Food and community drive entrepreneurs

By Colin Shively

Opening and investing all of one’s money in a new business is never an easy feat to accomplish and can get extremely damaging if there is a problem. It is even more of a risk when the company is an independent business in proximity to well-established corporations. However, two University of Chicago graduates took the chance and opened up a small grocery store.

The store is Open Produce, a small convenience store in the heart of Hyde Park, 1635 E. 55th St., and is owned by both Andrew Cone and Stephen Lucy. The small store isn’t a specialty store of any type, but rather a basic grocery store created to better serve the surrounding community.

Business has been slow since its grand opening a year ago, until recently, when more and more residents of Hyde Park began to acknowledge that Open Produce is the store to shop at.

“Our customer base has grown tremendously since we opened,” Cone said. “Our biggest customers are college-age students, but now we are seeing more of a wide range of customers, and I think it is because of how we do business here.”

Before its inception, Lucy went his separate way, even to different states before returning to Chicago, when he met again with Cone and the two decided to start their own business together. To them, a grocery store in their hometown is the best idea.

“We do things differently at Open Produce than they do at bigger grocery stores such as Treasure Island, which is right down the street from us,” Cone said. “I think that our customers love us because we have a really amazing staff that is cross-trained on everything and can help a customer with whatever they need. You can’t find that at big, corporate stores.”

Along with friendly employees, Open Produce lists their prices to the nearest quarter dollar. Nothing ends in 99 or 95 cents and sales tax is already included in the price of the food, Lucy said.

“It is a lie to list the price as $2.95 when the real price is a dollar more,” Lucy said. “Basically, it is like that to deceive the customers into thinking something is cheaper than it really is. We don’t want to do that to our customers.”

Open Produce also prides itself on being a store that sells ethnic food that can’t be found anywhere else in Hyde Park.

“If you want to cook Chinese food and need a special sauce, well, where are you going to get that?” Lucy said. “You would have to go to Chinatown to get it, so we decided to sell these types of rare food so that our community doesn’t have to travel to get what they want.”

One of the concerns the two business partners had when first starting is how they would fare against the bigger grocery stores, mainly Treasure Island.

They have, however, found that the community proudly supports their independent business because of the style of store it is and also because Open Produce is open until midnight, whereas Treasure Island closes at 9 p.m.

“Some people don’t get out of work until 9 p.m.,” Cone said. “They are too tired to cook, but if there are no stores open where do they get food? So we decided to be their late-night destination and it has proven to be a fantastic idea. The late-night hours are some of our busiest times.”

Treasure Island didn’t have anything to say about the independent store, yet they are comfortable with their customer service and loyalty.

For the past year, Lucy and Cone have been battling with the money it takes to run a grocery store. Most of their losses are in the produce section that isn’t purchased.

However, this year, Lucy said he believes they are in a position where the store is going to break even and they can begin to look forward to a few ideas to make Open Produce a better grocery store.

Plans to expand their frozen section to have open-faced refrigerators is an aspiration Lucy has, along with the wish to break down a few walls to expand the business, he said.

Despite the opposition, these two U of C students took a risk by creating a business that they hope will help improve and bring together their community by giving them a local store they can trust.