The Whole Foods at 63rd and Halsted Englewood on January 28, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

ENGLEWOOD — Whole Foods is closing two Chicago stores — including one it opened in Englewood six years ago to loud cheers after promising to bring healthier food options to the area.

The Englewood spot and a DePaul University shop are among six locations nationwide being closed by the Amazon-owned grocery chain, which operates 530 locations, a company spokesperson said Friday. None of the other closures are in Illinois.

The closure is a particular blow in Englewood, which had been a food desert before the Whole Foods opened in September 2016 at 832 W. 63rd St.

Once the Englewood location closes, the Hyde Park store will be the only Whole Foods remaining on the South Side. The Englewood store at one point employed 100 people, many from the neighborhood.

No closing dates have been announced.

“As we continue to position Whole Foods Market for long-term success, we regularly evaluate the performance and growth potential of each of our stores, and we have made the difficult decision to close six stores,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We are supporting impacted team members through this transition and expect that all interested, eligible team members will find positions at our other locations.”

Whole Foods also is closing a Lincoln Park location in the DePaul University Welcome Center at 959 W. Fullerton Ave. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement the decision to close the stores was “obviously disappointing,” and called on Amazon to protect the workers who will soon be out of a job.

“Having been in both of those stores many times over the years, I saw first-hand how those workers gave their heart and soul to make the stores a success,” Lightfoot said. “Together with both communities and local elected leaders, my administration will work to repurpose these locations in a way that continues to serve the community and support the surrounding businesses. We as a city will continue to work hard to close food deserts that meet community needs with community at the table.”

Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Whole Foods would open the 18,000-square-foot store at 63rd and Halsted in 2013. The city devoted $10.7 million in tax-increment financing for infrastructure upgrades at Englewood Square to make the store a reality. The project also received $13.5 million in federal tax credits, according to Crain’s.

On opening day, customers waited for hours to get inside the Englewood store, rushing in and cheering as music played. Thousands shopped there by the end of opening day, company officials said.

“It feels like a brand new day in Englewood,” one shopper said. “I’m excited.”

Bringing the national chain was a critical boon to the $20 million Englewood Square development, revitalizing a commercial area that had once been the largest shopping district outside The Loop. Retailers told DNAinfo at the time that Whole Foods’ arrival encouraged them to sign leases for various storefronts and they were eager for the grocer to boost foot traffic in the center.

Emanuel — who twisted arms to get the store opened — said the shop would serve as an anchor to bring more investment to the South Side neighborhood. Company officials said they didn’t expect it to be as profitable as other locations, but the chain was more focused on providing affordable, healthy options to residents.

Neighbors were also able to partner with Whole Foods to sell their products in the store.

Walter Robb, Whole Foods co-CEO, commended Englewood residents who packed community meetings to give feedback on the store. Former 16th Ward Ald. JoAnn Thompson, who died of heart failure the year before the store opened, staunchly advocated for the store, as well, Robb said.

“You have helped to make us a much better company,” Robb told community members at the opening.

Then-Ald. Toni Foulkes, who took office when Thompson died, said the store helped bring the area back to the vibrancy it had decades ago.

“For a split second I saw this corner the way it used to be when I was 7 years old,” she said at the grand opening.

Leon Walker, managing partner of DL3 Realty which spearheaded the Englewood Square development, said at the time he was counting on Whole foods to have a “ripple effect” for the neighborhood. He could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

“This is more than brick and mortar. This is about restoring hope back into Englewood,” Walker said at the store opening. “We’re breaking a more than 50-year disinvestment cycle in the area.”

The Whole Foods Market in Englewood Square 63rd near Halsted in Englewood on Sept. 15, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Some community members blasted Whole Foods’ decision to close shop in Englewood. 

“This is an economic loss,” said Deon Lucas, founder of E.G. Woode, an Englewood-based collective of entrepreneurs, architects and designers. “Whole Foods doesn’t care about the community. Public officials should’ve put more effort into recruiting Mom and Pop stores to avoid this.”

Residents Association of Greater Englewood Founder Asiaha Butler said the writing was on the wall once Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2017. The store began pulling back community engagement efforts shortly after the ownership changed hands, dismantling the department dedicated to those efforts, Butler said. 

The loss of Whole Foods couldn’t come at a worse time, particularly after Antioch Baptist Church was destroyed in a fire earlier this month, Butler said. In her opinion, Whole Foods’ focus on their bottom line leaves little room for concern on behalf of the employees — most of whom are from the area — or the small businesses impacted by the decision. 

“We have a lot of residents in this community and we assured them that this would be done right,” Butler said. “The way [Whole Foods] is exiting is a slap in the face of our community, but we’re not going back to the same ol’, same ol’. If Amazon and Whole Foods didn’t recognize the momentum that’s here right now, good riddance. Englewood is always rising, regardless of what setbacks come.”

More grocery options have opened in Englewood since Whole Foods arrived, though they remain limited. An ALDI at 63rd and Wallace was recently remodeled and reopened.

Community organizers have worked for years to expand neighbors’ access to fresh food. The Go Green on Racine team launched the Go Green Community Fresh Market in March, offering fresh foods, ready-to-eat meals and essential groceries at 1207 W. 63rd St.

With residents also struggling with food insecurity during the pandemic, community organizers also have started food pantries, community fridges and fresh food delivery to feed Englewood neighbors.

Buoyed by national retailers like Whole Foods, Starbucks and Chipotle at the shopping center, city officials have been moving forward with the second phase of the Englewood Square plan, overhauling a century-old firehouse across the street into a culinary center and business hub.

McLaurin Development Partners and Farpoint Development plan to create an eco-food hub, an all-season “community living room” with a pedestrian-only walkway, and a business incubator. The project is part of Lightfoot’s Invest South/West initiative. The project is slated to cost $10.3 million and create 45 full-time jobs.

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