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Supermarket efforts starting to bear fruit

The Pete’s Fresh Market scheduled to break ground this summer at Madison Street and Western Avenue will satisfy a longtime goal of West Haven residents to bring a full-service grocery to their neighborhood.

"We’ll be coming out of the food desert shortly,” said Earnest Gates, executive director of the Near West Side Community Development Corp., when the locally owned, produce-oriented chain was awarded the city-owned site, where it plans to build a 55,000-square-foot store. “It’s something that the neighborhood will be able to celebrate.”

Photo: Mike Quinlan/Near West Side CDC

This bird's eye view from the roof of the nearby Westtown Bank building captures the site at Madison and Western where Pete's Fresh Market plans to break ground this summer.

Gates’ sense of triumph, since Near West spearheaded the effort to land a supermarket, and relief—given the twists and false starts involved in attracting a large grocery store to a community that’s changed dramatically over the years—is one that other neighborhood organizations and resident-led groups hope to experience, as well.  

A number of them are working with LISC/Chicago through the New Communities and Great Neighborhoods programs to attract food stores to communities that have long been without. In addition to supermarkets, those groups are beefing up their restaurant business through food crawls and festivals.

“Attracting a full-service grocery was a key element of West Haven’s quality of life plan,” said Chris Brown, LISC/Chicago’s point man on food-related issues. “Every neighborhood wants access to high-quality, healthy, and affordable food.   Whether it is a full-service grocery store or a smaller produce market, we see these stores as a critical way to boost commerce, good health, and neighborhood cohesiveness.”

This is the fourth in a series of articles (the others are about farmers’ markets, gardening and urban agriculture; food pantries; healthy eating and culinary skills) about food-related efforts supported by LISC/Chicago.

MetroEdge convenes communities
LISC’s efforts to jump-start grocery stores is in the hands of LISC/MetroEdge, which has performed studies of the potential for retail development in most NCP neighborhoods. Included in the studies is a discussion of the potential for supermarkets in these neighborhoods.

MetroEdge is drawing upon its extensive research on grocery store development and bringing data to bear, to test out the opportunities and their viability, said Jake Cowan, manager for LISC/MetroEdge.

“We’re starting to explore training some of our NCP groups on better understanding what the financial models of grocery stores might be—getting away from Jewel or Dominick’s, toward Cermak Foods and other chains and independents that serve communities more directly,” he said. “Our goal is to support individual food-systems planning for each neighborhood.”

Photo: Gordon Walek

Grocery store consultant Mike Mallon (standing) gives his insights on neighborhood grocers during a meeting of LISC/MetroEdge's working group on the subject, which involves several NCP and Great Neighborhoods lead agency representatives.

The most eager participants are from Auburn Gresham, Humboldt Park, Washington Park and North Lawndale, said Cowan, although others, such as Back of the Yards, are also interested. Auburn Gresham and Humboldt Park have been particularly active in canvassing empty buildings and vacant lots that might be suitable for grocery store development, and the city has looked into the current owners and zoning, he said.

At a meeting in early May of the Grocery Store and Food Opportunity Interest Group, comprised of neighborhood group representatives interested in the subject and LISC staff, LISC Senior Program Officer Marva Williams presented research showing that most grocery stores have “very thin” profit margins of only 1 percent to 2 percent, though Whole Foods is considerably higher.

Average store sizes have risen, Williams said, although some communities want smaller ones, reflecting a trend toward imported, specialty and healthy foods, and ancillary services like banking. Stores are looking to consolidate as a way to increase sales, and centralized buying to increase economies of scale.

The group went on to discuss land consolidation and ownership issues, the right product mix for different community ethnicities, how to frame the right marketing package to attract stores, why certain stores work and others fail to attract customers, and the debate about discount vs. upscale vs. something in between.

“The problem is, we can’t promise the moon,” said Christy Prahl, NCP director for Humboldt Park’s Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp., noting that communities face a tricky balancing act in approaching grocers. “How do we manage that conversation [with the grocer]? We have to back up the claim that people want a new store. Our credibility is on the line.”

Cowan urged the group to make a list of independent grocers that communities might want to pursue. But neighborhoods, he noted, have different sets of opportunities. So while pursuing common packages among those assembled might make some sense, LISC/MetroEdge is also willing to work with them individually. “How can we support you with this forum?” he asked.

Creating marketing packages, thinking through how to put together incentives, sharing case studies of successful models, and pulling together focus groups around how shoppers choose their favorite grocer were among the responses.

“Part of what we’re trying to work toward is identifying where feasible opportunities might lie and push toward a possible pitch to developers or
operators,” Cowan said.

