By ALEXA ROGALS/ Staff Photographer

Living Word Church has entered the grocery business.

Living Fresh Market’s now-former co-owner Ken Casaccio confirmed Monday that he and his partners have sold the eastern anchor store at Forest Park Plaza to its landlord, Living Word Christian Center, in a deal that closed Friday, Oct. 8.

Melody Winston, the daughter of Living Word founder Rev. Bill Winston, was traveling but confirmed the transaction in an email.

“Yes, the rumor is true,” Winston wrote. “Forest Park Plaza has a new grocery tenant run by new management. More details to come as this store is currently making its transition.”

The store was open for business Monday with mostly full shelves and modest inconveniences, notably the inability to process electronic benefit transfer (EBT) transactions or sell alcohol. A sign on the front door said a still-processing liquor license was to blame for the store’s roped-off liquor section.

Mayor Rory Hoskins said the church could rebrand the location in the coming months and that the now-owners have already applied for a liquor license in order to resume alcohol sales. Those licenses do not automatically transfer between owners.

Self-described supermarket consultant Joseph Welsh said he has been brought in by church leaders to oversee the newly formed business. 

“We’ve got a transition phase that we’re undergoing,” Welsh said. “We’re going to be in transition for a while, a few weeks at least, and then the shelves will start to replenish. We have a new supplier and we should have the store in good shape by the holidays.”

Welsh said he had been consulting with Living Word for “a couple months” before taking the keys Friday. He declined further comment on any future plans for the location.

Living Word, the Forest Park megachurch founded by Rev. Winston, acquired the Forest Park Plaza shopping center in the 7500-7600 block of Roosevelt Road in 1998. The multi-acre property includes the church itself, a handful of church-affiliated businesses and several commercial tenants.

The 70,000-plus square foot Living Fresh Market location at 7520 Roosevelt Road was occupied by a different grocery brand, Ultra Foods, until 2017 when Ultra’s parent company, Strack & Van Til, filed for bankruptcy.

Living Fresh Market’s arrival and a partnership with the Casaccio brothers, who also own Chicago’s Leamington Foods under a separate LLC, was heralded as a “new beginning” for the location by former mayor Anthony Calderone when it opened in May 2018.

Casaccio, speaking from one of Leamington Foods’ locations Monday, declined to comment in detail on the sale, directing questions to the church.

“I would let them answer that question,” he said when asked why the business was sold. “The church was very good and we’re willing to help them any way we can.”

Melody Winston had previously expressed hope for a long-term partnership between the church, the Casaccio brothers and the village.

“We knew what you needed and as a landlord, we like to give something to the community of substance,” she said at the store’s 2018 ribbon-cutting ceremony. “In naming this grocery store Living Fresh Market, they intentionally wanted it to live and go on for generations and generations and generations, as they have in the past.”

Living Fresh Market is located less than a mile from Forest Park’s Walmart Supercenter, which offers an array of grocery and produce offerings, something that Hoskins speculated could have made operating the Living Fresh store more challenging. Hoskins said despite any possible overlap, he and the village would support the new Living Fresh Market as much as possible.

“We want to see every store succeed and the village tries to cut red tape and work with operators,” Hoskins said. “We pull for all of our businesses.”

Forest Park Plaza’s other anchor location has been empty since late 2018 when Home Owners Bargain Outlet (HOBO) exited the storefront at 7630 Roosevelt Road after less than a year. The Cook County Department of Public Health used the site as a major COVID-19 vaccination clinic this spring. 

The Winstons and Living Word have multiple business and real estate holdings in addition to their ministry, including the Joseph Business School and Royal Christian Bookstore and Cafe within Forest Park Plaza. Living Word also owns a 13-acre mall in Bill Winston’s hometown of Tuskegee, Alabama, and a fixed-based airfield operation, flight school and museum under the name Golden Eagle Aviation, also in Tuskegee.