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Whole Foods will open in depressed Chicago neighborhood

A cardboard box at a Whole Foods Market.

“Journalist, skeptic. Entrepreneur, believer.”

That's  how Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb responded to a question from Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal earlier this year. The high-end grocery chain opened a store in Detroit’s Midtown area, and we wanted to know what was in it for them. His answer (beyond the mantra)? That Whole Foods is committed to bringing healthy food to underserved neighborhoods. What he didn't mention was the vast healthcare complex and university system in the location's backyard. Not exactly a dearth of customers for the new store. 

But now Whole Foods is continuing to make good on their commitment. The corporation is planning a new store in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. As Marketplace has previously reported, Englewood is one of the poorest, most violent neighborhoods in the city. 

The Englewood location is set to break ground in 2016 and a rep for the company said the store will bring 100 new jobs to the area.  Whole Foods Midwest Regional President Michael Bashaw tells public radio member station WBEZ in Chicago that Englewood’s close proximity to public transportation will make it a prime location, despite the economic conditions of the area.

“It’ll be a profitable store.  It could be that there’s lower sort of price points per item that are purchased.  But we believe that we’ll make up in volume what we’re doing on lower price points."

In an interview today,  CEO Walter Robb tells Marketplace that while the Detroit location is doing better than expected, it is not a predictor of whether or not the Englewood location will succeed.

“These are two very different communities,” says Robb.   “We’re not approaching this in some formula sort of way.”

The announcement of the new store echoes a promise Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made back in 2011 to end food deserts. The USDA defines a food desert as a neighborhood in which a significant share of residents is over a mile away from a grocery store. 

Although the Chicago Tribune took him to task on the progress of those efforts a couple weeks ago, a Whole Foods in Englewood only helps the mayor in his pursuit.

Mari Gallagher is a researcher who studies food deserts.  She tells WBEZ that beyond food availability, the Whole Foods location could  have other economic benefits.

“Retail attracts retail.  One of the problems Englewood has is it hasn’t had a lot going on in terms of retail.  It tends to attract the same: dollar stores, liquor stores."

Despite the optimism from officials and academics, some people are still skeptical about the new store, wondering if it's a pathway to gentrification and whether Englewood residents will be able to afford the food there.  Walter Robb says he welcomes skepticism.

“We can make the promises and the statements, but until the store opens, people can have skepticism if they want,” Robb says.  "I'm really on fire about what happens when a community and company start just by listening to each other."

Here's what folks on Twitter are saying about the new location:

 

 

Check out this earlier post for an economic breakdown of the Englewood area.

About the author

John Ketchum is an assistant producer for Marketplace’s wealth & poverty desk.

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