By: Cheryl V. Jackson
Customer service is everything for entrepreneur Garland Gantt.
Want socks, pillows or nachos, but don’t feel like getting out of your car? Call out your order and the street vendor will bring it to you. Don’t see an item you’d like? He’ll hunt around to find it. Need it delivered to you? Call him, and if your place is near the route to his home, he’ll drop it off.
He’s all too happy to take credit cards with a minimum purchase of only one buck. Oh, and bags are free.
It’s a level of customer service unfamiliar to Chicagoans who patronize retailers that rate themselves on how quickly that can move customers through a line and out the door.
Known as Hustleman — Hustle, for short — Gantt has been posted up with a block of the CTA Garfield Green Line station since 2001, transitioning from the south to north side of the street, and from west to east of the station. When the station’s $50 million renovation commenced, he relocated just west of it, and has remained there even after the station re-opened in January.
For those taking the Green Line or the #55 bus near Prairie Avenue, and wanting snacks, drinks or bedding, his white (((box))) truck is a familiar and welcome sight.
“I’m happy to see him when I get off the bus,” said customer LaShawn Cross, as she picked up gum. She’s purchased snow cones, towels and phone chargers in the past. “As soon as you get off the bus, you can come right here and get what you want. He is convenient.”
Prior to starting his vending business, he worked at a tire company until they moved their business to the suburbs. He was unable to make the commute and, as a result, became homeless and unemployed. Garland’s mother, a regular flea market vendor, suggested he try street vending. Gantt started his business by going store to store selling candy he’d bought wholesale.
“I bought $35 worth of candy and sold it and made $80,” Gantt said.
The entrepreneur bug bit hard, and Gantt began to travel to fast food restaurants to sell candy to employees. Back then, the $5 one-day CTA pass really helped in that regard, he said. On a typical day, he was able to hit many different stores in about six rides without having to sacrifice proceeds for travel costs.
For the most part, he’s kept the business centered around public transit. After he got his own wheels — a car before the truck from which he currently operates — he discovered it was best to set up shop near the Green Line, taking advantage of the traffic from train and nearby bus riders.
“I was familiar with people in the neighborhood. I tried other neighborhoods, but it wasn’t successful,” because those places lacked a consistent flow of people, he said. “So, I stayed over here.”
He grew his inventory to include sheet sets, personal grooming products, hoodies and the occasional designer purse.
The sales enabled him to buy a house in 2010 near 91st and Prairie in the West Chesterfield community.
Gantt is the type of entrepreneur the community roots for, said Ghian Foreman, executive director of the Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative, which focuses on South Side development.
“He’s a really good example of someone we want to see grow,” Foreman said. “He’s been there when nobody was willing to invest or put a store in the neighborhood.”
Despite decades of disinvestment, there are thriving commercial and cultural businesses in the Washington Park and adjacent neighborhoods.
Salim Mithaiwala has operated Boulevard Hardware at 227 E. Garfield Blvd. for almost 35 years, and in 1998, Miss Lee’s Good Food became its neighborhood (at 203 E. Garfield Blvd.). Six years ago, and a couple of blocks east on the boulevard, the Arts Incubator opened its doors, and has since welcomed more than 65,000 people to its public programs. The next year saw Currency Exchange Cafe open a unique space where food, culture, retail and workspace have co-existed and thrived. More recently, the K.L.E.O. Center renovated its Washington Park building with support from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, Bronzeville-based Peach’s restaurant partnered with the Currency Exchange to offer expanded menu and hours, and the new Green Line Performing Arts Center was opened by UChicago Arts, Arts + Public Life.
UChicago Arts, Arts + Public Life also props local entrepreneurs through its annual two-day Vends & Vibes holiday festival marketplace of primarily South Side artists. Artists and cultural entrepreneurs have collectively grossed over $20,000 annually, demonstrating the need for a dedicated platform for creative businesses.
In Fall 2019, the Garfield Green Line Creative Business Incubator will open inside the oldest station facility on the “L”– dating back to 1892 — as a space to learn, launch and build networks locally – a barrier-free opportunity for South Side arts and cultural entrepreneurs to test and grow their businesses into sustainable ventures.
In addition to the Garfield Green Line Creative Business Incubator, Brinshore Development’s upcoming KLEO Arts Residences will include affordable housing and additional commercial space along Garfield Boulevard. Additional investment is necessary to expand opportunities for those who live and work on the South Side.
“The area is coming back,” Mithaiwala said. “It’s been a low-income area, and now people are moving, and people are excited the Obama (Presidential Center) is going to come.”
Restaurants, in particular, can help lure more traffic and further neighborhood development, said Foreman, whose organization is developing the Overton Business & Technology Incubator at the closed Overton School.
“If it’s good enough, people from outside those neighborhoods will come,” he said “Now, you start to bring dollars in from other communities into this community.”
That’s the case at Miss Lee’s Good Food. Owner Lee Hogan figures that about 70 percent of the customers at her soul food take out place are from outside the neighborhood.
“I had a man yesterday who told me he was down at the el and just decided to come and check out my food,” said Hogan, who believes one visit will result in a regular customer.
Lee, who celebrates her 75th birthday in May 2019 said she could use at least two more employees — a cook and a server — to join her staff of four dishing up baked chicken and dressing, short ribs and smothered steak.
She makes all of the desserts — cobblers, buttermilk pie, bread pudding — but still takes time to come from behind the counter and greet guests and led children to view a menagerie of toys and figurines in one of the windows.
Most of Gantt’s customers are repeats. They know he’s typically vending from 10 a.m to about 6 p.m. — with longer hours in the summer — and his pricing is competitive.
At age 53, Gantt expects to continue growth as transit oriented development draws more to the area — including the new convenience store across the street that sells many of the same types of food items that he deals in, along with some frozen items, hair gel and baby formula, deli meats and lottery machine.
“For the people that live in these apartment buildings, I’m closer;” he said, as a young man dashed from Park Apartments just west to buy a lighter. “And for people coming from downtown, I’m right here by their vehicle.”
His next step is to open a store. He plans to buy a converted shipping container to sell from in the same place where he’s now located.
Foreman said Gantt is a sure bet for continued success.
“If I’m an investor, I‘m putting my dollars on Hustleman,” he said. “Show me a small business that’s been around for longer than Hustle, has the ability to withstand recession, and doesn’t have to worry about currency fluctuation. He anticipates customer need, is open every day and has great customer service.”
“He’s the Amazon of Washington Park.”