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Moo & Oink’s last days

African-American shoppers lament the loss of a Chicago grocery institution.

Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki

Update: After we went to press, the planned August 29 auction of Moo & Oink was suspended after potential buyers emerged.

Inside the 71st Street and Stony Island Avenue location of Moo & Oink, there’s the usual chilly musk of raw meat. But today, less than a week before the company’s planned liquidation, there’s also a distinct whiff of grief in the air. Even the store’s cow and pig mascots, painted in red on the side of the building, seem to be waving a fond good-bye with their little anthropomorphic hands.

Citing losses of more than $2.7 million since 2009 due to declining sales in the sagging economy, the longtime Chicago grocer—which consists of two South Side stores, a West Side location and a suburban outlet—was set to auction off its assets on August 29. While there’s a chance a bidder interested in continuing operations could swoop in to save Moo & Oink, at press time there was no indication that would happen.

To some, Moo & Oink is good for little more than a laugh. Its much YouTubed commercial, which aired on daytime TV during the ’80s and ’90s, answers a question no one was asking: “What would happen if Grandmaster Flash was highly influenced by butchery?” As people in cow and pig costumes dance, an ecstatic rapper promises such fleshy favorites as “baby-baby-baby spare ribs, roast beef, hot links and more to give!”

But to regulars at the South Shore Moo & Oink, the demise of their longtime grocer is no joke. “I was shocked when I heard the news,” says Jackie Branson, 56. “I’m someone that came up on Moo & Oink. I was in my twenties when I started coming here and I raised my kids off the food here. Now they’re in their thirties.”

The Jewish-owned company traces its history back about 150 years to wholesaler Calumet Meat, which took on the barnyard animal name in 1977. It was a staple in the black community long before grocery chains began earnestly talking about eradicating food deserts on the South and West Sides. Supervalu, for one, has pledged to open 30 of its Save-A-Lot discount stores in Chicago over the next five years.

Though there are several newer food stores within a mile, including Jewel, Dominick’s and a Save-A-Lot location that’s only about 350 feet away, Moo & Oink devotees say other grocers’ prices are higher and their meat selection has less variety and is of lower quality. For others, tradition trumps the shiny, sprawling aisles and bright marquees of chain stores.

“I was young when I started coming to Moo & Oink, a teenager,” says Stephanie Turnipseed, 44, lugging a one-gallon jug of the store’s “thick and tasty” High-5 barbecue sauce, her family’s favorite. Anticipating the store’s closure, she was getting her Labor Day shopping in early. “I get the pork chops here, the roasts, the salt pork for the collard greens,” Turnipseed says. “I may have to come back and get another bottle of sauce before they close for good.”

Lisa St. Cloud, a 20-year customer, says Moo & Oink is a store out of step with the greening of the American diet, which she sees the black community slowly adopting. “Our people are being forced to eat healthier,” says the 38-year-old massage therapist. “They’re dealing with high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes.”

Many customers remark that the loss of the stores will no doubt shake up the local economy. “Young moms, young dads, people who’ve been working for Moo & Oink for 20 or 30 years are going to be out of a job,” St. Cloud says. “The company helped a lot of black people put their kids through college. It’s going to be a shame to see it close its doors.”