Bleeding money, 47th street Co-Op shuts doors

By Kat Glass

After five years in business, the 47th Street Co-Op closed on January 15th, forcing some students to walk a little farther for their organic veggies. The Co-Op board decided last October to shut down the store after struggling sales and hefty operating costs got the best of the flagging business.

Carl Waggoner, general manager of the Co-Op Markets, was vague about the exact monetary losses, but the Hyde Park Herald reported that the 47th Street store gave the business a going-away present: $6 million of debt.

Marketing studies conducted before the store was opened in 1999 signaled that the Kenwood community would enjoy growth in two to three years. “Needless to say, that didn’t happen,” Waggoner said.

Toni Preckwinkle, the fourth ward alderman, had a different view of the closing. “It’s not simple enough to say that redevelopment didn’t proceed at the pace that was originally anticipated,” she said. “That’s true, but that’s not all that happened.”

She cited three main problems with the 47th Street Co-Op: construction work on Lake Shore Drive, financial difficulties, and competition from other grocery stores.

The Lake Shore Drive construction discouraged customers and prevented the store from taking advantage of its proximity to the busy thoroughfare.

Preckwinkle said that the store suffered a debt during its construction that was greater than the management had originally anticipated. “The design of the store made it very labor-intensive,” she said. “Frankly, they fired the previous manager,” Preckwinkle said. “I think the store wasn’t well managed at the beginning.”

The 47th Street Co-Op finally succumbed to strong competition from Jewel, Dominic’s, and Save-A-Lot that attracted Hyde Park and South Kenwood customers elsewhere.

Without the economic boom that the store was counting on and with a handful of other problems to boot, the business was doomed. “Frankly, the sales weren’t what we needed to be at to be self-sustainable,” Waggoner said.

Waggoner said that the rent at the 47th Street branch “was terrible,” but he refrained from giving specifics. “The operating costs were significantly higher than [the 55th Street store],” he said.

Waggoner said that the managment is leasing the space, but he again refused to comment specifically.

According to Ernie Griffin, the 53rd Street store manager, the 47th Street store closing forced 50 employees to be laid off or reduced from full-time to part-time status. Griffin was one of those affected. Though the board’s vote to demote him was overturned, he will soon start work as a customer trainer. Fifty-six other employees were relocated to either the 47th or 53rd Street stores. Rick Teliszczak, the 55th Street store manager, refused to confirm or deny the numbers.

All is not lost for the Co-op Markets, however. With the relatively new supplies from the 47th Street store, the management is “hoping to modernize both the 55th and 53rd Street stores,” Waggoner said.

Waggoner was unsure of the buildings’ exact ages, but said that “they’ve been around for a while.” (The Co-Op moved to the 55th Street location in October 1959.) The 55th Street branch has not been renovated in nine years. Some of the closed store’s newer refrigerators, display cases, and cash registers will be transferred to the 53rd and 55th Street stores as part of this modernization process.

Waggoner was quick to insist that the Co-Op company is just as healthy as ever. “I think it’s important to note that we plan on reaching out to University students and faculty,” he said. Ready-made entrees, organic food, and natural products are all on the agenda for University-centered items, though no time frame for their installment has been outlined.

A bright red, green, and purple sign hanging outside the 55th Street store announced, “Welcome 47th Street Shoppers.” Some of those shoppers might well be University students, seeking an alternative to the closed store. Though there are no resident houses close to 47th Street, some apartment-dwelling students were hurt by the closing.

Susannah Ribstein, a fourth-year in the College who lives on 49th Street and Woodlawn Avenue, admitted that she has been “whining about it constantly from the moment [she] heard it was closing.”

Ribstein said she liked the general atmosphere and convenience of the 47th Street store. “I basically haven’t gone grocery shopping since it closed, and I can’t really prepare anything more exotic to eat than eggs and spaghetti,” she said.

Benjamin Gage, a third-year in the College who lives in a carriage house on 50th and Woodlawn Avenue, shopped at the 47th Street store once a week. He also preferred the 47th Street store to the 55th Street store. “The 47th Street Co-op was easier in the sense that there were fewer people shopping there and therefore smaller lines, etc.,” he said. “Furthermore, the high ceilings gave it a better feeling inside.”

Griffin, the 53rd Street store manager, is making an effort to cater to the store’s heavier customer traffic. Along with eight other displaced 47th Street employees, Griffin hired the 47th Street store chef to duplicate some of the closed store’s more popular items.

Business has been up at the store, but not quite as high as Griffin hoped it would eventually reach. He did not have exact figures, but he estimated an increase of 15 percent last week and 10 percent this past week. “I anticipate about a 25 percent increase once everything settles down,” he said.

He emphasized the importance of the University students, who make up about 25 to 30 percent of his clients. “I’m just hoping that the Co-Op can make the necessary adjustments to please the 47th Street customers and the Chicago students, staff, and administration,” he said.