Small businesses maintain customer base despite Hyde Park gentrification


Ellis Calleri

Harper Foods, a convenience store located on 57th street, is one of many Hyde Park small businesses maintaining meaningful interactions with their customers despite the gentrification of larger chain businesses.

William Tan, Editor-In-Chief

It’s a late weekday afternoon on 57th Street. Inside Harper Foods, a bell rings brightly as a man steps in to buy a snack and drink on his way home from work. Bringing the purchases to the front, he rings it up with the manager at the register, chatting amiably for a while before the bell rings again as the customer steps back out into the quiet street.

These are the kinds of small but meaningful interactions between manager and customer that define the value of small businesses in Hyde Park. Even among recently established chains in Hyde Park such as Target, Whole Foods and Marshalls, local businesses like Harper Foods continue to thrive due to a committed customer base and a well-defined consumer niche. 

Alex, the man at the front counter of Harper Foods, recognizes that there are larger grocery chains just blocks away. But according to him, revenue hasn’t waned because the store has chosen to adapt and shift its business model. Today, Harper Foods is not your typical grocery store. 

“We tried to bring in the specialty items, like overseas products, to try to attract more customers, just so that they have more options, rather than going to a big chain store,” he said. “They, specifically, only carry their brand. So we’ve tried combining, like, vegan items, and most of the specialty items are from overseas.”

The idea of finding a unique niche is essential for these local shops to stay afloat. For Marwin, the owner of Cafe 53, a local coffee shop on 53rd Street at South Kenwood Avenue, innovation and perseverance in the present are what define a small business’s longevity.

“If you don’t keep up now, you know, you’re definitely going to fall behind,” he emphasized.

Alex is confident that Harper Foods will always have regular shoppers because the Hyde Park community appreciates small businesses. The small-scale welcoming environment and convenience of products make Harper Foods the perfect stop to pick up supplies on the way home for a late dinner or an alternative for those adverse to wandering the daunting aisles of a supermarket.

“People always need last-minute things. They’re not gonna go into big stores … it’s worth just coming to small stores. People in Hyde Park, they really appreciate the small businesses like this. They know the struggle when everything that the small businesses go through versus the big chain,” he said. “The people in Hyde Park are really kind, and they support their small business community.”

Decades-long Hyde Park resident Werner Mezgolits prioritizes small businesses when shopping. He has noticed, over the past few years, an influx of larger chains populating Hyde Park.

“Well, I have noticed, you know, some larger companies like clothing stores, on 53rd Street,” he said. “Some are larger shopping centers — there’s also a Target on 53rd Street. So yes, I have noticed quite a bit of development in that area.”

Yet Mr. Mezgolits remains certain that local businesses will always remain a part of the community culture. He is just one of many members in the Hyde Park community who rely on small businesses as a part of daily commerce.

“I think they’re doing well, I think there’s always room for smaller stores for convenience, so you don’t have to go out of your way to shop,” he said. “I think I have not noticed any big exodus of smaller stores. I think they’re still there.”

While the bright neon signs and bustling traffic of Whole Foods, Chipotle and other chain businesses will crowd the streets of Hyde Park, rest assured, Harper Food’s bell will ring in bright salutation as customers continue to frequent the neighborhood stores they call a part of their home.