Small Business Spotlight: Disorientation Lets 40-Acre Fresh Market Owner Find Her Entrepreneurial Spirit

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Liz Abunaw, MBA’14, founder of Forty Acres Fresh Market

When Liz Abunaw, MBA’14, stepped off car number 14. When she rode the 66 bus in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood six years ago, she wasn’t looking to change her life. She is looking for a bank.

“I was running errands and didn’t realize my address was in Austin,” said the upstate New York native and Polsky Center Small Business Growth Program alumnus. “I needed to get cash, but I didn’t see a bank or pharmacy where I could make small purchases and get cash back.

“As I continued to look around, I quickly realized that the amenities I was used to finding in neighborhoods like South Loop, Wicker Park, and Lincoln Park were not easily accessible in this area. I started thinking, ‘Where do people in this neighborhood shop? ? Where do they work? Where do they save their money?’”

This observation stayed with her over the years and crystallized into a business idea while she was shopping at a popular produce market, which became Forty Acres Fresh Market.

“I was buying strawberries at ridiculously low prices in Stanley, and it dawned on me that something like this should exist in Austin,” said Abunaw, a food industry veteran who worked at General Mills for a decade before getting her MBA in college. or Chicago. “People say the barrier to healthy eating is that healthy food is more expensive, but this stuff is cheap. I knew a store like this would be a big hit there, and started talking about how people should open a Stanley on the West End. Eventually, someone Said, ‘Oh, maybe I’d like to give it a try.’”

take the first step

In 2018, Abunaw began pursuing the idea. She started by talking to people, including Austin business and community leaders and an entrepreneur at the Polsky Center, who encouraged her to audit produce markets across the city to understand their business and pricing patterns.

Research and conversations lead to connections and opportunities that culminate in a pop-up market at the Austin Community Center. While the results were modest—about 30 customers and $500 in revenue—it started to snowball, prompting Abunaw to take the next steps, including opening pop-up markets in other neighborhoods, testing retail at pop-up locations, and offering delivery service.

She also started applying for small business grants. Early awards for Forty Acres include $185,000 from the Healthy Foods Financing Program and $150,000 from the American Heart Association’s Social Impact Fund. Those awards, combined with a surge in delivery orders during the pandemic, give Abunaw confidence that the venture will succeed.

“Those were two turning points where I knew we could grow,” she said. “This funding allows me to do a lot of the things I want, like advertising and finding storage space for our products. The pandemic has caused a huge shift in the way people shop. No one wants to go to the grocery store, and when they do , with empty shelves. And strong support for local businesses, and Black-owned businesses following the murder of George Floyd in June 2020. That made 2020 our breakthrough year.”

permanent location

Abunaw has now turned its attention to opening brick-and-mortar stores. In 2020, she partnered with the Westside Health Authority, a local nonprofit, to purchase the old Salvation Army building in Austin. They plan to transform the building into a full-service fresh market offering produce, meat, prepared foods, dry goods, refrigerated and frozen groceries, and general merchandise.

In 2022, Abunaw received a $2.5 million grant from the City of Chicago to fund the renovation. She also recently received a $50,000 “Ingredients for Success” grant from cookie brand Famous Amos, which she says will go towards store pre-opening costs, including staff training and marketing.

The store’s construction permit is currently under review with the city. Once completed, it will expand the operations of the 40-acre Fresh Market. Abunaw will continue to sell and manage Thursdays in the summer and fall at the Austin Town Hall City Market, organize pop-up markets, and offer delivery services.

“We will continue to meet the need for affordable, fresh, healthy food in hard-to-reach communities,” she said.

Follow Forty Acres Fresh Market @fortyacresfreshmarket on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest, Twitter @40acresfresh, TikTok @40acresfreshmarket.

Article by Devon McPhee, freelance writer and editor, owner of DM Editorial Services, LLC. Devon has over 20 years of experience spanning business, technology, health and medicine, and higher education.

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