Upon entering Soul City Community Market, the intoxicating scent of vanilla roasted almonds smacks visitors in the face as engaging staff members express appreciation for each shopper’s arrival. A glance to the right reveals a colorful bounty of fresh produce from Forty Acres Fresh Market. Just beyond the display of reasonably priced brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and citrus fruits, patrons can discover an array of warm nuts, handmade scented candles and artisan butchered meats.
The space is raw, but the energy is warm and inviting — renderings of a colorful and welcoming grocery store sit off to the side suggesting big changes are afoot for the 12,500 square foot building located 5713 W. Chicago Ave.
For just over four years, Liz Abunaw, founder of Forty Acres Fresh Market, has been on a mission to bring fresh produce to underserved communities through pop up events, farmers markets and a produce delivery service. Her mobile produce service has a loyal customer base in both Chicago and Oak Park and now, Abunaw is excited that Soul City Community Market will help pave the way for Forty Acres Fresh Market’s brick and mortar grocery store.
While optimistic about the future, Abunaw has realistic concerns about Forty Acres’ forth coming grocery store. She does not embrace an “if you build it, they will come” mentality, but prefers to surround herself with experts who will make necessary plans to ensure the endeavor’s success. She hopes the Soul City Market will generate enough community interest to build her confidence about her future grocery store set to arrive in the same location in 2023.
“Our biggest challenge is going to be getting people to shop inside their own community again.” said Abunaw. “I would love to see 300 to 400 people visiting the Soul City Community Market every weekend. That would make me feel much more comfortable.”
Since opening in early February the modest weekend market has been gaining in popularity. The well-spaced market features approximately five vendors but has the capacity to grow to seven or eight. Chicago based, Nuts to Go, is responsible for perfuming the space. Founder, Garcon Morweh and Wesley Junius were on site roasting mixed nuts. Available in vanilla and boozy varieties the offerings come in three sizes and are both dairy and gluten-free.
Butcher McCullough Kelly-Willis, founder of the Chicago Meat Collective, was onsite peddling sustainably raised and locally sourced meats. Focused on whole animal butchery, the Chicago Meat Collective, aims to educate home cooks and promotes access to responsibly sourced meats through donations and participation in pop up markets like the Soul City Community Market. Expect the semi-regular vendor to have frozen prepackaged prepared foods like lamb ragu and Bolognese sauce as well as assorted chops, roasts, sausages and steaks. Jerky made with spicy Korean gochujang and artisan dog treats round out the offerings.
As Soul City Market draws attention to the Chicago Avenue property that will ultimately house Forty Acres Fresh Market, Abunaw is hard at work making her grocery store dream into a brick-and-mortar reality. The project was recently awarded up to $2.5 million through the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. The program utilizes revenue from downtown development projects to strengthen commercial corridors in qualifying areas including Chicago’s Soul City Corridor. The grant awarded to the project at 5713 Chicago Ave. matches 50% of construction related expenditures up to $2.5 million. While the restricted funds (geared toward a one-time capital project) represent a big step forward for the future home of Forty Acres, Abunaw is realistic about the project timeline.
“Projects funded through the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund were evaluated for readiness and impact,” said Abunaw who applied for the grant in September 2021. “NOF is intended to be last mile funding and we are ready to start construction as soon as we file for construction permits, but it doesn’t mean the project will go quickly.”
Abunaw says she and her team, including a store designer, general contractor, and architect, will be ready to submit for construction permits “sometime in April.” Once the City of Chicago grants approval they will be ready to break ground on the project and anticipate they will be ready to open sometime next year.
“My goal is to create the store I would want to shop at, so I am thinking like a consumer,” said Abunaw who has calculated a need for 500 transactions per day to sustain the Austin grocery store.
Bringing affordable high-quality food to the community is at the heart of the Forty Acres mission, but Abunaw is clear that experience plays a key role in how people decide where they want to shop. She notes there are not enough grocery stores in Austin, but residents also choose to skip over the local options they do have in favor of shopping in a different community. Abunaw, who holds degrees in both business and social entrepreneurship from the University of Chicago, is clear that decision comes because local discount grocers tend to underestimate the importance of the customer shopping experience.
As a result, Abunaw and her team, are focused on building an experiential grocery store with cross community appeal. Forty Acres Fresh Market aims to draw business from the three zip codes within a half mile of the store — 60302 in Oak Park and 60644 and 60651 in Chicago. Fresh fare including produce, meats and prepared foods will be the shining stars at Forty Acres with general merchandise available on a smaller scale.
Abunaw admits there is a precarious balance in the grocery business but intends to build a profitable store that creates living wage jobs in the community. While affordability will be at the heart of Forty Acers’ brick and mortar, details including curb appeal, lighting, music, layout, signage, food sampling and customer service levels are all factors being considered during the planning process.
“My friends think I am a zealot — once I get an idea, I am all about it,” said Abunaw. “This whole project is overwhelming, and I underestimated how hard it would be. I am on a steep learning curve and have come to understand the specific complexities related to opening a grocery store, but I know Austin deserves more than the bare minimum.”
In the meantime, Abunaw would like to see more people from both Oak Park and Chicago visit the future home of her brick-and-mortar to support Forty Acres and the other vendors at the Soul City Community Market. The market is held Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 5713 W. Chicago Ave.