ENGLEWOOD — Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the developer behind the Englewood Whole Foods Market are vowing to bring another grocery store to the site as the national chain closes one of its only South Side locations.
Whole Foods Market announced Friday the company will close the DePaul University shop and the Englewood store at 832 W. 63rd St., which opened less than six years ago as part of a pledge to bring more fresh food options to a food desert. Six stores are closing across the country, company officials said.
A Whole Foods spokesperson said the Englewood location will close “in the coming months” but did not specify a closing date.
At an unrelated news conference Monday, Lightfoot called the closure a “great disappointment” and “gut blow” to Englewood. She said the Whole Foods was an “interesting experiment” from former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who she said championed a store that was too expensive for the neighborhood and where few residents shopped.
“I don’t know about most of you, but most Chicagoans are hard-pressed to pay, for example, $15 a pound for a piece of steak,” Lightfoot said.
The store was often empty, even on Saturdays when “grocery stores all over the city are absolutely crowded with people,” Lightfoot said.
“To me, what it underscores — and I wasn’t here when this decision was made — you cannot bring investment to the community without talking to the community and making sure the investment makes for that community,” Lightfoot said.
Leon Walker, the managing partner of DL3 Realty which spearheaded the Englewood Square development, said Tuesday that Whole Foods encouraged other businesses to commit to the Square.
Walker said there were plenty of times the store was crowded with shoppers. The store “exceeded previous visits and traffic” during parts of the pandemic, Walker said. Ultimately, the chain couldn’t perfect the “science of grocery” to create a store that landed well with local customers, he said.
“What happened here is you have a store trying to find its footing with the community with a mixture of pricing, product selection, atmosphere, community engagement, marketing and so forth, that it never really was fully connected,” Walker said. “I can understand the challenges they face, but that still does not relieve them of the ultimate commitment they made to this community.”
The storefront won’t be left empty, leaders said. Lightfoot said her team will work with the community to make investments that “make sense for those neighborhoods.”
“We’re going to work our tails off to get a new alternative — one that the community wants and can access and participate in,” Lightfoot said. “It shouldn’t be that we’re plopping something down in a community where we haven’t engaged with them, we haven’t talked to relevant stakeholders to see if it’s something that they want, they need and that they’re going to be able to take advantage of.”
Walker said Whole Foods’ departure is a disappointment, but he’s looking at the situation “glass half full” and welcomes the opportunity for a new grocer that better fits the neighborhood.
“There’s an opportunity that needs to be brought to the front here and explored with great operators in the space that could really do something special here,” Walker said. “It’s not often you’re going to get a fully built store of this quality to be available for turnkey operations. This is a great example of how we could all work together to find the right brand, the right operator for this time.”
The 63rd and Halsted Whole Foods opened in September 2016 to a jubilant celebration. Shoppers waited as early as the crack of dawn to shop in the store. Before the store’s opening, Englewood was a food desert.
Emanuel said the grocery store would usher in more investment in the community. The city devoted $10.7 million in tax-increment financing for infrastructure upgrades at Englewood Square to launch the store. The project also received $13.5 million in federal tax credits, according to Crain’s.
“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.”
Lightfoot said she visited the store Saturday to speak with employees and managers about the situation.
“… We cannot just rip the rug from under that community and particularly for those employees,” Lightfoot said. “We’ve been assured, and we’re going to hold them to it, that all of those employees will be offered an opportunity to work in another Whole Foods store.”
Walker said bringing a new store to the community will be an “all hands on deck” job. For the last few days, he’s spoken with community members and stakeholders to make sure “no stone is left unturned,” he said.
Walker said he and others want to take the time to find the best replacement that checks all boxes for what the community — hopefully before Whole Foods closes.
“We’re hopeful that we will find the right place in the market for where Englewood is not only today but will be in the future,” Walker said. “If you think about the grocery market, it goes from deep discount to premium gourmet. But inside of that range, we believe that there is the right brand to continue the momentum of Englewood Square.
“We’re coming from a position of passion with the pragmatism of business,” Walker said. “We are passionate and mission-oriented, and we want to see this succeed not just for us and our investors, but for the community.”