Shop With Liz Abunaw & Her Fresh Produce Pop-Up Forty Acres Fresh Market
By: CeCe Marie
Cooking has been the number one tradition of the Brown family. Growing up, every Sunday my family gathered together at my parent’s house for good conversation and a homecooked meal. My mom would shop at a variety of grocery stores and farmers markets to get all the best fresh produce. My mom is Italian and she couldn’t make her homemade sauce or eggplant parmesan without her fresh ingredients. Finding fresh produce was never an issue growing up in the suburbs, however something that seemed so simple for my family, is now an every day challenge for some of our inner-city communities of Chicago.
Two weeks ago, while I was attending a beauty, health and wellness seminar hosted by Jo Allison of Fresh Oil Fresh Fire Inc, I met Liz Abunaw who shined light on the limited access that inner-city communities have to healthy food that is reasonably priced. Her passion for bringing healthy food options to communities that are in need inspired me. Liz’s story is one that can satisfy the soul. It showed me how a simple idea can turn into a mission (which just so happened to unfold as a part of her purpose in life). Liz saw a need for access to fresh produce in Maywood and the Westside of Chicago, so she created Forty Acres Fresh Market. Her brand has taken the idea of a pop-up shop to the next level. When you think of a pop-up shop clothing, accessories and bath and body goods probably come to mind. But, with Forty Acres Fresh Market, Liz is popping up in neighborhoods with all the best ingredients for a perfect home cooked meal. Many of her products include: fresh greens, squash, carrots and tomatoes to apples, bananas and mangoes. Forty Acres Fresh Market has all the fresh produce for you to complete your grocery list for the week.
This Q&A with Liz will hopefully inform and inspire you. Thank you for sharing your story and for your work within the community.
Check out the Q&A below. Make sure to leave some comments and don’t forget to visit Liz for Forty Acres Fresh Market’s pop-up shop Saturday, March 24th from 9am-3pm in Maywood at the Quinn Community Center of St. Eulalia. Mark your calendars and bring your reusable grocery bags. #SheWorkin #StayWoke.
1.How did you come up with the idea to start Forty Acres Fresh Market?
The idea for Forty Acres Fresh Market came from an accidental experience. I had recently started doing secret shopping (or mystery shopping) to make extra cash. I picked up an assignment at a Western Union because it included a bonus payment. The address was really far west on Chicago Avenue but I had no clue what neighborhood it was in. I’m not from Chicago so I wasn’t familiar with all of the neighborhood geography, but when I was in the home buying process I’d had friends from Chicago tell me to stay east of Western Avenue. The address of the assignment was west of Western, but it was in the 5200 block of Chicago Avenue. Instead of looking it up I used the little bit of Chicago spatial knowledge that I have and calculated that since O’Hare is very far west and the neighborhoods were almost suburban-like residential that going so far west of Western would put me in a neighborhood like the ones near O’Hare. Plus since I don’t live far from Chicago Avenue I could just take the bus and not worry about parking.
So I’m on the bus heading to this Western Union and the bus passes Western Ave and sure enough the neighborhood starts to change from dog grooming salons and artisanal coffee houses to boarded up buildings, bodegas, and liquor stores. I’m thinking, “This is as expected. We’re only at 3000 West so the neighborhood will change back in another mile or so.” Block after block after block it was more of the same. I’m still thinking I’ll get to this suburban like neighborhood any second now when the bus announces my stop at Chicago and Laramie. So I get off the bus and it’s at that moment that I realize that I don’t have cash on me to do the mystery shopping assignment. I look around for a nearby bank but I don’t see any. I check my phone and there isn’t a bank for at least a mile. Not wanting to pay fees at a corner store ATM, I decide that I should go to a CVS or Walgreens to buy some candy and get cash back. Turns out there is no CVS or Walgreens anywhere in the vicinity. So then I figure I’ll hit up the grocery store, and of course there aren’t any grocery stores nearby. That was when I wondered, “Where the heck am I?” I was surrounded by McDonald’s, a fried chicken spot, a liquor store, check cashing spots, and bodegas but not one bank, pharmacy, or grocery store.
