meet the community’s needs. Can any grocery store be the “right fit” for Englewood? The answer remains unclear.