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May 20, 2019

Thank You for Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's is the ideal replacement for Treasure Island, filling a niche in the Hyde Park grocery market.

When it comes to recent development ventures in Hyde Park, the University of Chicago has a fairly mixed track record. UChicago owns several of the neighborhood’s major commercial strips and is responsible for drawing restaurants, stores, and other businesses to fill community needs and make the area an attractive place to live. In recent years, however, a significant share of the University’s efforts has been focused on luxury amenities like the new Sophy Hotel or high-end retailers like Akira. While some of these projects appear to be commercial successes, they don’t do much for students because they are simply not affordable for most undergraduates.

In light of this history, the University’s announcement that Trader Joe’s will be the next occupant of the former Treasure Island space is a welcome surprise. I’ve been a longtime advocate of a Trader Joe’s in the neighborhood, urging students last fall to use the company’s “Location Request” form to support one in Hyde Park. But I’m not just an advocate of Trader Joe’s because I love their dark chocolate peanut butter cups—I think this store is the best possible outcome in a fairly difficult retail space.

Most people on Hyde Park Classics, a neighborhood Facebook group, were similarly happy to hear about the news. Some, however, criticized Trader Joe’s as an inadequate replacement for Treasure Island. And it’s true, Trader Joe’s is not a traditional, full-service grocery store. It mostly stocks items from its house brand, lacking the wide variety found at stores like Mariano’s, Jewel-Osco, or Treasure Island (RIP). This allows the store to sell products for relatively low prices, but it does mean some specialty items will require a trip elsewhere. Trader Joe’s stores also typically don’t have in-house delis, bakeries, or hot food bars, so the news disappointed residents who used those features of Treasure Island and wanted them within walking distance. Produce is also not cheap, and often comes heavily packaged, which poses a problem for both budget-conscious and eco-conscious consumers.

Despite these shortcomings, I believe Trader Joe’s is the best grocer the University could find for this space, given the restrictions of both the space and the broader grocery market. The old Treasure Island space is about 50,000 square feet. This is a difficult space for grocers, most of whom have been trending toward either larger, full-service stores with hot food options or utilitarian, small-format stores. Mariano’s, for instance, recently opened a 90,000–square foot store in Glenview, while Aldi reports an average store size of just 12,000 square feet.

There are still a few full-service chains that fit the size format, but most have already opened a store in the area. Pete’s Fresh Market announced plans for a new store at 39th and State just last year, while Jewel opened a Woodlawn store in March. Both stores are close enough to Hyde Park that grocers may be wary of opening a second store in the area, fearing that one store may siphon traffic away from the other.

Any new grocery store will also have to contend with a number of other stores, many opened within the last few years. A new Mariano’s opened in Bronzeville in 2016, the same year Whole Foods and Target opened their Hyde Park locations. Two years prior, Walmart launched one of its Neighborhood Market stores at 47th and Cottage. Between those new stores and established grocers like Open Produce and Hyde Park Produce, the Hyde Park grocery market is already quite crowded, so it may be difficult for a smaller chain to break through.

With all those factors in mind, the only real option the University had was Trader Joe’s. Unlike the other chains, the closest Trader Joe’s for the entire South Side is in the South Loop, and it’s routinely overcrowded. Trader Joe’s also has an established, well-known brand identity, which should allow it to thrive despite established competitors. This was reflected in the University’s poll of neighborhood residents, which found more who ranked Trader Joe’s as their top choice than all other grocers combined.

While it’s disappointing that some residents in eastern Hyde Park will not have a full-service grocer within walking distance, given the circumstances, Trader Joe’s was the best possible compromise. This is one area where the University has seemed to make the right choice. Trader Joe’s, however, will only occupy a portion of the old Treasure Island space, with the University continuing to search for “complementary retail uses” for the remainder. While Trader Joe’s is an encouraging start, landing a specialty store that makes up for some of its shortcomings, such as a butcher shop or bakery, would make sure the new store is a full replacement for what we lost with the closing of Treasure Island.

Sam Joyce is a third-year in the College. 

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