BUCKTOWN — After abruptly losing their jobs Monday, nearly two dozen employees of Stanley’s Fruits and Vegetables returned to the store Wednesday afternoon to pick up their final checks, which were enclosed in miniature manila envelopes.
The employees — some of whom had worked at Stanley’s for decades — were still reeling from the sudden news that their employer had decided to close up shop overnight; however, a welcome surprise awaited them in the parking lot.
A representative from Moreno’s Liquors, a business in Little Village, had come by to talk with the employees about applying for a job.
Shortly after that, a manager from a nearby Whole Foods showed up with information about jobs that start at $15 an hour.
Representatives from Akira came by with applications attached to clipboards. A representative of the Chicagoland Retail and Hospitality Sector introduced herself and invited the group to an April 29 job fair. Finally, a woman who works for a nationwide staffing agency who had read about the workers’ plight reached out to Block Club Chicago and asked for help in contacting the employees.
Victoria Camacho, a 23-year-old former cashier manager at Stanley’s, beamed as she flipped through the pages of the informational pamphlets and printouts. The support, she said, was overwhelming.
“$15 an hour” at Whole Foods, she said. “Most of the cashiers here made minimum wage. It’s nice because you don’t feel as hopeless.”
Hopelessness and confusion were the emotions felt by staffers on Monday after Stanley Peters, the man who founded the family-owned business at 1558 N. Elston Ave. in 1967, abruptly closed down the grocery store.
Last year, Peters put his shop up for sale as his family sought to find how much they could get for their land near the fast-changing North Branch of the Chicago River.
On Monday, employees showed up to the market to find a sign on the door: “Closed for Remodeling. Employees come Wednesday for your checks. Thank you. The Mgmt.”
A nephew of Peters — who is ill and receiving dialysis treatments — told Block Club Chicago his uncle was too sick for an interview. The nephew, who declined to provide his name, said his uncle’s poor health and the financial strain of the business ultimately led to the decision to close.
Nick Pappas, an attorney for the family, said the business was no longer financially viable in part because of the competition from Aldi, Whole Foods and Mariano’s.
For the last two years, Pappas, said, Peters had dipped into his own savings to keep the grocery store afloat. There was “no malice” intended toward the few dozen employees who had been laid off, Pappas added, because the decision to close was made the night before.
“These people are like family to them,” Pappas said on Monday. “Would it have been nice to have told them earlier? Of course. But it was a decision that was made last night.”
Employees disagreed with the notion that they had been treated “like family.” Some employees, like Inosente Delgado, 49, had worked for Peters since the 1980s.
“You feel sad, disappointed,” said Delgado, who worked as a manager. “I have 32 years here.”
To add insult to injury, Camacho said, the Peters family refused to provide the employees with official unemployment letters — documents that could help them find new jobs and, in the short term, receive government assistance if necessary.
“We never thought — because people love Stanley’s so much — we never thought they would just close it down,” she said.
The spirits of the employees were lifted on Wednesday when they were approached with the job offers.
“All these stores here, they know we got so many years,” Delgado said. “I got a lot of offers. I don’t know what I’m gonna do next.”
With its iconic sign featuring founder Stanley Peters smoking a pipe and sitting atop a watermelon-turned-helicopter in the clouds, the market is just west of the proposed Lincoln Yards development, where developer Sterling Bay aims to invest $5 billion into a sprawling residential, office, hospitality, recreational and entertainment district
Peters, who is in his 80s, retired several years ago and his son and other family members continued to operate the 11,000-square-foot store, which offers produce on its shelves from 50-60 Midwest farms, organic and conventional, as well as spices and a deli counter.
The departure of Stanley’s pending a sale comes as other longtime family-owned businesses disappear from the Elston corridor.
Last summer, the owners of Star Car Wash, a gas station at 1901 N. Elston Ave., closed their business after selling to Sterling Bay for an undisclosed amount.
The CBRE realtor who has been working with Stanley’s on the sale has not returned multiple requests for comment, but there is no record of the building’s sale.
In the last few months, employees noticed an uptick in loyal customers who would anxiously ask whether or not Stanley’s would survive the changing neighborhood.
“Customers would always come up to us and say, ‘Are you leaving?'” Camacho said. The Peters family “would always say, ‘No.’ They said, ‘We’re fighting it. We want to stay open.'”
Last week, the City Council signed off on $900 million in taxpayer-funded subsidies for Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards, which will turn 55 acres along the North Branch of the Chicago River into a new neighborhood with housing and retail.
The project includes new bridges over the Chicago River, a new Metra station, an extension of the 606 trail, water taxis, dedicated bicycle lanes as well as a potential light-rail transit way and extension of the city’s street grid.
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