Hanging with unburdened Mayor Emanuel as Whole Foods Englewood marks second year
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He still draws hushed voices in deference, fingers pointing, cell phone photos, in those places where he has made a difference.
It was a recent day in Englewood, and I was hanging out with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the Whole Foods Market that just celebrated its second year at 63rd & Halsted — an anomaly many said would not work.
But it has. If the measure is healthier food options in what previously was a stark food desert.
Or if the measure is the 100-plus jobs for Englewood residents like Cora Butler, a widow, grandmother of six and member of the customer service/support team, and Cliff Fields, father of seven and associate team leader for produce.
“We are part of the original team,” says Butler, who is in her 60s and who like Fields has worked here since the store opened Sept. 28, 2013.
Measure its success also, by its support of minority entrepreneurs like Iris Patterson of Iris Botanicals, Fallon Johnson of Annie Bell Fragrances, Demetria Hayden of Altogether Lovely. The products of some 40 fledgling business owners are stocked on its shelves, leading to their being picked up by other Whole Foods stores, other grocery chains.
Or measure by its success in igniting neighborhood development. Starbucks, Chipotle and PNC Bank joined the upscale grocer at the 10-store, fully-leased Englewood Square that continues to attract new housing and retail. The 7,000-square-foot Englewood Brews microbrewery is very near its winter opening just across 63rd Street.
“Englewood is on the rise. That’s what I hear everyone say. I’ve been here when it was on the rise and when it was on the fall, and now it’s coming back up,” Butler says.
“We want to keep it there,” adds Fields, 49, who worked for Jewel-Osco 12 years before snagging a job this close to home.
As the reporter who’d scooped Emanuel’s sealing the deal with former Whole Foods Co-CEO Walter Robb in 2013, I was invited to the store’s marking of its second year with a mayoral visit.
It was interesting hanging out with the now unfettered, outgoing mayor, who exudes an air of lightness — contentment in what he has achieved, resignation over what he may not have.
“There are certain things referred to as game changers, and this is a game changer,” says Emanuel, who was warmly welcomed by employees and shoppers upon entering. He grabs coffee from the Starbuck’s kiosk, strolls and chats with everyone.
“This store has given the neighborhood a boost. Ripple effects have been transformative,” he says. “The first sale is always your hardest. After that, it ain’t that hard. It’s just persistence.”
Heading to a community room, the mayor chats with Butler and Fields for one of his Chicago Stories podcasts.
They share what Whole Foods has meant to them individually, to their community, noting all the aforementioned measures of success, and that it additionally serves as a community hub, hosting Friday night food, wine and music events that draw neighbors from far and wide.
“We do what we need to do here in Englewood,” says Fields, noting it took time for the store to take off.
Whole Foods doesn’t disclose sales or profitability of its stores nor will it say how Englewood performs in comparison to others citywide, but officials do say the store is meeting expectations for the location.
“It’s picking up. We bring quality. We bring friendly smiles. Any new store in the area has to give at least one or two years to really pick up,” Fields says.
Only four of Whole Foods’ 460 stores nationwide are in poor neighborhoods — Detroit, New Orleans and Newark, N.J. So this one, in a community known more for intractable gang crime than for the income levels typically surrounding a high-end grocer, has been watched nationally .
Staple items here are priced lower than other locations. And prices have dropped further after e-commerce giant Amazon’s August 2017 purchase of the chain.
Butler says she’s seen customers warm to healthier eating, including herself: “I still eat a bacon every now and then. But I see myself eating a lot of these Whole Foods products and have been able to wean myself off blood pressure pills.”
For Emanuel, tackling the problem of South and West Side communities with few groceries and healthy-eating choices was a key mayoral mission. It’s reflected not only here in Englewood, but with a new Mariano’s in Bronzeville, a new Wal-Mart in Roseland. And as he leaves office, a Jewel-Osco is headed to Woodlawn and a Shop & Save to South Shore.
“Nothing has an impact on a neighborhood’s economy like a grocery store,” says Emanuel, as he leaves Whole Foods.
“If you build a grocery store, you get a Starbuck’s, a Chipotle, a microbrewery. You pull a grocery store out, each of those fold up, because nothing produces foot traffic like this. There’s the health of the neighborhood economy and the health of the person shopping there. Have I eliminated all food deserts? No. Have I made a significant dent? I can say I’ve done my part.”