I wound up getting the cash I needed from a corner store up the street, completed my assignment, and headed back home, but that experience stuck with me. I told my friends from Chicago about my experience and their immediate reaction was, “WHY were you over there in the first place?!” While I didn’t know that I was going to be in Austin, once I was there it never left my head. I contemplated where people banked, where they worked, where they bought food. It didn’t make sense to me that the things that I took for granted while living in a neighborhood where nobody looks like me were virtually non existent in a neighborhood where everybody looks like me. A day or two later I was shopping in Lincoln Park at this discount produce grocery store, Stanley’s. I was buying strawberries at some ridiculous low price like 4 packs for $1 and it dawned on me that something like Stanley’s should be in Austin. I’d read numerous times that price was a barrier to buying healthy food and here I was in one of Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhoods buying fresh fruit for cents. I thought to myself, “Somebody should open a store like this over on the Westside.” For weeks I had conversation after conversation that ended with, “someone should open up a store like Stanley’s in Austin.” I don’t know when it happened but one day it clicked that I could be somebody. That’s when the idea for a low-cost produce market for the Westside was born.
2.Why did you name your brand Forty Acres?
I was applying for a grant to pursue starting the produce market and I needed a name for the application. I wanted a name that would distinctly identify the market as Black owned. Specifically, I wanted the store to be definitively associated with Black Americans. It didn’t escape me that the neighborhoods with the least access to affordable fresh food are populated by the descendants of the people who toiled this country’s land for generations. Fresh food should be our birthright. The name Forty Acres popped into my head and it stuck. It felt right. It conveyed Blackness but almost subversively. It alluded to farming and ownership. The thing I love about the name is that Black Americans recognize it instantly as our own. Others simply think it’s cool alliteration (i.e. Forty Acres Fresh Market), but many have no clue about the significance.
3.How would you explain your pop-up shops to someone you meet?
It’s really difficult to explain the pop-ups to people so I’ve taken to just showing them pictures. Most people assume it’s a fruit stand and can’t imagine the scale of our markets. I describe it as popping up a full produce section of a grocery store right in a local community center or church or wherever a generous organization gives us space. We set up tables for merchandising 70 to 80 different types of fruits and vegetables. You come in, grab a grocery basket and shop like usual. I buy from the same suppliers that all of the major chains do so you’re getting the same quality you would from shopping at Pete’s or Jewel or Mariano’s, etc.
4.What type of experience are you hoping that your customers receive when they shop with you?
I try to make the shopping experience as true to traditional retailers as possible so we try to make nice displays, have grocery baskets, and even provide the smaller produce bags and a scale to weigh out how much you want. Every market also features a chef that does free sampling and sells meals featuring fresh produce ingredients. Pricing and selection are our hallmarks, but none of that matters without service. I’m honestly so grateful for customers. We’re a new entrant into this market and the fact that people are giving us a chance to service their grocery needs means everything. Because of that, service is where everything starts. I’m not going to lie, while running pop-ups is a much less capital intensive way to start this business, it is by no means cheap. Cost is always top of mind. However, I will spend when it comes to meeting my customers’ needs. I could buy less inventory, but then selection would suffer. I drove all the way to Grand Rapids, MI to purchase grocery baskets because I wanted my customers to have a true shopping experience. I started taking the produce out of the boxes and making nice, colorful displays for a better shopping experience. I firmly believe that if I focus on my customer and invest in giving them a great experience and meeting their needs and wants then the ROI will come.
5.Explain to me your journey so far being an entrepreneur? Any challenges you’ve overcome or lessons you’ve learned?
Hahahaha!! I’m still so early in this journey but I swear that even taking several steps on the entrepreneurship path are more eventful than anything I experienced in 15 years working in corporate America. Right now I spend a lot of time telling the story and convincing people to work with Forty Acres. I do a lot of cold calling and “knocking on doors.” When I needed suppliers I was down at the Chicago International Produce Market asking questions and verifying that they could sell to me even though I don’t have a brick and mortar store.
One of the biggest constraints that I have is space to do markets. As a startup funds are scarce so finding a location that will allow us to use a space large enough to accommodate a market at little to no cost is not easy. I’ve been blessed to have people who for whatever reason are willing to give us space to basically test a new business. Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center is where we did our first market and I am forever grateful to Malcolm Crawford for that. Isiah Brandon, one of Maywood’s Trustees, has also been instrumental in getting this off the ground. We had a market at St. Paul Lutheran School in the Austin neighborhood and that came together in a matter of minutes thanks to church deacon Israel Alicea and school principal Glenn Kuck.
