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Longtime Independent Grocery Stores Retain Presence on South Side

In South Side neighborhoods, independently owned grocery stores and national chains are competing for customers by offering the same service: fresh food.

Last month, Fresh Family Foods, a boutique grocery store from local restaurant chain owner Quentin Love, opened at 336 E. 95th St. in the Chatham neighborhood. Similarly, chains like Walgreens are expanding their services to provide produce for customers in several South Side neighborhoods.

Whether or not these clashing businesses will draw away customers from long-running grocery stores is yet to be seen. But for now, some old-timers say they aren’t worried.

La Casa Del Pueblo has been in its current location at 1834 S. Blue Island Ave. since 1960, according to store owner Nick Lombardi Jr.

So no matter who moves in or decides to expand, Lombardi said La Casa Del Pueblo will compete because of its successfully defined niche.

“We have a full line of Hispanic items. It’s been our mainstay for 30-plus years. There isn’t rocket science behind it. You take customer suggestions and then you get the items,” Lombardi said.

“We tend to have variety. You have to have a little bit of everything,” manager Eladio Corral said.

As customers scan the 15,000-square-foot store, filled with 45,000 items ranging from Mexican cola to fresh-cut cactus, Lombardi said a customer-based business model is key to success

Even though local stores remain constants in an ever-changing neighborhood, issues like gentrification still arouse mixed feelings amongst community leaders.

Raul Raymundo, CEO of community assistance organization The Resurrection Project, said gentrification is a “double-edged” issue. Communities do want development, Raymundo said.

“The question, though, is what kind of development,” he said.

Raul Hernandez, a member of The Resurrection Project’s board of directors, said he welcomes any new business as long as it contributes to the community.

However, Hernandez said, Pilsen residents are unlikely to make the trip to bigger stores in the neighborhood like Jewel because of their connection to local vendors.

Hernandez said small businesses compete in terms of price and quality of items like strawberries.

“It’s why the smallest stores in the neighborhood continue to exist,” Hernandez said.

For Pilsen families, local vendors are reliable presences in the neighborhood.

Sonia Zamora, president of the No Child Left Behind Committee at the Orozco Fine Arts & Sciences Elementary School, says she does not buy everything within Pilsen.

But Maria Rosa Martinez, the committee’s secretary, said groceries are often bought locally. Zamora, however, said families would shop at a larger store if prices were ideal.

“A big store would be a threat to small businesses because of the prices,” Zamora said. “But I think there’s enough business for everybody.”

Billie Jewell, a Pilsen-based musician, said she shops at La Casa as a supplement between paychecks until she can afford groceries at Target and Trader Joe’s.

Jewell said she doesn’t like shopping in the neighborhood since she and her boyfriend were harassed because of their interracial relationship. But she said La Casa’s modest prices — $2 for a package of Gruyere cheese, as opposed to $4 for Kraft elsewhere — is a reason for her continued patronage.

“There’s a give and take,” she said. “I’m really poor right now, and I need to eat. Basically, this is an OK place to come.”

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