BY SARAH CONWAY
If Sami Deffala had more access to capital, he would swap out his simple bins of cabbage and sweet potatoes for real refrigeration units to carry more produce like mushrooms, mustard greens, and mangos.
“I would turn myself into a mini Whole Foods and customers would love it,” he says of his dream to reshape his shop, the Morgan Mini Mart, in the likeness of the newly arrived organic powerhouse chain.
Deffala, a South Side native who has been working the counter in Englewood corner stores for three decades, opened his own two-room shop on the corner of Morgan and 66th Street in 2003. Always dressed in untucked plaid button-downs, the 47-year-old usually stands behind his elevated counter—sometimes politely serving new customers, other times roasting regulars to a chorus of laughter as a steady stream of shoppers comes through. Other times Deffala leaves the register to prune disorder in his nearly immaculate shop; he adjusts a crooked box here, restocks cans of green beans there.
Corner stores, often portrayed as the heart and soul of the South and West Sides, were once vibrant community centers when they monopolized the grocery market after the flight of big box stores in the 1960s and 1970s. Residents became dependent on smaller stores, which later became notorious for having limited fresh food options, higher prices, and unpleasant environments.
Though Englewood often makes headlines for its gun violence and entrenched poverty, some residents see signs of a rebirth for the once-bustling economic center. Many corner store workers in the Englewood community say the glistening 18,000-square-foot Whole Foods embodies the change in shopping habits they have witnessed slowly over the years: less dependence on corner stores, higher expectations for quality service and products, and a slight shift toward healthier living.
“There are misconceptions about Englewood, as a whole, in Chicago,” says Deffala, who was born in Back of the Yards and worked for years at his father’s corner store, just a eight blocks north of Morgan Mini Mart. “Outside the neighborhood, most people think it is just a crime-ridden community and the people residing in it are just up to no good and don’t want anything positive in their lives. But that’s the farthest thing from the truth,” he says.
Now, more than ever, the neighborhood wants more out of life—and groceries, he says.
Sami Deffala, 47, has worked in Englewood corner stores for three decades.
Whole Foods arrived in September after planting stores in lower-income corners of cities like Detroit and New Orleans since 2013. Despite creating nearly 200 new jobs and attracting new businesses, like Chipotle and Starbucks, the $20 million Englewood Square development that contains Whole Foods still has some residents torn on whether the project will be positive for the community in the long run.
Most shoppers at Morgan Mini Mart said they had not visited Whole Foods, despite being just a 10-minute walk away. The same was true for customers interviewed at about a dozen other local corner stores this winter. Some harbored mixed feelings about the organic giant’s prices, in a community where 46 percent of households live below the poverty line, according to the 2015 American Community Survey. Though prices are significantly reduced from the numbers at, say, the Lincoln Park or West Loop location, they are often still higher than the nearby Aldi, which has operated in the neighborhood for 25 years and garnered a lot of shopper loyalty.
While Deffala’s customers recognize the benefit of having a high-end grocery store in a neighborhood that some consider a food desert, outreach to change the hearts and minds of an average Englewood customer has been lacking.
“I don’t know what the purpose is of Whole Foods opening here, but it’s not for the people,” says George Cruthird, a regular at Morgan Mini Mart who visited the Englewood Whole Foods and found himself disappointed in prices. Like many other residents interviewed, Cruthird believes the store is more of a trophy for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in his fight against the city’s food deserts than a community partner that will help Englewood grow.
Cruthird pops into Morgan Mini Mart several times a day for coffee, groceries, and conversation. “Sami is a witty guy and he means what he says, says what he means, and stands by his word—he is like me,” says Cruthird, whose friendly relationship with Deffala is a rarity in a neighborhood where there’s often tension between African American customers and predominantly Middle-Eastern, Muslim corner store owners.
