The West Loop is not a food desert
08/10/2011 10:00 PM
There has already been a lot of discussion about the new Mariano’s grocery store proposed for the corner of Halsted and Monroe streets — most of which centers around $7 million the city is giving the project from our real estate taxes.
Neighbors and others question their receiving the chunk of tax increment financing money (better known as TIF money), when similar projects have not. There are definitely better ways to spend TIF funds. Reports from the community meeting seem to indicate that the fast-approaching expiration of our TIF area in part precipitated their use for Mariano’s.
I think it’s unfortunate that money dedicated to economic development is being used in an area that rather than a food desert, could be considered a grocery glut.
There are so many options either here or on the way that West Loopers will be able to buy just about anything imaginable, without Mariano’s, by this time next year. Besides the Dominick’s located at Halsted and Madison just a block away from the proposed Mariano’s, ground is breaking in the West Loop on a Target at Van Buren near Ashland and a Walmart at Presidential Towers. Further to the west, a Pete’s Fresh Market is set to open at Western and Madison and a Costco is breaking ground at 14th and Ashland. Fans of Jewel have their choice of two, one at Ashland and Roosevelt and a newer one at Kinzie and Des Plaines.
If you like to shop even more locally, Arista Foods is located on May just south of Lake Street, and Peoria Packing Butcher Shop, which sells much more than meat, is in the 1300 block of Lake. There is also a new Greek grocery opening on Halsted across from the one we lost with the fire at Costa’s last year. And the few local 7-Elevens are always good for snacks and those last minute beverage purchases.
I have heard the complaints about the freshness, selection and value of some of these businesses. People might think that a new grocer like Mariano’s will provide incentive for the others to step up their game. But if freshness, selection and value are what you seek, we already have more than most Chicago neighborhoods combined because of our easy access to the wholesale grocers on Fulton Market and Randolph. Many are open to the public, and offer friendship as well as great, fresh food.
My friend Debbie thinks there are a wealth of local choices, and they have been a part of her weekly routine for years. Her favorite is N & G at 902 W. Randolph St. She says that John, the owner of N & G doesn’t just treat his customers like family, he incorporates his own family into the business as well. His parents, Nick and Georgia, are often at the store lending a hand by interacting with customers and helping with the packing and unpacking of produce.
Debbie likes the whole shopping experience at N & G. “I have been going to N & G Produce for years,” she told me. “Their wholesale prices are great, but the real reason I enjoy going there each week is to chat with John and Nick. We discuss our families, our dogs, the neighborhood, new recipes, etc. The friendly and inviting atmosphere they have created makes me feel like I am part of a community — not just a neighborhood.”
A quick visit to the Yelp website proves that their personal touch impresses customers, and that the prices are amazing. The same is true for our other local wholesalers like Columbus Meats, Meadowbrook Egg Company, Isaacson’s Fish Market and JP Graziano. Reading customer ratings and talking to Debbie confirms that Grazianos has been ramping up their imports of quality meats, cheeses, olive oils, pastas, etc. for the public to buy. It also seems to show that most visitors are people from outside of our neighborhood.
Because it is a small part of their business, I don’t think they have money to spend on marketing to the community. I would encourage the community organizations and the City’s delegate agencies in and around the West Loop to make a more concerted effort to promote the wholesalers who sell to the public. Perhaps a street guide with foods offered and hours of operation would show us how a simple walk down the street could stock our kitchen with the freshest foods from meats and produce to herbs and dairy.
The West Loop is not, and hasn’t been a food desert. I do understand that the community is under a tight timeline to use the tax dollars that have been deferred to the TIF. After considering the many established food businesses in the neighborhood, perhaps a better use would have been to enhance the area around them rather than bringing in a competitor.