Candy season is in full swing according to Tim Shanahan, owner of La Masion de Bonbon and Shanahan’s, both located at 7353 Madison St. in Forest Park. The chef/chocolatier is stocking up on chocolate, European butter and sugar, but not to fill large corporate orders commonly associated with the holiday season.
“If we keep our current pace, we are looking at corporate sales being 65% lower than they were last year,” said Shanahan. “But our community sales have been unbelievable. We are up 40% in local business and this is what is making this year survivable.”
Shanahan, who took over the 100-year-old candy making business in 1990, cannot specifically account for the decline in corporate sales. He suspects small businesses are hurting financially and need to curb expenses but worries more that owners may not know where or how to deliver candy during a pandemic. Historically, gift items would be distributed in offices and with large numbers of people working from home Shanahan fears a factor in the decline could be as simple as not knowing where to send the candy.
Restaurant business at Shanahan’s is down 80% in the last 60 days and 60% on average year to date. And while La Maison de Bonbon has lost 10-15 smaller corporate accounts, Shanahan remains optimistic.
“Math is working in my favor to survive,” said Shanahan. “Thanks to local support, La Maison de Bonbon is supporting Shanahan’s right now and we are fortunate we cross-trained our staff.”
Since opening in 2010, Donna Fantetti-Slepicka. owner of River Forest Chocolates, and her dedicated team have been putting a sweet spin on the holiday season, but they too have seen a notable dip in corporate year end gift giving this year.
“We have seen a major decline in corporate gifts this year. I’d say it is right around 50% lower,” said Fantetti-Slepicka. “I thought corporate orders would be stronger because there won’t be parties this year, but now I wonder if more businesses are giving cash bonuses.”
While the chocolate shop owner is short on answers about certain sales declines, she shares Shanahan’s appreciation for local customers.
“Retail sales have been better. Sales are smaller, but all the encouragement to shop local is working,” said Fantetti-Slepicka. “A post on Oak Park Working Moms made a huge one-day difference for us.”
While she feels threatened by big box stores offering cheaper versions of her own confections and cannot compete with online only or non-brick and mortar shops, she wants to see everyone succeed. There is pressure to innovate to stay ahead, but Fantetti-Slepicka works hard to keep what she has built.
“This shop is everything to me.” said Fantetti-Slepicka. “Shopping online is really easy, but River Forest Chocolates offers a really unique shopping experience, and we won’t be here if people don’t come in.”
River Forest resident and newcomer on the local business scene, Lisa Munro, was moved by the challenges local business were facing and started Elle Belle Box in hopes of supporting the small businesses she loves.
“When the world shut down, I knew many of our local shops were not set up for e-commerce and sales were probably not as robust as owners would have hoped,” said Munro. “I wanted to figure out a way to help.”
Munro is trying to drum up business for local products by combining them with other themed gift items into high-end gift boxes suitable for corporate gifting or individual purchase on a local and national scale.
“My initial though was to have 100% of the items sourced from River Forest, Oak Park and Chicago, but I ran into legal issues that prevented me from reselling items,” said Munro. “Now Elle Belle Box is a licensed as a wholesaler. While I still sell many local items, I supplement with other products and include gift cards from local shops and boutiques.”
Early hiccups foiled some of Munro’s plans to keep her boxes fully local, but Elle Belle’s thoughtfully curated boxes consistently feature hyper-local items from River Forest Chocolates, Kribi Coffee, Olive and Well, Rare Bird Preserves and Todd and Holland Tea Merchants. Each box in the Elle Belle collection contains at least one local product. In the last two weeks Munro has been “swamped” with corporate and custom orders.
“In the beginning I was worried people would view me a competition, but that hasn’t happened,” said Munro. “We all believe in community over competition.”
“I encouraged the start of Elle Belle Box,” said Fantetti-Slepicka. “I think it is a good idea and in time we’ll know how much it helps struggling businesses in the community.”