Maggie and John Anderson have made a major change in their family’s shopping habits this year.

The Oak Park couple decided last year to do all their purchasing in 2009 from black-owned businesses and professionals. Their project, The Ebony Experiment, grew out of discussions they’ve had as a couple and with friends about how to support black businesses.

Both grew up in poor black communities – in Miami, where Maggie is from, and John’s native Detroit. They already support black businesses but not to this extent, they said. But the couple’s goal is more than personal-the Andersons say they want to do more to help the black community.

“We talked about this all the time,” said Maggie, a lawyer and legal consultant. “We’ve had these major discussions and finally we said, ‘We’re doing a whole lot of talking, let’s do something about it.’ So we just made this pledge that we’re going do our best to support black businesses and black professionals. Buy more black-created products because we believe in the cycle. These are the companies that create black jobs and more jobs will improve the quality of life in black neighborhoods.”

They started their project Jan. 1 and so far have spent more than $5,000, including at businesses in Austin and the West Side. They moved their checking account to Covenant Bank, a black-owned bank in North Lawndale. They’ve bought hair products for Maggie and the girls and found a black-owned, full-service grocery store, Farmer’s Best, at 47th and Ashland on the South Side. Farmer’s, according to John, a financial planner, was the only full-service, black grocer they could find in the entire state.

Finding a grocery store and gas stations in the Chicago area were the biggest challenges, the Anderson’s said. To keep to their pledge, they’ve purchased gas cards from black-owned stations to use locally. The Andersons don’t eat out much, but when they do, it will be in black-owned restaurants. They were already customers of Robinson’s Ribs in Oak Park. They’ve been to the Jamaican Grill in Oak Park at 10 W. Chicago Ave and dined at a black-owned Burger King and KFC in Austin.

John has an office in Oak Brook and when not in the field, eats lunch occasionally at the black-owned McDonald’s there. They also have McDonald’s gift cards to use at restaurants not black owned. The couple keeps a daily log on their website, ebonyexperiment.com, of where they shop and how much they’ve spent. They’ll soon post blogs and videos of their experience. The project will be tracked by researchers at Northwestern University for a larger study on the spending habits of black Americans.

Through their project, the Andersons also wanted to address the negative stereotypes people have about shopping at black establishments.

“In chronicling and highlighting this experience we can dispel the myths around the inconvenience or lack of service in utilizing our own,” said John. “A lot of the criticism that we hear about utilizing black-owned businesses comes from other African-Americans, and that’s a problem. We just can’t continue to accept that because that’s not the case. We cannot project the experiences of a few onto the whole.”

The Andersons researched black-owned businesses and products online before launching the project. Maggie searched for Dollar stores in the area to buy some household items. She called several stores in Chicago and on the West Side, asking if they were black owned and was shocked to learn that many, even though they had black employees and sold black products, were not black-owned.

“A lot of times if I were to just go in the Austin area before this experiment I would just assume that I was supporting a black-owned business. With this, I am definitely more enlightened,” Maggie said. “I called this Dollar store and she said they were black-owned. I got there and I was like, ‘You know what? Let me make sure.’ I just had this kind of feeling. So I went in there and talked to the manager and they said it was corporate owned.”

They’re looking for more establishments and items, including exercise equipment and toys for the girls. The Andersons estimate they will spend $10,000 a month, but also want to attract other families to their website. They plan to help families make their own pledge and offer them support.

“We hope our story will inspire similar, like-minded families to make small sacrifices and start thinking about how to invest more,” said Maggie.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

Shopping around

Some of the businesses and products frequented by the Andersons:
• Citgo Gas Station (gas card), Orland Park
• Covenant Bank, North Lawndale
• Ace Hardware, Oak Park
• Evans Cleaners, Maywood
• Luster's and Isoplus hair care products, Forest Park