Farmer Knows Best: Bringing fresh produce to Back of the Yards

Karriem Beyah, with his produce; photo by Sarah Pickering

Karriem Beyah, with his produce; photo by Sarah Pickering

Situated between the bleak smokestacks of the Chicago stockyards and a no-less-grim-looking pair of golden arches, Farmer’s Best Market tries both to make a name for itself and to promote healthy eating in the midst of a food desert. When it opened in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in 2008, the market became the only African-American-owned grocery store in the state of Illinois. Since then, it has attempted to reach out to the multicultural community that surrounds it, where stores stocking healthy food are few and far between. Many members of the community don’t have the money to buy the foods necessary for a healthy diet. It is these two factors–distance from and inability to afford nutritious food–that define the area as a food desert.

Under these conditions, the store needs to stand out in order to attract customers. “We have to really do something special here to get the people to come in,” store manager Khalid Mohammed explains. “So we cater to our produce section.” Customers are greeted by a tremendous selection of fresh foods upon entering the store, with a notable emphasis on Hispanic products like jamaica (hibiscus flowers), cebollitas (green onions), and a sizeable variety of fresh and dried chilies. The previous owners had a “100 percent Hispanic” store, according to Mohammed, even though there are multiple ethnicities in the neighborhood.

Store owner Karriem Beyah reflects on the need to expand his consumer base. “This community is so diverse. There are African-Americans, Hispanics, even some of Chinatown comes up this way… I’m transitioning, I’m changing it over and it takes time because I don’t want to push the Hispanic customers away, while getting other members of the community to come here.”

Beyah is invested in the community, even though it seems somewhat resistant to his presence. A couple of blocks down, discount grocer Fairplay is packed: throngs of customers wait in line with full shopping carts, while at Farmer’s Best Market the air is still enough to hear the fresh produce ripen. It’s clear that Beyah sees Fairplay as his biggest competitor, and he is quick to point out some of the strategies he has tried in order to gain the upper hand. For example, the prices are much lower at Farmer’s Best Market than one would expect for such high-quality produce. “Fairplay sees me as a threat,” Beyah says. “If I’m successful…I can’t put them out of business, but maybe they’ll have to change up what they’re doing.” Beyah feels that when big stores like Fairplay come into an inner city community, there is a tendency to skimp on quality and charge too much for the products offered. “If I wasn’t here, they would charge what they want,” he says. When stores strive to provide customers with the best value, the community benefits.

“The theme of the store is freshness,” Beyah says with a smile. The store promotes healthy lifestyles through sound diets that include quality produce. Beyah wants to install an in-store eatery, where customers can get “a nice, good sandwich” instead of visiting the McDonald’s down the street. He feels that the answer to food deserts is not to be found in large supermarket chains, but rather in small independent stores like his own. Beyah explains, “You’re employing the community, you are the community, and the community can say, ‘Hey, you’re doing it…maybe we can aspire to that. Maybe we can change our eating, maybe it’s not so bad if we eat some broccoli.’”

His involvement with the community extends beyond providing healthy food. Beyah also runs a program with Chicago Public Schools, giving tours of the international market where he buys his produce. He imagines such tours might inspire the children in their future careers. In addition to dreams of being doctors and astronauts, he pictures them saying “I’ll be a produce specialist, I’ll be a merchandiser, I’ll be a store owner!”

The thought of these new little competitors doesn’t seem to faze Beyah, who believes his own success is due to his family’s stress on education, as well as his determination to persevere. Any new business is faced with many challenges, but Beyah is happy to have achieved his goal of owning a store. “America’s about change now, we see that anything is possible. I was able to get it, and now I’m trying to keep it.”

Farmer’s Best Market is located at 1424 W. 47th Street. For more information, call (773)584-6222.

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