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Moo & Oink goes up for auction

 Barry Levy former longtime president Moo   Oink with some Moo   Oink memorabilia. This is from

Barry Levy, former longtime president of Moo & Oink with some Moo & Oink memorabilia. This is from one of their ads. Thursday, November 10, 2011 | Brian Jackson~ Sun-Times

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Updated: December 16, 2011 8:09AM

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Jack Schmetterer on Monday ordered the public auction of revered African-American community meat-store operator Moo & Oink.

“It seems this is the best chance to get the company operating under new management and restore the business,” Schmetterer said at a hearing Monday. “I hope that works.”

Last week, Schmetterer told lawyers for Moo & Oink and its main creditor, First Midwest Bank, to put in writing assurances that the auction would be widely publicized and held in a venue large enough for former employees and the media to attend.

The auction will take place at 10 a.m. Dec. 14 at 111 S. Wacker in Room 2932 with room for 125 people.

Schmetterer placed Moo & Oink in Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Sept. 30, after the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1546 and the union pension and health and welfare funds filed a claim alleging that Moo & Oink owes the pension and other funds $3 million. The union represented Moo & Oink employees.

Moo & Oink disagrees that it owes $3 million to the pension fund, said attorney Rick Firfer, who represents Moo & Oink.

The company’s business income had dropped to $18.9 million while it operated in 2011, compared with $29.2 million in 2010 and $39.3 million in 2009, court documents show.

Moo & Oink’s top 20 creditors are owed a collective total of $6.4 million.

Major retail chains are looking at the Moo & Oink properties, lawyers in the case say. The company could be sold as a whole or in pieces, including its website and branded products as separate from the retail stores.

Moo & Oink has stores on the edges of the city’s so-called “food desert,” and so has drawn interest, said Courtney Barr, the lawyer for Moo & Oink’s sole secured creditor, First Midwest Bank. The Chicago stores are at 7158 S. Stony Island, 4848 W. Madison and 8201 S. Racine.

She said one national retailer has expressed interest in buying the entire business.

A group of African-American investors also has expressed interest in buying Moo & Oink as a whole.

Best Chicago Meat Co., which makes burgers, hot dogs, sausages and Italian beef for retailers and restaurants, is interested in buying Moo & Oink’s intellectual property, including its branded products, said Best Chicago Meat Co. President Dave Van Kampen, who attended the hearing Monday.

Mari Gallagher, a Chicago consultant who has led research into the city’s food desert, said that retaining a business presence at the Moo & Oink locations in Chicago and protecting the food desert border from further erosion “is crucial if we want to continue making progress in shrinking the food desert.”

Moo & Oink’s demise put 200 employees out of work on Sept. 9 after it closed its three stores in Chicago, its grocery store in south suburban Hazel Crest and its e-commerce and wholesale operations. The employees received no severance benefits.

Mary Steele, a spokeswoman for the former employees, said Monday she is concerned whether a new owner would rehire the former employees as union-represented workers.

“Will (a new owner) bring the employees back to work?” she said.

The lawyer for Mort Levy, who ran the company during its decline, said the business downturn was primarily due to the declining economy, increased unemployment, increased competition from value chains and a shrinking customer base that was growing older and smaller.

John Smith, a former Moo & Oink assistant district manager who worked there for more than 25 years, said in a recent interview that no other retailer has been able to convey the sense of fun, excitement and unique experiences.

“It brought tears to my eyes when I heard (Moo & Oink) might go out of business,” said Smith, who now works as an assistant manager at a Save-A-Lot store on the city’s South Side.

Smith valued his bosses at Moo & Oink — Barry Levy and Barry and Harvey Lezak — and credited them for hiring African-Americans and giving back to the community.

“This is something we built in the African-American community. The stores would have lines down the block trying to get in on any summer holiday, and we’d have a line out the door for fish on Fridays.”

“It needs to be saved,” he said. “We have to save it.”

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