With time running out, Save A Lot operator makes little progress toward opening stores

After months of blown deadlines and broken promises to renovate and reopen six low-cost grocery stores in underserved communities, the operator of Save A Lot stores in Chicago promised a top city official in January that his company will do better.

“We took your comments about a ‘hard reset’ to heart,” Yellow Banana Chief Executive Joe Canfield wrote to Ciere Boatright, Chicago’s top planning and development official, in a January 31 email.

Five months later, Yellow Banana continues to fall short of its own goals.

The company was given 24 months under a contract with the city that approved $13.5 million in subsidies to rehab six stores. More than halfway in, all of the six stores are closed and none have been renovated. The company now has 10 months left to finish the job.

It’s been a tumultuous year for Yellow Banana — the company has been plagued by financial and legal troubles and dozens of timeline changes. Meanwhile, residents in neighborhoods with no grocery stores wonder when the company will make good on its promises.

A total of over $26 million in funding that includes tax-increment financing, loans and federal grants was approved for the project. Tax-increment financing isn’t given until store completion. It is unclear how much of the nearly $7 million in federal funds have been disbursed already.

Outside of the initial contract, an additional $4.8 million in city funds has been approved for the construction of two brand new stores.

The only Save A Lot store open in Chicago is in Englewood, which was renovated and not included in the six-store agreement with the city.

All six stores are closed for construction and opening dates have been repeatedly pushed back for over a year.

Nearly two years ago, Yellow Banana made headlines as the company that swooped in to reopen Gresham’s former Save A Lot after Aldi abruptly closed. By April 2023, the company was officially on the hook to renovate six Save A Lot stores.

After the “hard reset” meeting with city Department of Planning and Development Commissioner Boatright, Canfield told her that “perceived communication issues” had been remedied.

Next, he assured Ald. Ronnie Mosley (21st) the Morgan Park store was still on the most-recently set schedule, communications obtained by the Sun-Times show.

The target date for the grand reopening was Wednesday.

But last week, the store was gated off and there was no sign of activity inside or outside.

“They’re still going through construction when I talked to them last week,” Mosley said in an interview with the Sun-Times. “Pavement of the lot and landscaping got delayed because of the rain.”

“I don’t think they understood the entire process and that they would need more permits,” he said.

The opening for the Morgan Park store is now scheduled for early July.

Gresham and West Garfield Park were top priorities because of the lack of food options available in the communities, Canfield has said.

Initial plans were to do “one store at a time to minimize negative community impacts and to not overly burden Yellow Banana’s cash flow position,” a Yellow Banana associate told city employees in an October email obtained by the Sun-Times.

In Gresham, residents have been waiting for a grocery store at 7908 S. Halsted since July 2022.

Most recently, Ald. David Moore said the store would be open by Thanksgiving 2023 after a flooring issue. The holiday came and went without the story opening, and Yellow Banana promised the location along with another in West Garfield Park would open by April.

In between delays, the company was sued by its Ohio produce distributor, it sold all of its Florida stores and two Illinois stores closed.

Yellow Banana did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Sun-Times, even after earlier promising to provide updated timelines.

Moore said the Gresham store opening has now been pushed to the end of August — more than a year after Canfield told a hopeful crowd at a Gresham community meeting the store would be open in July 2023.

Financial issues continued and Yellow Banana had to take out another loan, Moore said.

“It was frustrating when we went from Thanksgiving to opening in the spring and then we ran into not only flooring problems, but also some other structural problems,” he said. “That’s normal but I wasn’t expecting that given … the money they had and the fact that the [building] was already a [former] Save A Lot store. But I’d rather have a good product then have nothing at all.”

In West Garfield Park, residents are still living without a full-service grocery store.

Angela Taylor, wellness coordinator for Garfield Park Community Council who sits in on meetings with Yellow Banana, was told the store at 420 S. Pulaski Rd. will be open around mid-June.

Taylor was sympathetic to installations and signage delays for the West Garfield Park store but was unaware that all of the other stores were closed.

“That doesn’t really make sense to me because these are renovations, these aren’t new stores opening,” she said.

Talei Thompson, the Westside Block Club Association founder who has family that lives next door to the store, said his relatives haven’t seen any construction or activity in a few weeks.

Thompson and Taylor weren’t thrilled about Save A Lot remaining in the community, and Taylor has been pushing for a locally-owned grocery store.

“It’s almost summer again and we do not have a grocery store for my 96-year-old grandmother and her daughters to walk outside their back door to purchase produce and groceries,” Thompson said.

“If we haven’t had a store ready this year, many of us in the community would rather just wait it out with new construction of a new store at the Save A Lot location opposed to just waiting and waiting,” he added.

There are plans in the works with the city for a different grocery store in the neighborhood, Taylor said.

While she’s still hopeful the stores will open, she says that there’s an overall theme of a lack of planning with Yellow Banana.

Last year, she said, Yellow Banana discussed taking seniors from a neighborhood living center and driving them to a pop-up grocery store Taylor helped run while the Save A Lot was being renovated.

But they didn’t make arrangements in advance, Taylor said.

“We were sitting in the grocery store one day and a van pulled up and said, ‘Where are the seniors?’ And I’m like, ‘What seniors?’” Taylor said. “They had absolutely no plan.”

She directed the Yellow Banana representative to the senior center and introduced him to the resident coordinator.

The company never ended up bringing any seniors to the grocery store.

“The timing was off,” she said. “You have to plan for something like that.”

Source link


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *