Leadership, mission, and purpose. Whole Foods continues to demonstrate these distinguishing characteristics through the opening of its latest store last week in Englewood, one of the most crime ridden and lower income areas of Chicago. The median income of this neighborhood is $20,500, about one-fourth the average of where most WFM stores operate. It’s also a food desert. Residents historically have had to either travel long distances (likely on public transportation) or settle for buying their groceries from a convenience store (ie, a gas station). Think about that – imagine your food selection was limited mainly to highly processed bagged and boxed snacks, bars, and canned goods. Thanks to Whole Foods and support from the City of Chicago, residents have access to fresh, wholesome, healthy, nurturing food and nutrition, and resources to improve their lives.
According to Whole Foods Market, it worked very closely with the community to ensure it heard their voices, met their needs, and made the store about them. The City of Chicago is also committed to this initiative: it sold the land to the developer where this WFM store now sits, along with other retailers including Starbucks, for $1. The market value was $3.1 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The city also granted $10.3 million in tax subsidies. Among the many examples of how much the community wanted this business, 900 applications were received for the 100 store positions, 35 of which were filled by community residents. Learn more about the background to this store here.
Six years ago Whole Foods committed to opening four stores in low income and predominantly minority neighborhoods nationwide, according to the Wall Street Journal. Since 2013, WFM has opened stores in Detroit, New Orleans, and now Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, with one in Newark, NJ next year. In a segment aired on Chicago’s WGN TV station last week, Walter Robb said the plans for the Englewood store began three years ago as a part of a conversation about other topics.
At 18,000 square feet, the store is compact compared to typical WFM locations, but on a visit last week, the store format and assortment is true to Whole Foods, and the vibe of the store is very positive. Whole Foods used the financial incentives from the city of Chicago to lower prices on staple items like 365 private label milk ($1.99/gallon), white eggs ($1.99/dz), and cheddar cheese 8oz block ($2.99). The salad bar and hot bar are $6.99/lb., and featured produce items were competitively priced (examples: pints of strawberries @ 2/$5, bunch of organic kale 2/$3). The balance of items across the store are priced fairly consistently with other WFM locations.
Will it work? Residents are hopeful and excited about a brand like Whole Foods being in their community, providing jobs to its residents, and being a resource and source for better living. Does this mean they’ll do their regular grocery shopping there? Both WFM & the City of Chicago are committed to making it work, so we’ll see how each responds and adjusts as patterns emerge.
I think there’s a more important aspect to consider: we pursue, and our lives become, that which we see in front of us. For residents of this tough neighborhood, they’re accustomed to seeing vacant lots, eating processed “food” from a convenience store, and living lives concerned for their safety. Their children are subjected to this same environment. The presence in the community of a $15 Billion international company built on an authentic purpose and mission of health, vitality, and well-being can inspire hope and new goals for their lives. Even for residents who for now can only buy inexpensive (but better) staples, the influence of vibrant living by being in and around the store eventually takes hold. The sights, sounds, smells and energy of a dramatically new experience through their neighborhood Whole Foods Market can empower and awaken residents to a better path. Rather than being resigned to the depravity they are used to and expending their energy on worries, fears and stress of all they have known for perhaps their entire life to this point, they can learn there is more to life with better options with which they can chart a better course for themselves, a new beginning, and revel in all possibilities as a result.
Congratulations to you Whole Foods, for living your purpose in its truest authentic definition by serving these communities, and providing all of us and the entire business community an example to live by. We know you are a for-profit business and facing many challenges right now, but this is a bold step many businesses would be too afraid to pursue.
Working to solve food desert challenges are not always about balance sheets and profit & loss statements. The beneficiaries of these actions are accounted for in the human lives improved. I'm not sure you can put a price on that.
About The Author...
Michael Movitz has more than 25 years natural/organic products industry experience across retail, manufacturer, broker and market research organizations...