Humboldt, Auburn canvass sites
In Humboldt Park, Bickerdike has tracked efforts on the part of Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) to locate a grocery store in a building owned by the Illinois Department of Human Services at Central Park Avenue and Division Street, Prahl said.

Photo: Gordon Walek

Jake Cowan of LISC/MetroEdge (left), who has been managing the grocery store meeting group, chats with LISC Interim Co-Director Joel Bookman and grocery store consultant Mike Mallon.

Bickerdike is not leading that effort, just hoping to provide input and technical assistance; unlike the Pete’s site at Madison and Western, a grocery store once existed at Central Park and Division, and plenty of parking is already there, she said.

“It’s a site that’s been talked about for years and years—wouldn’t that be great for a grocery store?” Prahl said. “We’ve been getting good information from LISC about what different retailers look for in terms of square footage, parking, zoning, overall purchasing power in the neighborhood. … It’s just a matter of seeing what the alderman has in mind, and if there’s room to be part of the process.”

Humboldt Park NCP staff have been meeting with interested parties throughout the neighborhood and the consensus seems to be toward an independent grocer that would reflect the community’s cultural base.

“It very much matters what kind of store goes in there,” Prahl said. “We want to make sure we represent the voices of engaged Humboldt Park folks who have been working on this stuff for a long time.”

Early feedback suggests that a high-end Whole Foods model is not desirable, nor is Trader Joe’s. But there’s also little appetite for a super-discount store.

NCP lead agency Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. has struck out in a number of directions, participating in LISC/MetroEdge’s convenings, talking with community gardens in the neighborhood about potentially pooling their efforts as a collaborative, and joining the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council, a food advocacy group, said Ernest Sanders, NCP manager and communications director for GADC.

With Wal Mart recently breaking ground with a smaller-footprint Fresh Format store at 76th and Ashland, and two other stores planned by 2012 in Auburn Gresham and nearby communities, GADC is trying to figure out where stretches of food desert might still exist, Sanders said. He’s been eyeing a vacant lot once occupied by an apartment building at 79th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway, where the bus drops off and picks up El passengers.

“The opportunity is prime,” he said. “I’m suggesting a produce store in the vacant lot. Then you can get right on the train. With all the emphasis on eating healthy, the thing would just blow up like gangbusters.” The city is currently researching who owns the land, Sanders added.

Similarly, Englewood has a Food 4 Less on 71st Street and recently gained a Save-A-Lot on 68th Street, but partly due to the loss of the Jewel at 62nd and Western, the community needs at least one more supermarket, said Doris Jones, NCP director for lead agency Teamwork Englewood.

“They’re going to say you’re not a food desert, but I’m saying we need one more,” she said. “Englewood is a food desert. We’d like to have more supermarkets. But we’re glad to have this one [Save-A-Lot].”

Jones plans to meet with Ald. JoAnn Thompson (16th) to further discuss the subject and specifically to inquire about a parcel across the street from the U.S. Bank branch that houses Teamwork Englewood. “I want to ask her the question of whether she needs help” in marketing the development of that parcel, Jones said.

Food crawls get restaurants moving
In addition to supermarkets, LISC/Chicago and its affiliates have been supporting food festivals and “restaurant crawls” to encourage the development of that sector in NCP neighborhoods from Pilsen to Humboldt Park.

Photo: Gordon Walek

The owners of Merla's Kitchen, a favorite stop on last year's Albany Park restaurant crawl, serve up some of their signature dishes to hungry customers.

LISC provided seed money in 2009 to launch a now-self-sustaining festival called Mole de Mayo along 18th Street in Pilsen. Eighteenth Street Development Corp., a key partner in the NCP planning process led by The Resurrection Project, leads the festival, which helps to establish Pilsen as a center for Mexican arts and culture.

“A lot of the participants are local restaurants here in Chicago,” said Hector Saldana, director of commercial development for Eighteenth Street. “The event brings people into the neighborhood. We try to focus on trying to market the neighborhood, passing out directories and Pilsen dining guide.”

Mole de Mayo focuses primarily on food tasting, with samples of different types of traditional Mexican mole dishes, but attendees also have the opportunity to take in mariachis, dancers, and lucha libre wrestlers, Saldana said. “It showcases a lot of the local artists and artisans and gives them the opportunity to promote themselves,” he said of the event, which was held on May 7 this year.

In Humboldt Park, Bickerdike ally the Division Street Business Development Association holds a periodic Food Crawl among Puerto Rican restaurants along the Paseo Boricua on Division Street. Lasting from noon to 7 p.m. at a cost of $45, the upcoming dates will be June 19, July 17, Aug. 14 and Oct. 9. Eduardo Arocho, executive director of the DSBDA, says the food tour.

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And last year, the North River Commission in Albany Park held its first restaurant crawl. Another is planned for this fall.


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