While some Englewood corner stores are doing a great job, others can perpetuate vices in the neighborhood, slinging lottery tickets and booze, says Perry Gunn, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, a neighborhood nonprofit focused on improving the community’s quality of life. Common complaints about stores predominantly owned by Muslims from Palestine, Jordan, and Yemen, are that they only provide low-quality food and don’t take any ownership over their role in the community. “The reality is that Englewood is changing, and if you don’t improve your model, in time you will go out of business,” says Gunn.
But there are two Englewoods—for some people, the corner store is all they have, says Shamar Hemphill, youth & organizing director of the nonprofit Inner-City Muslim Action Network, which works closely with corner store owners to improve community relations through a program called Muslim Run. IMAN’s research shows that about half of Englewood’s population visits a corner store daily.
“Without a doubt, there are people who are dependent on corner stores for food,” Hemphill says. People sometimes won’t travel too far for fear of getting caught in the neighborhood’s gun violence, fear of getting stopped by police, not having access to cars, as well as the simple convenience of proximity, he says. They’ve told Hemphill, “I don’t want to take two or three buses,” or “Three people just got shot down the block and I want the air to clear out a bit before I go to a new store.”
Of the 64 corner stores that are part of IMAN’s Muslim Run program, Morgan Mini Mart is the best, IMAN officials say.
Deffala’s loyal customers agree—they say he is Englewood’s corner store king—but the Palestinian American owner says he sees the writing on the wall.
Fewer customers are coming in to make big purchases, he says, so Morgan Mini Mart no longer has large grocery carts. More people are coming in to grab single staple items like a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread.
Though business is still good, these are all clues that his customers no longer rely on him for their primary source of groceries, Deffala says—but that’s not a bad thing. He knows that obstacles of space, capital, and financial risk hinder small family-owned corner stores from offering a healthy selection comparable to big box stores.
Deffala says IMAN’s Muslim Run program has helped him not just do better business but be a better Muslim, a faith that he says prescribes him to treat others fairly in both life and in business. “What we are trying to do as part of their program is let the customer know it’s OK to change old, unhealthy habits,” says Deffala, who holds a weekly cooking demonstration at his shop.
Muslim Run focuses on improving stores’ food and service, as well as their customer experience, he says. Deffala’s well-lit, 3,500-square-foot shop is often filled with incense. There is no cash register glass panel, a safety measure that Englewood residents say is frustratingly common. The street outside has garbage cans for customers. His biggest victory? Keeping away loiterers, a problem at many local shops, where patrons are uneasy about walking past groups of unfamiliar young men—female customers especially appreciate this courtesy, Deffala says.
“We have become not just like friends, but family,” says Deffala, who sometimes lends credit to customers who don’t have enough money to buy food for the week. “You feel good about helping that person. You feel bad about losing the money, but there are greater things at stake than money.” He even hosts a summer block party, something of a neighborhood customer appreciation day, where he grills up unlimited burgers and hot dogs while neighborhood kids enjoy rainbow-hued bounce houses and giant inflatable slides.
Despite the changing neighborhood, customers like Tiara Stewart, 19, and Delisha Reeves, 31, say they will keep coming. One December afternoon, they pass up several stores before darting into Morgan Mini Mart to grab tacos for lunch. Though they depend on Food 4 Less on Ashland and 71st Street for groceries, Morgan Mini Mart is still their choice for conveniently grabbing a few items.
Stewart and Reeves don’t shop at Whole Foods, but they love other new chain stores in the neighborhood, like Chipotle and Starbucks. “It’s the convenience of having everything you want and need now in one neighborhood. This just makes you feel proud of living here,” says Stewart.
Others say they will continue to depend on the corner store for the sense of community it provides, in a neighborhood where poverty, violence, and fear have severed many of the ties that bond people together. Sheila Prince, a 49-year-old Englewood native, says Deffala’s shop provides comfort and intimacy, in a space where the employees know her name.
“Sami is loved because he respects people. It’s all about respect in Englewood. We feel he isn’t just here to make a profit, but he is part of the community,” Prince says. “You really can’t find that everywhere.”
This report was produced in collaboration with Chicago Magazine.