EXCLUSIVE: Chicago Entrepreneur Brings Food Justice to Life

Progressive Grocer talks with Forty Acres founder Liz Abunaw about her new brick-and-mortar grocery store
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
a woman smiling for the camera
Forty Acres groundbreaking
Forty Acres Fresh Market founder Liz Abunaw literally and figuratively breaks new ground as a grocer in a Chicago food desert.

Forty Acres Fresh Market, a concept built on the promise of improved food access, is a step closer to its actual buildout on Chicago’s West Side. Following a successful delivery service and series of pop-up locations, the Black-owned grocery business held its official groundbreaking ceremony on Nov. 15 on the site of a former Salvation Army store in the Austin neighborhood at 5713 W. Chicago Avenue.

For founder and operator Elizabeth “Liz” Abunaw, the opportunity to put shovel to earth – and sledgehammer to brick, as the case may be – during the ceremony marked a key moment in her journey to open a physical store in a community that is considered a food desert. She founded Forty Acres in 2017, taking action to improve food justice and leveraging her corporate experience at General Mills and Microsoft Corp. 

[Read more: “EXCLUSIVE: How an Indie Grocer in Indy Became a Model for Food Security”]

She told Progressive Grocer in a recent interview that creating a brick-and-mortar store from essentially a blank slate has brought its own set of challenges and rewards. Some of the challenges come from the logistics side, like dealing with permit and zoning issues and having to work without a template.

“There are no other Forty Acres Fresh Markets. When a Pete’s (Pete’s Fresh Market) store gets built, for example, there’s a plan for that – a fixture plan, a layout. We built all of ours from scratch because you can’t ideate that until you have the space,” she explained.

The switch from delivery and pop-up to a standalone location also involves a lot of partnerships. “I’ve sat in meetings with an architect, my equipment board and my general contractor and we talk about ‘What is your drop-dead deadline? What are your barriers? Give me a list of things you need and the order you need them,’” Abunaw said, adding that she is glad to work with her chosen team. “They are very talented people who all have different areas of expertise.”

Forty Acres produce
Forty Acres Fresh Market currently delivers fresh produce to customers throughout Chicago.

Navigating startup expenses has been eye-opening as well. The endeavor has received support from several groups, including the Christopher Family Foundation, the Lumpkin Family Foundation, the Chicago Recovery Fund and various public and private grants, including an award from the Famous Amos cookie brand. “It’s way too capital intensive and risky for most businesses to take on by themselves,” Abunaw noted. “You raise money, and then find out what you design will cost more than the money you raised, so you need to raise more money. You’re always chasing the start date to match the funding.”

As she manages the budget and continues to bring her concept to life, Abunaw puts her business acumen to work. She actually got the idea for Forty Acres after her time at Microsoft. “I was at an inflection point and thought, ‘If I didn’t have to work, what would I do? And what other time in my life will I have this opportunity to just pursue it and see what happens?'” she recalled. 

Being able to provide food for the Austin community, where she lives and where the current mayor of Chicago, Brandon Johnson, lives, has been the guiding principle. “We are very intentional of being located in a Black neighborhood and explicit about the fact that this food equity challenge uniquely impacts the Black community,” Abunaw remarked, pointing out that the need is acute. “If you put in my store location, you could draw a mile radius and not hit another grocery store.”

While she strives to fill the fresh food gap, she has gained more insights on the grocery world. “Some of my suppliers were at the groundbreaking. I have learned so much from those guys – they are old-school grocery producers and know this business like the back of their hand,” reported Abunaw, who works with both established suppliers and local farmers throughout the Midwest. 

She’s also adept at keeping many things going at once, working on the store buildout while maintaining the Forty Acres delivery service. “Since 2020, delivery has been the biggest part of our business. We have customers all over the city,” Abunaw said. “When we say, ‘fresh food for all’, that’s what we mean.”

The journey for this grocery entrepreneur will continue through 2024, as the store gets closer to opening and fulfilling what has become a passion project for Abunaw. “It’s not just business. It’s personal. And food is as personal as it gets,” she says of her food justice mission.

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