'Making lemonade' out of the lockdown

Small businesses respond to the lockdown

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By Tom Holmes

It's been two months since Gov. Pritzker's executive order changed the way every small business in Forest Park does business. Some are doing better than others. Many are finding that necessity is the mother of invention. All are grateful for the way village residents have tried to support them.

Jeff Russell who owns Jeff's Millionaires Barbershop, located across from The Park, has been closed by government orders, and it's difficult to sell haircuts online or at curbside. Peter Gianakopoulos said sales at his Old School Records have declined by two-thirds, and Rod Nunley said business at Elite Tire and Battery is 80 percent of what it was two months ago.

Others are doing better. Famous Liquors was designated an essential business. Owner Jeff Sukowski said "business is about the same" even though they are open 27 hours a week less than before COVID-19. Counter Coffee's owner, Vito Claps, said his business is down by only 10 percent and he has not had to lay off or furlough any of his staff.

Dan Bjornson, an accountant on Madison Street, said, "My business has been steady, but more relaxed because of the extended tax deadlines — slower, but not lost."

Plumbing is, of course, an essential service. Ruth Stefl, whose husband owns Stefl Plumbing, said that at first their business was slower than before the pandemic, but "we are noticing people have plumbing issues that can't wait, backing-up sinks, drains, water heaters, problems during the rain, sump pumps, and ejectors out. We have not furloughed anyone. Some days we get done early, but for the most part we are keeping busy."

Some small businesses have been helped by SBA loans like the PPP and EIDL. Connie Brown said, "I applied for the EIDL through the SBA website and the PPP Loan through my bank. Both were funded, thank heavens."

Team Blonde, Counter Coffee, Todd and Holland Tea Merchants, and Stefl Plumbing have received SBA loans, but Core Strength, Old School Records, Dan Bjornson and Jeff Russell have not heard anything to date.

Steve Glinke, director of Building Planning & Zoning for the village of Forest Park, has a pretty good read on what is happening in the business community. He described three kinds of businesses — those waiting for the government to save them and will not survive; those who are playing by the governor's directives, are staying open, but are not the kind of business that lends itself to innovation; and those who "are up to the challenge to innovate and adapt."

"On the whole," he added, "they are upbeat and optimistic."

Many Forest Park small business owners are responding to the lockdown by being creative and innovative.

Connie Brown shut Brown Cow down for two weeks and had a walk-up window installed for customers on the sidewalk. Vito Claps took advantage of the shutdown to remodel the downstairs area of Counter Coffee.

Heidi Vance and Jayne Ertel built a new e-commerce website for their Team Blonde Boutique, Eco Spa and Salon during the first week of the quarantine and have tried to substantially increase their social media presence "to drive people to our new site to increase sales."

The Gillian-Baker Team realtors have started hosting virtual "happy hours." "Grab your favorite drink and join us," wrote Dorothy Gillian in an email, "to commiserate and encourage each other through this tough time!"

The Forest Park realtors also teamed with other small business owners — Chris Everett of Everett Wealth Solutions, Julianne Rizzo of Oasis Senior Advisors, Patty Mullin of Organizing Unlimited — to present a webinar on Zoom titled, "Right Size Your Next Move."

Cheryl Sauvey who owns Core Strength Personal Training is now leading her virtual workouts from kitchen at home. "My kitchen is my new gym," she said, "and I'm making it work. I have returning past clients FaceTiming in from Huntley and South Barrington. And as far as Kochi, Japan."

Looking to the future and reopening, she said, "It's possibly a new normal, and requests have been voiced to keep the remote training going even when my studio is reopened."

Many credited long-term relationships for keeping them afloat during this economic storm. "The purpose of our happy hours," Gillian explained, "is to stay in touch with our clients — not to sell them a house but to make sure they were OK during these crazy times. Our business is based on building relationships with our clients."

Janet Todd said that over the 26 years she and her husband Bill have been in the tea business (Todd & Holland), they've built up a loyal clientele. "Tea seems to be essential to many people," she said. "We've seen a large increase in tea gifts being sent to others 'Just thinking of you,' not for a special occasion."

How are they making it work? Vito Claps replied, "It has been a massive combined effort between staff, management, and this incredible community."

Augie Aleksy, owner of Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, had this to say about the relationships he has formed with the patrons of his "niche" business. "It's been pretty busy, sales-wise. There are, thank God, many customers, not all local, who don't want Centuries & Sleuths to vanish under the threat of Big Disease. The public's reaction has been almost biblical, at least for those who read."

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