Small Business Spotlight: Getting Lost Leads Owner of Forty Acres Fresh Market to Find Her Entrepreneurial Spirit
When Liz Abunaw, MBA’14, stepped off the No. 66 bus in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood six years ago, she wasn’t looking to change her life. She was looking for a bank.
“I was running an errand and didn’t realize that the address for my errand was in Austin,” said the Upstate New York native and alum of The Polsky Center’s Small Business Growth Program. “I needed to get cash and I didn’t see a bank or a drugstore where I could make a small purchase and get cash back.
“As I continued to look around, I quickly realized that the amenities I was used to finding in neighborhoods like the South Loop, Wicker Park and Lincoln Park were not readily accessible in this area. I started wondering, ‘Where do the people in this neighborhood shop? Where do they work? Where do they bank?’”
That observation stayed with her over the years and crystallized into a business idea that became Forty Acres Fresh Market while she was shopping at a popular produce market.
“I was in Stanley’s buying strawberries for a ridiculously low price and it dawned on me that something like this should exist in Austin,” said Abunaw, a food industry veteran who had worked at General Mills for ten years before pursuing her MBA at the University of Chicago. “People say the barrier to healthier eating is that healthy food is more expensive, but this stuff was cheap. I knew a store like this would go gangbusters over there and started talking about how somebody should open a Stanley’s on the West Side. Eventually, somebody became, ‘Oh, maybe I want to try that.’”
Taking the first steps
In 2018, Abunaw began pursuing this idea. She started by talking to people, including business and social leaders in Austin and an entrepreneur in residence at the Polsky Center, who encouraged her to audit produce markets throughout the city to understand their business and pricing models.
The research and conversations brought connections and opportunities that eventually led to a pop-up market at an Austin community center. While the results were modest – about 30 customers and $500 in revenue – it began a snowball effect that led Abunaw to her next moves, including pop-up markets in additional neighborhoods, a retail test in a pop-up storefront, and delivery service.
She also began applying for small business grants. Forty Acres’ early awards included $185,000 from the Healthy Food Financing Initiative and $150,000 from the American Heart Association’s social impact fund. These awards, coupled with an explosion in delivery orders during the pandemic, convinced Abunaw that this venture could succeed.
“Those were the two inflection points where I knew we could grow,” she said. “The funding allowed me to do a lot of the things that I had wanted to do, such as advertising and finding storage for our produce. And the pandemic led to a huge shift in how people shop. No one wanted to go to grocery stores and when they did, the shelves were bare. There was also a huge push to support local businesses and, following the murder of George Floyd in June 2020, to support Black-owned businesses. That helped lead to 2020 being a breakout year for us.”
A permanent location
Abunaw has now turned her attention to opening a brick-and-mortar store. She partnered with local nonprofit Westside Health Authority in 2020 to purchase an old Salvation Army building in Austin. They plan to convert the building into a full-service fresh market with produce, meat, prepared food, dry, refrigerated and frozen grocery, and general merchandise.
In 2022, Abunaw received a $2.5 million grant from the City of Chicago to help fund the renovations. She also recently received a $50,000 Ingredients for Success grant from cookie brand Famous Amos, which she says she’ll use on the store’s pre-opening expenses, including employee training and marketing.
The construction permit for the store is currently under review with the city. Once built, it will provide an expansion of Forty Acre Fresh Market’s operations. Abunaw will continue selling at and managing the Austin Town Hall City Market on Thursdays in the summer and fall, organizing pop-up markets, and providing delivery service.
“We will continue to fill the need for affordable, fresh, healthy food in neighborhoods that have limited access to it,” she said.
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