In a society in which size matters, Valorie Mitts, owner of the Lil’ Red Wagon snack shop, contends that being small is key to her success.
The shop is indeed small. Located at 810 S. Beloit Ave. just a few steps from the entrance to The Park on Harrison Street, there is room for only two people inside the door, and Valorie is owner, manager and lone employee all rolled into one.
Unlike ice cream shops that feature a wide variety of flavors, the Lil’ Red Wagon has five flavors of Italian ice for customers to choose from. Currently they are mango, kiwi strawberry, blue raspberry and lemon.
The 50-year-old entrepreneur says quality not quantity keeps her customers coming back. She bakes her muffins fresh every day and uses real butter. She is also creative and a little whimsical. Among the 100 different cookies she has offered are peanut butter and jelly and potato chip, along with classics like chocolate chip and lemon zinger.
Valorie contends there is one ingredient in her cookies that can’t be found on a grocery store shelf — love. She sometimes prays over the batter she is mixing, and she says there is a little bit of herself in everything she bakes.
What she serves to customers is a personal relationship. “I’m small and intimate and can build rapport.”
“One thing I have learned,” she explained, “is that people want to be acknowledged and accepted. They remember how you treat them as a person.”
Valorie knows most of her patrons, their kids and their dogs by name. Some think of her as a second mother to their children. “If I see the kids doing something wrong,” she said, “I whip them into shape. I feel that’s my responsibility.”
“I describe my business,” she explained, “as a family shop with an old-school twist. I do have the gift of gab and the gift of making people happy. They come in for a cookie and I feed their soul. People look forward to my smile and sense of humor. As they pass the store they might even catch me dancing and singing while I’m baking.”
Entrepreneurs will tell you the three most important factors to consider when starting a business are location, location and location. Chipotle chose to build at the corner of Madison and Harlem for that very reason. Thousands of cars pass by that corner every day.
So how is it possible for a seasonal business — June through September — hidden away on a residential street with little traffic, next to Jeff Russell’s barber shop and two blocks north of Ed’s Way, make itself known to the public, especially when the owner does zero advertising?
There is some traffic from the pool and tennis courts to the north and the elementary school to the south, and she does post frequently on Facebook, but her main exposure comes from word of mouth. People have even posted pictures of different flavors of her Italian ice on social media.
Thanks to word of mouth and her blend of product and personality, many become return customers. During the interview she noted that recently a loyal customer drove all the way from 95th street to get an Italian ice and a butter cookie.
Valorie comes from a long line of bakers including her grandmother and mother who included her in the baking they were doing.
“There are a lot cookies out there,” she said, “but there’s only one Lil’ Red Wagon. I use quality ingredients: butter, flour, sugar, love and God. With that recipe you can’t go wrong.”