Liz Abunaw, founder and owner of Forty Acres Fresh Market in Chicago, continues to hold pop-up markets in Austin, a West Side community with few grocery options. But the goal is to open a brick-and-mortar store.
When an old Salvation Army building at 5713 W. Chicago Ave. went on the market, Abunaw approached West Side Health Authority, a nonprofit serving the Austin neighborhood, about developing the building with her, according to a report from WTTW News.
Abunaw has received notable support from the city. Block Club Chicago reported Forty Acres received a $2.5 million grant, funded under the Chicago Recovery Plan. However, the store construction has some hurdles ahead.
“Grocery store development is particularly hard right now…I never realized how much the infrastructure of a location impacts your ability to properly run a grocery store,” Abunaw said.
Initially she wanted a 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot grocery store. However, the location she found had 12,000 square feet of space.
“I didn’t want to take up all of the building in the grocery store…[that] was more than I needed, and more than I wanted to manage,” she said.
Abunaw designed a store around 9,400 square feet. The next issue was supply, and with trucking specifically, the accessibility in the neighborhood is proving difficult.
“The building didn’t even have a loading dock…so we have to retrofit a loading dock onto it,” she said, adding that access to it will be on a side street. “Now we have to figure out how to get the city to allow us to bring in a 53-foot semi on a street that they can only accommodate 40 feet,” Abunaw said.
This can mean construction needs, such as getting the city to approve widening the street. With these obstacles, Abunaw can’t currently provide an opening date for her store.
Pop-up stand, delivery
For the time being, Forty Acres Fresh Market continues to host a pop-up produce stand during the weekend in the building that will house the store, as well as make deliveries in the Chicago area. The business also welcomed other local food vendors to create an indoor fresh market.
According to a report from The Chicago Tribune, Abunaw worked in sales at General Mills for 10 years before coming to Chicago for business school in 2012.
The outlet reported that while she was running an errand on the West Side, she realized how difficult it was to find banks, pharmacies and grocery stores. After her job in sales at Microsoft was eliminated in late 2017, she decided to launch Forty Acres, according to the article. She said within the Austin neighborhood, there are three grocery stores to serve a community of nearly 100,000 people across 7.5 square miles.
Abunaw avoids the term “food desert,” instead describing the situation as “food apartheid.”
“Let’s be very real, especially in urban communities. It’s not a random or natural occurrence that certain communities, typically black and brown communities – working class black and brown communities – that may have higher rates of poverty or more…varied income distribution, don’t have basic services like groceries and pharmacies and banks.”
She opposes the narrative that these communities can’t sustain those businesses, or their residents don’t shop at grocery stores.
“Because if you follow the dollars, there’s huge grocery demand leakage from their community,” she said. “So they’re shopping. They just have to go outside their neighborhoods to do it.
“When they’re going outside their neighborhood to do it, they are typically going into whiter and far more affluent areas to spend their money there. So you have low-income communities of colors basically subsidizing stores in higher income, predominately white communities, but then getting told that they can’t sustain their own stores.”
Furthermore, grocery shopping to Abunaw is more than a transactional experience. “I go to certain stores because I have a good experience there, because it’s not just customer service. It’s the whole thing. The store is clean, the food is vibrantly displayed…the smells, the sights, even the in-store radio – it’s just like a whole experience.”
Goals for 2022
Forty Acres Market is still in its start-up phase and Abunaw is focusing on “operational excellence” this year and setting her business up for long-term sustainability, success and growth. The market was a Chicago Innovation People’s Choice award winner in 2021.
“This year, I’m really focused on…operational excellence and getting the entire team…to not just make sure the business runs, but that we’re thinking through how to run better, how to run well, how to be more effective and efficient.
“[We need to] implement systems and processes that ultimately help our bottom line and help us to deliver a better product and service to our customers intimately…if you delight your customers, you’ll keep them and you’ll likely get some more.”
For more information, visit fortyacresfreshmarket.com.