A Whole Foods Market promised to the beleaguered South Side Englewood community finally opened on Wednesday, with a daylong celebration featuring healthy food, music and revelry.
The store, which some called a social experiment, threw open its doors after lengthy speeches on an outdoor stage by politicians, as well as the corporate and community leaders who were involved from the beginning.
“What was here before was just barren land. They saw the promise of Kennedy-King, the city’s school of culinary hospitality, as an anchor of the talent, the entrepreneurship and the capacity to build this store,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said of Whole Foods and its co-CEO, Walter Robb, who led the effort.
“Three years ago when Walter and I first met, the idea that we would then sit here and map out a strategy to not only put Whole Foods stores throughout the city of Chicago but specifically in Englewood, and a Whole Foods distribution center in west Indiana, to come to the city of Chicago with 300 jobs, this is a new day,” Emanuel said. “And it’s not only the 100 jobs, but there are 35 entrepreneurs, who used to be in their kitchen . . . who their loved ones said, ‘Take that out of here,’ who now have products on Whole Foods shelves.”
The 18,000-square-foot store, the result of community collaboration, will have products from more than 35 residents of Englewood and surrounding communities on its shelves. Most of its 100 employees live in the neighborhood.
“Welcome to the renewal of the corner of 63rd and Halsted. Can you feel the energy?” Robb asked a crowd of more than 500 gathered for the 9 a.m. grand opening and block party, featuring goodies from the local suppliers.
“In the beginning, there was a phone call. I’m riding around Denver with our team and I pick up my cellphone and it’s the mayor. And the mayor says, ‘I’ve heard about what you’re doing in Detroit. I’d like you to consider coming to Chicago.’ Well, actually, you know how the mayor says things,” Robb said. “As conversations developed, I realized this guy is as passionate about healthy foods for people as our team is. I realized how much he wanted this to come to fruition. And he and his team have kept their promises and walked with us every step of the way.”
Emanuel and Robb were joined on a stage by a host of politicians, including U.S. Rep, Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and leaders of community organizations that worked closely with the project, from Teamwork Englewood to R.A.G.E.
Robb said he particularly owed gratitude to the late Ald. Joanne Thompson, who shepherded the project past community hurdles. A bronze bust of Thompson was commissioned by Whole Foods for a place of honor in the store’s community room.
Also heralding the opening was developer Leon Walker of DL3 Realty, which financed and built the Englewood Square mall that now features Whole Foods, Starbuck’s — which also opened Wednesday — Chipotle, and other retailers.
“We bring good news to the community today. We bring opportunity and hope, hope which is the seed of faith. Without hope, there is no faith, faith that Black Lives Matter, that black communities matter,” Walker said.
“We have faith that this is going to be a great development that creates a ripple effect. This is a family affair. This is us coming back home to reinvest in our community,” Walker said, acknowledging members of his family at the opening.
“But this development is about more than just bricks and mortar,” he said. “Three years ago, when we stood here and broke ground . . . We also broke a 50-year cycle of disinvestment in this community. We broke that legacy of disinvestment, and planted a seed.”
Englewood Square shopping center, built completely by black contractors, has brought 200 jobs to a community more known for its crime challenges than stores like Whole Foods or Starbuck’s. Emanuel said the project already has sparked new housing development nearby.
The Rev. James Dukes, pastor of Liberation Christian Center, spoke best for the community in his invocation. “We thank God for not business as usual, but something extraordinary that eyes have not seen,” Dukes said.
“We may have been wounded, but we are not defeated. We may have taken a few licks, but Lord we’re still standing. We may not be where we want to be, but the journey sure is bright in front of us,” he said. “. . . We pray that each person, each family that walks through these doors of the Englewood Whole Foods be blessed.”