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How suburban businesses cope during lockdown.

Editor's Note: The Daily Herald Business Ledger's photographers talked to suburban small business owners to see how they are adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. Here are some of their stories.

Brewery adjusts its business plan, marketing

Jason Ebel started Two Brothers Brewing Company in Warrenville with his brother Jim, and 23 years later, the family-run business employs 300 people.

"It's great to be able to take our passion and turn it into a business that provides employment and services for our community," Ebel said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented some challenging problems for everyone, but Jason said his company is finding ways to adapt.

As the spread of the virus worsened in March, the company was contacted by the Department of Homeland Security and asked to provide hand sanitizer.

That helped the business and kept the employees working. And, it would provide a much-needed service for front line workers and essential businesses.

"We are incredible happy that we could give back and help the cause by providing hand sanitizer for first responders and essential businesses," Ebel said.

A large majority of the staff is still working at full pay but the brewery had to furlough some of its employees.

Ebel said the company has lost a lot of beer, food and sprits sales with its restaurants, and with other bars and restaurants closing in the last three months.

It was forced to find other ways to sell its products to consumers, such as increasing online ordering, carryout and delivery capabilities.

This virus, he said, has forced the brewery to think outside the box.

"We are facing a new reality now, so our businesses need to adjust and adapt as best they can," Ebel said.

-- Brian Hill

Art teacher brushes aside COVID-19

When Christine Thornton wanted to start an art studio in Arlington Heights, she wanted the name to be something memorable and approachable for kids, something that said, "Hello, come on in and join us."

Hello Art Studio was born last September, specializing in multimedia and teaching kids ages 7 to 18 with artist's eyes how to draw and capture what they see and put their own spin on it.

However, when she was forced to close the doors March 14 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, an uncertain future started to unfold.

"I wasn't sure what to do on a couple of days when the pandemic started, and I didn't want the kids to be exposed to anything that would be bad for them," said Thornton, 48, of Mount Prospect.

The business was going great until the pandemic hit and she went from a fully engaged classroom to closing the doors before developing some popular online classes she teaches from home. Thornton had applied for the federal stimulus in April but no longer needs it.

"It hit us blind for sure, creating a stressful time, (questions of) are we going to make it, what's going to happen," Thornton said.

But she created the online classes, people signed up and libraries started hiring her to teach her unique style, and a new business dynamic began.

"I got a plan in place and it's going well. We're going to be OK," Thornton said.

-Mark Welsh

Dimples Donuts owner works hard to stay open

The things that keep many small business owners up all night these days are not the same things that keep Dimples Donuts owner Sovannary Vong up. She starts her day at midnight in order to make the doughnuts her customers crave.

For the past 13 years, she has run the Batavia doughnut shop that was started 33 years ago by her aunt, Linda Vong.

With only one other employee, there have been no reductions in staff, but business is down 50%.

"We worry about not being able to pay rent," she said.

Vong asks her customers to post on social media that the shop is still open.

"When people find out we are still open, they are very happy. When they are happy, we are happy," Vong said with a smile.

Vong came from Cambodia in 2003 when she was 17. "The United States gives you a great opportunity to work," she said. "People are very nice and treat me the same as others."

Her smile beams, even through her face mask, as her customers walk in for their doughnuts. Her parting words to every customer: "Thank you and God bless you."

-Jeff Knox

Costume shop is All Dressed Up with nowhere to go

Julane Sullivan's business is All Dressed Up, and right now it has nowhere to go.

Literally, not figuratively.

Sullivan has owned the Batavia costumery All Dressed Up for 30 years and it has operated in the iconic Campana building for the last dozen. The pandemic has taken what was to be a year marked by a summer anniversary celebration to what she calls a "bleak" future.

"I don't know how long we can last like this," Sullivan said. "Our overhead with 10,000 square feet is enormous, and until theaters reopen we're not going to be able to cover this."

Sullivan says it's the larger orders from theater companies, both professional and student, that make up the bulk of their income.

While they wait for the world to reopen, they've been pivoting their sewing skills to making masks. It's something, but it's not enough to cover expenses. They normally have three full-time and three part-time employees, but she's had to pare it down to just herself and one employee who have manned the store and taken care of previously made reservations.

"It's very sad because this is 30 years of my life," she said. "At some point I had planned to sell all this and this as my retirement, if it all just goes away, then what do I do?"

"It's frightening. It's frightening."

-- Rick West

Junk hauler adjusts business to pandemic

Sarah Mawhorr has been hauling junk, mostly unwanted furniture that must be cleared from houses before a real estate closing, for just over a year.

Spring is generally a busy time in the real estate business, so it has been a busy time for Mawhorr and her company, Elite Command Junk Hauling, based in Schaumburg.

But business has slowed in the past month during the COVID-19 pandemic, and she has had to haul something even less glamorous -- dirt and leaves.

"This is usually a time where I would be really busy," Mawhorr said. "This business, junk hauling, is driven by the real estate market."

Before a real estate closing, people often need to get rid of furniture they didn't want. Mawhorr is hired to take the items and haul them away in her truck, a white Isuzu box van she bought new last year for $58,000. Her two employees do the moving.

In the past, she has been able to donate the items. Recently though, furniture donations aren't being accepted and she has had to pay to dispose of the items, and that affects her bottom line.

"Through March, we were doing all right," Mawhorr said. "We were still pretty busy, but it seems like all of the closings that were in progress happened."

Now, closings are not being scheduled because people are not putting their houses on the market, she said.

She makes less money hauling dirt and leaves, but the "outdoor work" keeps her employees busy and it does generate needed revenue.

"If I stop working, I'm going to lose the business," she said.

While her greatest concern during the pandemic is she or her employees will get sick, the nature of the work does lend itself to social distancing.

-Joe Lewnard

Dog walkers not needed while family's home

When everyone is home, pets get more attention.

That's good for the animal, but bad for the companies whose revenue is based on the care of those animals.

Prairie Path Pet Care has been walking and grooming dogs and cats since 2012. Based in Wheaton, the company employs about 50 experienced and trained dog walkers who cover large areas of Kane, Cook and McHenry counties.

"Our walkers aren't making as much money as they were," said Marsha Thomas, Crystal Lake branch manager. "They don't get paid unless they are walking dogs."

Business is down 70 percent since last fall, mostly because of the stay-at-home order in place since March 21.

"I see whole families walking their dogs now when I am out with a pet," said Thomas. "They just don't need us now."

Thomas says the company still cares for the animals of first responders and health care workers, and is doing everything it can to be safe by wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and using social distancing. And the small business has been approved for federal stimulus help.

"That should see us through," said Thomas. "And some people are just being nice about it and still asking us to walk their dogs."

-John Starks
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Title Annotation:Biz Ledger
Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Date:Jun 22, 2020
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