For 25 years, the Chatham Food Center has been a rarity in Chicagoûthe only Black-owned supermarket, serving grocery shoppers on the South Side. But that era has ended now that the store, at 327 E. 79th St., has been sold to a Lebanese investor.
“Let me say right off the bat that our preference was to sell to someone Black,” said Leonard Harris, 63, who founded the store with his wife Donna, 25 years ago. “But when we could not find a Black buyer we started looking ‘outside the box’ and that’s when Mr. (Ahmad) Kleit approached us with an offer.”
Harris said he expects the ownership change to be complete by July. Harris said he plans to take the proceeds of the sale and invest in future economic development for the community. While declining to discuss the selling price, Harris said the store posted $4.4 million in sales last year, a figure it has averaged for the last few years.
“We’re reviewing all our options,” Harris said referring to his next business move. At one point Harris had asked his oldest son, a Morehouse College graduate, if he was interested in taking over the store’s day-to-day management. “My son is not interested in the business. His interest is in real estate right now,” he added.
And another contributing factor to Harris selling the business was his inability to expand the store size. “We are land locked. We would not have been able to expand the store unless we had built from the top up and that was not economically feasible,” Harris added.
“It just made more economic sense to sell rather than to spend money to build on top of the store or relocate.” The two-story, 4,000-square-feet building includes a 20-car parking lot and is located across the street from Ruggles Elementary School. Even though the new owner is not Black, Harris said Kleit has met specific demands made by him to ensure that the store would continue to contribute, economically, to the Chatham community.
“The new owner has opened an account at Seaway National Bank, agreed to retain all (40) employees and will continue to purchase some products from Black vendors,” Harris said. “By him doing this it says a lot and I think the community should give him a chance and continue to support the Chatham Food Center.” Among the Black products sold at Chatham Food Center are Reggio’s pizza, butter pecan syrup by Michele Foods and Glory greens.
However, despite Harris encouraging longtime customers to continue shopping there, some customers said they won’t shop there anymore. “It’s just not the same anymore because I use to get a warm sensation after shopping at Chatham Food because I knew my money was employing Black people and contributing to the well-being of my community.
And somehow I don’t think that will continue,”said Catherine Reed, 67, who has shopped at the store for the last 15 years. Eve Saunders, 49, moved to the Hyde Park community in January but previously lived in Chatham for 11 years and still shops at the Chatham Food Center. “I don’t even live around here anymore but I still shop here because of the customer service and respect for this husband and wife business team,” she said.
“But now I am having second thoughts because why continue burning gas to come here when I can buy food at … grocery stores closer to home.” But some customers said they would continue to shop there. “The prices are affordable and it’s close to home. That’s all I need to know,” said Markeshia Taylor, 54. “I do not have a car and it’s easier for me to walk up here with my shopping cart than to travel on the bus with groceries.” Carlos Pickett, 47, has been a customer for the last 18 years and said he could care less who owns the store.
“As long as I can get what I want at the price I want, Osama Bin Laden can own it,” he said. Harris plans to remain active in the community even though he no longer lives in Chatham but in south suburban Flossmor. “Now that our boys are men we are looking at moving back to Chatham,” he said, adding that his wife works in Chatham, “so moving back to Chatham would be a plus for her.”
Harris got his humble beginning managing supermarkets working at Food Basket, Inc. a former Blackowned supermarket chain. “I helped expand the business and in the process learned a lot and made pretty good money doing so,” Harris recalls. He was able to purchase a 3 percent stake in Food Basket after receiving a $15,000 windfall from an insurance policy he had on his mother’s house that burned down.
After leaving Food Basket, he cashed out his interest and in 1984 started Harbor Food Center in East Chicago, Ind. before closing it in 1987 to concentrate solely on the Chatham store. Harris holds a bachelor’s in accounting from Northern Illinois University and an MBA from the University of Chicago.
He is also the treasurer of the Chatham Business Association and his wife is executive director. Traveling is among the things he and his wife now plan to do more.
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