I always say that my business is held together by duct tape and Jesus. Every challenge that has come my way, God has always presented a solution. When I didn’t think I could find locations God placed me near the right people who had access to space. Inventory has been a huge challenge and learning curve. It’s by far my largest cost and when dealing with large quantities of perishable goods there is a high risk of sustaining big losses if food doesn’t sell. One of the first lessons I learned was that I need to have multiple markets scheduled over the course of 2 to 3 days to give myself the best shot at selling out. My first market was only four hours on a Saturday and I had almost 80 cases of inventory. Of course we didn’t sell out. I was freaking out about what I was going to do with all of that food with no warehouse in which to store it. Chicago winter is a blessing because it bought me at least 24 hours to figure it out. A friend of mine in NYC had text me the morning of my first market and I didn’t get to read it until late that night. He wanted to be my first $100 customer so he told me to ring him up for $100 worth of produce and then give it away. That gave me the idea to create Blessing Baskets. A lot of my friends had expressed interest in supporting Forty Acres from afar so I put out the offer for them to pledge a specific dollar amount of groceries to purchase and then donate to Chicago food pantries. All of those excess greens and perishable produce was sold through these Blessing Baskets and then donated to The Greater Chicago Food Depository, St. Vincent De Paul, and other pantries.
Now I’m trying to formalize these types of donations with a food pantry who can receive the pledges and then purchase the produce from me. It really provides a triple impact because not only does it give food pantries much needed fresh food donations for families in need, it also helps fund my business which means more markets in under-served neighborhoods, and it reduces food waste due to spoilage.
Labor is also a challenge because once again, there isn’t enough money to hire regular staff. God has blessed me with amazing friends (and now even strangers) who are willing to wake up before dawn on a Saturday to help me pick up inventory, transport it across town, set up a market, sell all day, then break it all down and load everything onto the van to do it again the next day.
I always say that I have truly learned the meaning of “give us this day our daily bread,” from running this business because God always provides just what I need to make it through one more day of doing this.
6.What can we expect from you and Forty Acres Fresh Market this year? Any goals?
The first thing to expect is more pop-up markets. I’m currently focused on the Westside of Chicago and Maywood, but I’m beginning to get requests to come to the Southside as well. My goal is to grow the business to the point where I can move into a temporary space for several months later this year. Pop-ups are a great way to learn about inventory management, pricing, and to gain exposure to customers. However, operating in one location every day for 1 to 3 months would be the true test of whether or not a store is sustainable in the near future.
Forty Acres Fresh Market is not a pop-up market business. The pop-ups are a means to an end and that end is a low-cost produce supermarket. I always keep that in mind whenever I get requests for partnerships. I have to ask myself, “does this get me a step closer to opening a store.”
Why am I so focused on opening a store? Because grocery stores are a sign of healthy and thriving neighborhoods. They serve as an anchor for other retailers. They boost property values. They provide jobs. They give tax revenue. Grocery stores are a meeting place in a community. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into people I went to grad school with at my neighborhood Jewel or Mariano’s. For all of the convenience of online delivery services, the vast majority of groceries are still sold in brick and mortar stores. There is something about the shopping experience that is a part of the human need for sensory stimulation and community. Is a grocery store a cure all for every challenge a neighborhood faces? Nope. But I can tell you this, where neighborhoods don’t have access to fresh food I can almost guarantee you there are a host of other issues at play too. Food is a basic need and if that need is not being met it’s difficult to solve for other problems.
7.When is your next pop-up shop and where can we follow you for updates?
Our next pop up is this Saturday March 24 at the Quinn Center at St. Eulalia in Maywood, IL from 9a.m. to 3p.m.
Hahahahaha! Ummm, this is not a question I’ve ever contemplated. I’ll go with coffee. I’ve been told that I’m an acquired taste. I have a pretty blunt and large personality. It can be overbearing for some people. But once you get used to me, or learn how to mellow me out with cream and sugar I easily become a favorite part of life. Ask my besties. None of them liked me when they first met me.