An Oasis in the Desert

Minister, his market, aim to resurrect Peoria’s South Side
By Phil Luciano
Rev. Chuck Brown, standing in front of future market

 

The Rev. Chuck Brown plans to offer more than milk, bread and sandwiches at Harvest Supermarket & Grill.

He also plans to serve respect. 

To him, the store’s bottom line involves not just dollars, but dignity. And he expects his employees to feel the same.

“There’s going to be ‘How can I help you?’ and ‘Thank you,’” Brown said. “I want to embrace the community with the love it deserves.”

His lofty ambitions go beyond aiming to end the food desert on Peoria’s South Side. He hopes Harvest, which is to open by early summer, can spark other entrepreneurs to invest along and around Western Avenue, a main thoroughfare in the long-flagging area. Meantime, he will earmark some profits toward programs to uplift single moms and build affordable housing.

“To change the narrative of the area, we’ve got to step up,” he said.

For more than half the 20th century, the neighborhood served as the thriving core of Peoria. But by the 1960s, with housing stock aging and no room to expand, South Peoria began to deteriorate. New housing drew many residents north, especially after the city’s 1964 annexation of Richwoods Township. Crime on the South Side, including a crack cocaine explosion in the 1980s, also hurt the area, and many businesses moved or shuttered. 

The neighborhood, once dotted with mom-and-pop shops, saw grocery stores dwindle at the approach of the 21st century, and that has continued. In 2014, Aldi, a solid presence at 210 S. Western Ave. since its 1989 debut, pulled out. Two years later, Sav-A-Lot turned the lights back on but departed within a year. 

In 2018, Kroger closed its location at Madison Park Shopping Center, just west of South Peoria. The decision rendered the 61605 zip code as an official food desert.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert by two main criteria:

  • The poverty rate is greater than or equal to 20 percent of the population, or the median household income does not exceed 80 percent of the statewide or metro rate. The 61605 zip code qualifies in both ways, according to the U.S. Census Bureau: Its poverty rate is 41 percent, while the median household income is $23,107, or about 33 percent of the statewide average of $68,428 and 40 percent of the Peoria-wide average of $60,094.
  • At least 500 people, or 33 percent of an urban area, are more than a mile from the nearest supermarket or large grocery store. The closest such stores – Haddad’s West Peoria Market, the Bartonville Kroger and the East Peoria Walmart – are farther than a mile away from most South Side residents. 

Last summer, Brown decided to confront that situation, despite a résumé that didn’t exactly suggest the experience necessary to do so. 

Brown, 60, is the founder and senior pastor of Victory Christian Church, 603 W. Nebraska Ave., where he draws no salary. He owns a cleaning firm called Miracle Maids, while his Job Resources Fair business coordinates hiring events in the area.

His supermarket history? He worked a short stint as a cashier/clerk decades ago. 

But his lack of know-how paled when compared to his ambition. He decided to provide the South Side not just with a supermarket, but one that would rival – inside and out – those in the area’s tonier spots.

People standing in an old empty store with building plans
Rev. Brown discusses plans for the Harvest Supermarket & Grill with his daughters

Standing inside Harvest, Brown said, “If you see a store open in Dunlap, it’ll look the same as here.”

One of the first orders of the structural rehab was removing an old drop ceiling. Not only did that mean painting the re-exposed ceiling, but reworking the wiring.

All told, the transformation of the leased building, plus equipment, would run about $600,000. The effort involved no government help and just one grant: $28,600 from Ameren for energy-efficient lighting. Plus, the Subway franchisee Dave Hanna, in moving from the Heights to Peoria, gave Brown $40,000 worth of food-prep equipment.

The grocery selection will be streamlined to keep costs down for Harvest as well as his customers. 

“We’re going to have the essentials,” he said. “At other stores, you might have a choice of 25 ketchups. Here, we’ll have maybe two. 

“You get in, you get out, you save money.”

Brown plans to open Harvest in late June or early July. The hours will be 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, while a short-order grill will be open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. A coffee bar is to mirror Starbucks. Confections from the in-house bakery will include sweet potato pie, caramel cake and cheesecake.

Food prep also will include Alice’s Famous Jerk Chicken, named for Brown’s wife, who died unexpectedly last year at age 50. The chicken, to be sold prepackaged or for meals on-site, was her specialty. Profits will go to programs supporting single moms – a nod to Alice Brown, who at Victory Christian ran the Women’s Ministry.

“Her focus was helping single moms overcome barriers,” Chuck Brown said.

In addition to employing about 20 workers, Harvest will assist the community in other ways. Inside the store, area vendors will be able to set up shop, such as for hair and beauty products. 

“We want to help small businesses grow,” said Brown

Ultimately, he sees Harvest as the anchor for other commercial investment in the neighborhood.

With no other investors, Harvest will have no pressure to turn a profit, which will help keep prices low. However, Brown said he hopes to make enough money to start a not-for-profit business to address the lack of new housing in South Peoria. 

“We plan to reinvest in the community,” Brown said. “We want to buy some of these homes, tear them down and build affordable housing.”

Right now, though, Brown will be happy just to see the registers busy with the sound of customers buying groceries. So will neighborhood residents, many of whom have popped by the store to check on his progress, eager for a supermarket to call their own.

“I thank God for that,” he said. “It’s a community store. It makes me feel special to be a part of it.”

 

Phil Luciano  

Phil Luciano is a senior writer/ columnist for Peoria Magazine
and content contributor to public television station WTVP.

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Source URL: https://www.peoriamagazines.com/pm/2022/jun/oasis-desert