CHICAGO — Two years after a grocery chain abruptly closed its doors to South Side neighbors, a Black-owned company will use city funding to bring the store back to the community — and it’s not stopping there.
Yellow Banana, which owns and operates grocery stores under the Save A Lot name, was one of nearly 80 companies and organizations to receive key city funding Monday through the second round of the city’s Community Development Grant program, designed to funnel money toward small businesses and community initiatives.
Yellow Banana received about $13.5 million to buy and revitalize six closed Save A Lot across the South and West sides, including an Auburn Gresham location, 7908 S. Halsted St., that closed in 2020 and a West Garfield Park location, 420 S. Pulaski Road, that closed in February because of a rat infestation, Yellow Banana co-owner Michael Nance said.
Yellow Banana also will rehab Save A Lot stores in Morgan Park, 10700 S. Halsted St.; South Chicago, 2858 E. 83rd St.; South Shore, 7240 S. Stony Island Ave.; and West Lawn, 4439 W. 63rd St.
The company will combine the city grant with another $13 million in “new market and private funds,” to transform the stores, Nance said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the effort will help fill food deserts.
“Auburn Gresham has been calling for exactly this kind of solution, and we are very, very happy to be answering the community by providing this opportunity to Yellow Banana,” Lightfoot said. “We’re here to support Yellow Banana in our effort to provide quality healthy and affordable food stores that are comfortable and enjoyable to shop in.
“We want to make sure that the shopping experience of people on the South and the West Side is every bit as enjoyable as Downtown and on the North Side. Our residents deserve no less.”
Yellow Banana operates 38 other Save A Lot stores across the country, according to the company’s website. Nance previously said its goal is to “bring them under more localized leadership” and to “invest in these stores in ways they had not been invested in for many years.”
If it succeeds in reviving the Auburn Gresham store as planned, it will offer higher-quality products and redesign the interior so it’s not “beat to all hell,” Nance previously told neighbors.
Most of the grocery chain’s locations slated for overhauls are “dreary and dated,” Nance said.
“They need more than a paint job,” he said.
Yellow Banana will update the interiors and exteriors of the stores, adding bright lights, clean floors, shelving and signs, Nance said.
The “newer, sleeker look” will make the stores a place the “community can take pride in,” Nance said.
If all goes as planned, Yellow Banana will “deliver” a new store to the Auburn Gresham community “before the year is out,” Nance said.
“My hope is that we deliver as promised in these locations, and that we do so quickly, particularly in Auburn Gresham, where the Save A Lot we’re reopening shut down in 2020,” Nance said. “We want to continue to scale our impact. We want to be the go-to grocer of choice that can come in and be creative and think of ways to make private-public partnerships benefit local communities.”
Seventy-nine organizations were awarded around $50 million worth in funding from the city in this round of grants. The recipients got between $23,000 to $13.5 million, according to a press release.
Some include grants to bring Batter and Berries to 5924 W. Chicago Ave. in Austin, and to build the Chicago Market inside the historic Wilson CTA station at 4620 N. Broadway Ave. in Uptown.
Others who received the largest grants include:
- CircEsteem, 4730 N. Sheridan Rd., Uptown
- National Public Housing Museum, 1322-42 W. Taylor St., Near West Side
- E.G. Woode, 1022 W. 63rd St., Englewood
- Rome’s Joy Catering, 4455 S. King Dr., Grand Boulevard
- The Ave Café, 5249 W. Chicago Ave., Austin
- Esperanza Community Services, 520 N. Marshfield Ave., West Town
- Bourdeau Griffin Design Center, 8233 S. Princeton Ave., Chatham
- Urban Market Exchange, 525 E. 67th St., Woodlawn
A full list of the grantees is here.
The previous round of grant funding awarded in May supported 26 projects with $33.5 million in city dollars. Another round of grants is planned for later this year. The deadline to apply is August 19. You can find more information here.
The move to revitalize these stores comes as South and West Side neighborhoods have lost one grocer after another, leaving residents in food deserts with fewer options for fresh, affordable, accessible food.
Save A Lot closed the 79th and Halsted location in February 2020, citing shrinking inventory and low sales, Ald. David Moore (17th) said at the time.
Auburn Gresham residents lost another low-cost grocer this year when Aldi at 7627 S. Ashland Ave. abruptly closed June 12. A Walmart Neighborhood Market and Food 4 Less are the closest grocery stores for neighbors.
An Aldi spokesperson said they shut down the store because of repeated crime, but shocked neighbors and local leaders said they had very little warning the store would be closing.
Moore (17th) told the Sun-Times the store’s lease lasted until the end of the year and the location recently received a liquor license. Even the owners of the building weren’t notified ahead of the closure, Moore said.
Aldi at 3835 W. Madison St. in West Garfield Park also closed with little warning in October, creating a food desert in a neighborhood battling food scarcity. Neighbors didn’t know about the closure until a sign was removed and workers were seen clearing the store. The Save A Lot closing months later meant there were no grocery stores left in the neighborhood.
Lightfoot blasted Aldi on Monday for closing without giving any notice to community members and employees, calling it the “wrong way to go about business.”
“If your business isn’t succeeding, and you make what I think is always a tough decision to close, don’t blame the community and make them out to be thieves and worse because your business didn’t succeed,” she said. “Aldi should be ashamed of the way in which it’s handling itself. Aldi cannot just have lucrative stores on the North Side and abandon the South and West Side.”
“…Aldi, hear me loud and clear. You will either come to the table and talk and work with us, or there are going to be major challenges for you in the city of Chicago.”
Another Save A Lot in Austin, 5555 W. Chicago Ave. abruptly closed in December 2020 during the height of the pandemic.
In April, Whole Foods announced the company would close two Chicago locations, including the Englewood store at 832 W. 63rd St. A specific closing date has not been announced.
South Side alderpeople have pushed for a city hearing to examine why so many grocers are pulling out of underserved neighborhoods and what the city can do to ensure these businesses stay put.
Nance, a Cleveland native, said Monday he “knows what it’s like to grow up poor Black and Brown in a food desert.”
His single mother worked hard to “put meals on a table,” he said. Their local Save A Lot was “the answer to our needs,” providing healthy, affordable meals, he said.
He hopes to make the revamped Save A Lot locations a haven for families on the South and West sides.
“Where you grow up or live should not determine your access to healthy, affordable food options,” Nance said.
To further invest in the store and the neighbors that shop there, Save A Lot stores will pay competitive wages and provide matching 401K benefits and health insurance to full-time employees, Nance said.
Local and organic, natural products will be on the shelves “where there is a demand,” he said.
And Yellow Banana will also pilot a program to take elderly neighbors and people without access to transportation to their local Save A Lot store, Nance said.
“We know we will encounter challenges as any business does, but you can trust that our intentions and energies will always be pure because we see ourselves in our customers,” Nance said. “They are us and our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, shopping on tight budgets, but who, nonetheless, deserve a dignified shopping experience.”
Despite the list of departing stores, there are a ”few factors” that give Nance hope that Auburn Gresham is on the rise, he said.
A Healthy Lifestyle Hub will open later this month and a $40 million affordable housing project is set to break ground later this year, he said.
The city is “bringing in a lot of public dollars and attracting private investment,” Nance said. “As an investor who wants to make an impact in the community, we’re pleased that we chose a community that is getting a lot of other investments. There are a ton of opportunities for collaboration and synergy.”
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