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Will This Meatpacker Pack Up and Leave Fulton Market?

Dozens of food distribution businesses have left Fulton Market as glitzy restaurants and boutique hotels move in. Bridgford Foods is staying—for now.

Bridgford brothers, Richard, left, and Brian in the largest single dry room in the world housed inside Bridgford Foods in the Fulton Market district in Chicago.   Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Before there was the Publican or a Google office or the Ace Hotel, Fulton Market was home to food manufacturers. There were forklifts zipping around, factory workers in white smocks, and calls for salami coming from loudspeakers.

That buzz is what drove the restaurants, hotels, and companies vying for a hip factor to the area. And those businesses—and the traffic and rising land value they bring—are driving the manufacturers out.

The Chicago Tribune reports at least two dozen food distribution businesses have left the neighborhood in the past four years. Among the holdouts is Bridgford Foods, a California-based company that’s been manufacturing dry and semi-dry sausage and beef jerky at 170 North Green Street since the late 1970s.

The plant, which is on the same block where the lauded Japanese restaurant Nobu is being built, processes up to half a million pounds of meat each week and employs 170 people full time, with another 70 or so temp workers, depending on the season.

The founder’s great-grandsons—Baron Jr., Brian, and Richard Bridgford, all of who work for the Chicago branch of the company—have seen the neighborhood change since they started coming here as kids in the early ’90s. “You didn’t walk around the neighborhood much in the ’90s—you just wouldn’t,” says Brian. “I get here at 6 a.m. now and you’ll see college girls jogging under the L, which would be unheard of even five or six years ago.”

What was a gritty, stinky, and dangerous part of the city was suddenly the place to be. These days, the brothers report it can be difficult to pull out of their driveway. “[Pedestrians] look at you almost like, ‘How dare you pull out on the sidewalk?’” Baron says. “We’re like, ‘We’ve been here like 40 years, man.’”

As neighboring manufacturers have relocated or, as Baron says, “just took a check and rode off into the sunset,” Bridgford stayed put. “For the longest time, we kind of kept our head down and just did our thing here,” he says.

That meant fielding calls from real estate agents and developers trying to get their hands on Bridgford’s property, which takes up almost an entire city block spitting distance from Soho House, Au Cheval, and Girl & the Goat. “At one point we just told our receptionist downstairs, ‘We don’t want to talk to real estate agents anymore,’” Baron says. “‘We’ve got a business to run here, and we’re not ready to talk to you guys yet.’”

Yet. The Bridgford brothers admit it’s only a matter of time before they move. “It would be irresponsible of us not to have a contingency plan, because the fact of the matter is operating here is very difficult, and it’s getting more difficult just with the logistics of trucks coming in and out,” Baron says.

Bridgford’s plan involves moving to the city’s other historic meatpacking area, the Union Stock Yards, where the company recently purchased what could end up being their manufacturing facility. There, they’d have room to grow horizontally versus in the four-story setup they have now, which makes moving product and machinery difficult.

The brothers say they’re also giving themselves the option to hold onto the uber-valuable Fulton Market land. They are considering turning it into a condo building. If and when the time comes, they can decide if they want to sell the plans, partner with a developer to build it, or go through with it on their own.

“The best case scenario for us would be we’re selling so much and growing so fast that we outgrow this place and that forces our move as opposed to some external pressure, whether it’s from a logistics standpoint or anything else,” Baron says. “At some point, you’re going to have all these hotels and people around here and I don’t know how much they’re going to like a meat plant.”

But until then, Bridgford is staying put. In 2015, they had Pilsen-based Ava Grey Designs paint an 80-by-20-foot mural on the Lake Street side of their building. The purpose was to honor the company’s roots in the once-industrial neighborhood and also send a message that Bridgford isn’t going anywhere in the next few years. A decade from now, though, could be a different story. “I’m hard-pressed to say I see us at 170 North Green Street 10 years from now,” Baron says. “I just don’t know if you’re going to have manufacturing here.”

By then, the neighborhood’s planned developments—which include an apartment building to replace the Fabbri Sausage Company plant and 26,000 square feet of retail space in the former Isaacson & Stein Fish Company structure—will have been built, and the sleek glass buildings of Fulton Market 2.0 will likely have fully replaced the neighborhood’s blue collar past.

“I have a pessimistic view that it’s going to be like Lake View, maybe with smaller buildings, but it’s going to lose this character,” Brian says. “Hopefully I’m wrong.”

The Last Holdouts is an occasional series where Chicago looks at the people, institutions and groups that are sticking around while everything around them transforms. If you have ideas to pitch or submit, email holdouts@chicagomag.com.

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