Austin Harvest student entrepreneurs offered $5 grab bags at the last pop-up market of the season on Dec. 17. The next market will be held in their new brick and mortar market. From left: Neveah Hester, Donovan Allison, Camari King, Laquinton Wooten, Johnny Reyes, Rodney Williams, and Azariah Baker. | Melissa Elsmo

Austin Harvest, a produce market in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, started as a 12-week pop-up experiment. Three years later, the youth-led, mission driven market is one winter away from opening a permanent brick-and-mortar location on the site of a former liquor store at 423 N. Laramie Ave.

What started as a temporary solution to combat Austin’s lack of access to fresh and affordable food in 2020 has evolved steadily to fill a critical community need. In June 2021 Austin Harvest, with support from Sam Acho, a former Chicago Bear, and Athletes for Justice, participated in a WSCR-AM radiothon hosted by talk host Danny Parkins. The Score radio event generated more than $650,000 in donations to help build a permanent home for the pop-up market. Organizers secured additional capital through city grants to bring the project budget closer to $1,000,000.

“These students were inspired to do something different when they started counting the number of liquor stores versus grocery stores in Austin,” said Rodney Williams, director of entrepreneurship and development at By the Hand Club for Kids, 415 N. Laramie. “The kids are leading the way and are bought into this. They are super-duper creative and have lots of ideas. Once the market started there was increased demand and we needed to grow.”

The forthcoming building will be 2,500-square-feet and will maintain the look and feel of Austin Harvest’s outdoor pop-up market. Even the design process was youth led, with Austin Harvest staff working with architects to offer input into the building’s design and functionality. The design incorporates the pop-up’s original orange shipping container and will have a retractable roof to give the community gathering space an open feel.  The permanent structure will also include dry storage space and state-of-the-art refrigeration units, allowing students to offer a wider array of fruits, vegetables and fresh flowers.

Though Williams said they have not pinpointed an exact completion date, he is pleased to report construction is being led by Structure Re-Right Inc., a woman- and minority-owned general contractor located on Chicago’s West Side. Construction is ongoing, but the foundation has been laid and the plumbing is complete.

Fourteen high students affiliated with By the Hand Club are responsible for all aspects of the market’s operations including planning, staffing, ordering and inventory management. To ensure the experience is “transparent and healthy” for the student entrepreneurs all revenue is invested back into market operations and student stipends. Participants are hand selected based on academic performance. The youngest are in eighth grade while the oldest are college students and alumni of Austin Harvest, who are continuing their work in a leadership capacity.

As the team anticipates their brick-and-mortar grand opening they have remained busy. Students have completed a series of pop-up produce markets featuring popular $5 grab bags and have been making the most of entrepreneurship development opportunities through field trips and workshops. The teens hosted a sweet potato pie cooking demo with Veah Larde, owner of Two Sisters Catering and are in the process of building an Austin Harvest training manual designed to help with on-boarding new students selected for the program.

During the first two market seasons Austin Harvest was open three afternoons per week. More than 100 shoppers visited the market each week and students rung up more than 2,400 transactions. When Austin Harvest opens in spring 2023, Williams said the team plans to ease into operations and will consider expanding their hours of operation gradually. He pointed out that this is the first year since the market’s inception that it has operated without pandemic-related limitations.

“We don’t want to rob students of their school experience,” said Williams. “It’s all about balance. We want to serve in excellence and don’t want our students to be overwhelmed.”

To stay up to date on the opening of Austin Harvest follow them on Instagram, Facebook and Tik Tok.

Join the discussion on social media!