Updated 1/10/12 2:15 p.m.
Forest Park filmmaker Michael Wawzenek, 22, has a place in his heart for neighborhood institutions that hang on while the world around them changes. The University of Illinois at Chicago graduate created a 17-minute documentary last spring about Ed’s Way Food Mart, the Forest Park family grocery store that employed him – and his two brothers – throughout his high school years. The video appears on the Vimeo.com website.
“He’s something else, this kid,” said Ed’s Way family-member and spokesman Michael Nutley. “He did a hell of a job with the video. I didn’t know he was going to put it on the Internet, though. He’s so talented.”
Wawzenek made the film for his senior film project at UIC. The previous year he and fellow student Brett Kunkel won the university’s Maurice Challenge Award for a documentary about residents of the Little Italy neighborhood and their interactions with the UIC campus. The award is a $5,000 cash prize given to UIC students for creative work on projects of their own choosing outside of course requirements.
In the Ed’s Way film, the grocers talk about the changes in the grocery business and slimming profit margins due to the changing economy.
“People don’t really understand how tough the grocery business is. Menards has groceries now. Every gas station has groceries. The little guys get squeezed out of the market,” said Nutley in a later interview. “The reason why we’re still on this corner is a lot of people who faithfully shop here two or three times a week on their way home.”
Wawzenek, who grew up in the 1000 block of Beloit, majored in urban planning, said his father, Larry Wawzenek, but he caught the film-making bug after taking a film class.
“He bought an expensive camera and it took off. He really took advantage of the editing facilities (at UIC),” said Larry, who is a painter himself. Michael also makes artistic films, sometimes incorporating found home footage from garage-sale purchased VHS tapes and combining it to make films.
Michael attended Field-Stevenson School and Forest Park Middle School as a child. He graduated from Nazareth Academy in LaGrange Park. Michael’s mother, Terry Wawzenek, is a longtime kindergarten aide at Garfield School.
Michael would like to go on to a master’s degree in film, says his father, but right now he and Kunkel are traveling on a five-month trip through southeast Asia, their expenses partly paid for by the film award. The pair is presently in Cambodia, filming as much video as they can, said Michael’s father.
All three Wawzenek brothers, Brian, Michael and David, worked at Ed’s Way during high school and beyond. The grocery store has been a source of employment for local teenagers, “for over 22 years now,” said Nutley. “To tell you the truth, the best kids are the ones who come in and ask for the job themselves. When mom comes in and asks, ‘Can you hire my son?’ the kids sometimes don’t really want to work. [The Wawzenek brothers] were kids with initiative.”
Ed’s Way Food Mart was purchased by the Nutleys 22 years ago from the Sarafino family, who owned the store for 40 years, according to the documentary. Nutley says local loyal customers especially appreciate the meat department, where butchering is done, “the old fashioned way.” For example, chuck beef is ground every day for hamburger, he says, as opposed to at a large-volume store where already-ground meat is reground. “When you hear of a recall and they recall thousands of tons of beef, it’s because all that meat had been already ground two or more times.”
“I shop at Ed’s Way all the time. We live down the block,” said the filmmaker’s mother, Terry Wawzenek. “They support the schools and local organizations. They are warm, wonderful people. People can shop a lot cheaper at Ultra and other places, but you don’t get the service – or the wonderful meats.”
Nutley says loyal customers and a neighborhood feel keep the store going.
“[Our customers] are like family around here,” Nutley said. “We’ve gotten to know everyone over the years. People come in here, and we know their moms have shopped in here, too.”
He acknowledges that price competition will increase when Walmart, 1300 Desplaines Ave., opens its new expanded grocery section.
“We’re a small corner store trying to do the best we can to keep going,” Nutley said.