In Focus: Independent businesses in Evanston deal with declining support

March 6, 2020

If you walk through the streets of Evanston, you’ll notice struggling small businesses, empty storefronts and a plethora of big-box chains.

Small businesses in the city have faced challenges in the past decade. In the last year alone, several longstanding independent stores have closed, including Market Fresh Books, Williams Shoes the Walking Spirit and Coucou & Olive — all of which had been in Evanston for at least 10 years, if not longer.

This trend is not specific to Evanston. Other college towns like Cambridge, Mass. and Berkeley, Calif. have seen spikes in closures of independent shops and restaurants. Though this is a decades-old, nationwide problem, it’s been exacerbated in recent years.

In December, The New York Times published a collection of letters to the editor, in which several readers from all corners of the country lamented the loss of beloved small businesses and expressed frustration with big outlets like Amazon.

Whether it’s competition with incoming big chains, increased parking fees, the rise of online shopping or geographical disadvantages, many small businesses in Evanston face similar issues — and for some, their futures are at stake.

Battling big business

Though many independent shops still exist in the city, several owners said it’s not easy to compete when big businesses keep popping up blocks away from their stores.

Unicorn Cafe, 1723 Sherman Ave., owner Jessica Donnelly said owning a coffee shop in the city has been particularly challenging, because the downtown area features seven other cafes, the majority of which are national or regional chains. Colectivo Coffee and Philz Coffee both opened in the past fifteen months, while Starbucks Coffee Company and Peet’s Coffee have been in Evanston for longer.

But Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) said she doesn’t see big businesses moving in as a problem.

“The more people that come in regardless of where they’re doing business, the better it is — the more feet on the street,” Fiske said.

In recent years, Donnelly has grown disappointed and disillusioned with the city and its lack of support for independent businesses like hers.

“When I came to purchase the Unicorn, I felt so strongly about Evanston and the vision I thought the government had for, what was in my mind, at the time, a wonderful college town that had an incredibly strong community and believed in small business and local investment,” Donnelly said. “I feel like it’s probably the worst place for any small business to invest and succeed because there’s no support.”

The city’s actions have left others in similar situations feeling disheartened.

Diana Hamann, who owns The Wine Goddess, 702 Main St., on the Main-Dempster Mile, said she understands the city’s desire to keep storefronts occupied. But when the city afforded the incoming Trader Joe’s a $2 million parking lot in 2012, rather than investing that money in local businesses, she felt frustrated.

“I send (the city) a check every month for literally thousands of dollars that I collect on the backs of my customers,” Hamann said, referring to the liquor tax she pays. “For that money to go into the city’s general coffers and then for me to see them giving my competition … a $2 million parking lot, that was a bummer.”

Evanston’s economic development manager Paul Zalmezak, who said he was not involved in the Trader Joe’s project, explained the city’s decision to fund the parking lot. In the end, he said, the overall gain from this kind of land contribution might be worthwhile for the city if its sales and tax revenue exceed the land’s value.

Creative competition

Several small business owners have felt the need to alter their shops to stay competitive as bigger stores move in and other economic factors pose hardships.

To differentiate itself from nearby chains, Unicorn began serving Sparrow Coffee, a brand typically reserved for restaurants with Michelin stars. The cafe also partnered with Patisserie Coralie and Bennison’s Bakery to sell locally-made pastries and promote shopping small.

“Colectivo and Starbucks and Peet’s can easily, in a blink, afford everything that small businesses like Coralie … and the Unicorn simply cannot,” Donnelly said. “The real tragedy is, those corporations reinvest less than half of what a local business owner invests in this community.”

Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer
Unicorn Cafe, 1723 Sherman Ave. The Evanston-based coffee shop has stuggled to compete with national and regional coffee chains.

The Wine Goddess — a brightly lit shop lined with several shelves full of different wines — also got creative to supplement slim wine-retail margins. A store like The Wine Goddess would buy a bottle of wine for $10 and be “very, very lucky” to take a full markup at 50 percent, charging $14.99, Hamann explained. But big businesses can offer the same wine for $12.99, making it harder for her store to compete.

Early on, the store made its profit by selling bottles during the day and hosting classes at night. Recently, the shop began offering evening concerts to bring in additional income. Wine is now also sold by the glass at those events.

Hamann said beyond the financial advantages of hosting these events, The Wine Goddess also offers more entertainment options for the community.

“I like to keep it local, so we definitely try to do stuff for locals to not have to go into (Chicago) for their nightlife,” Hamann said. “We’re always thinking of new and interesting ways to get people in the front door.”

Parking fee problems

Increased parking fees in Evanston have also frustrated business owners, heightening existing problems.

This December, the city upped the metered parking fee from $1.50 to $2.00 per hour, and, although some spots away from Sherman Avenue offer four or 12-hour parking windows, many are limited to two hours — mostly in the city’s bustling downtown.

“You don’t really have time to do more than one or two things,” Donnelly said. “If you wanted to have a leisurely day of, let’s say, going to work out, go to your bank, maybe do a little shopping, and sit and have a cup of coffee and read the paper, you don’t have time because you’re only permitted a very limited amount of time of parking meters.”

These raises in parking fees likely push people to shop in areas where the fee is lower or nonexistent, Donnelly added.

In the nearby suburbs of Wilmette, Glencoe and Winnetka, for instance, parking in the downtown area is largely free, although some spots require permits. In Wilmette, people wanting to spend more than four hours have to pay to park in a 12-hour lot, but the fee does not exceed $4.00 — which would only cover two hours of parking in much of Evanston.

Business owners on Evanston’s Central Street have also raised concerns about the parking fees.

Mari Barnes, president of the Central Street Business Association and owner of the boutique Notice, 2112 Central St., said many customers who shop on the street come from Wilmette, so parking is critical. She added that over the years, she’s seen a visible difference in how many cars fill the lot.

“We chose Central Street because it’s such a vibrant little street,” Barnes said. “Years ago, when we opened, (we were) across from a parking lot — that parking lot was full all the time. Now, we look out and often it’s empty.”

Zalmezak said he hears the concerns these owners have about parking, but he added that the fees are cheaper in comparison to downtown Chicago, where metered parking can cost up to $7.00 per hour.

He said the city gets revenue from parking because it doesn’t want to raise taxes. Interim city manager Erika Storlie said the increase in parking fees also served to offset Evanston’s 2019 budget deficit.

But beyond the revenue, meters are important to protect downtown Evanston from the “chaos” that would ensue if free parking existed, Zalmezak said. If there were no limits, he claimed downtown Evanston employees and city residents would fill every spot, and customers from neighboring communities wouldn’t have a place for their cars.

Storlie added that the city allows the first hour free every day in garages and free parking all day on Sundays.

“(That) is something we continue to promote to help all businesses thrive,” Storlie wrote in an email to The Daily.

Pushing Evanston residents to shop local

Many small business owners also feel as if Northwestern students and city residents aren’t adequately aware of which businesses in Evanston are independent and which ones aren’t.

“Evanstonians really want to believe that they’re supporting local and they believe in local, but they don’t really do their homework,” Donnelly said. “They don’t recognize that new coffee shops are, like Philz, (not) just a national chain, (but) owned by a massive international conglomerate.”

When it comes to students, particularly those from out of town, many seem to prefer the convenience of big chains or the comfort of a place they already know.

Weinberg junior Juan Zuniga — who serves as Associated Student Government’s co-vice president for community relations — likes trying out local restaurants. However, he said that as a busy student, he finds it easier to stop by chains when he has less time to sit and eat.

Medill sophomore Julia Wallace said she frequents chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread just because she likes their food. But she also tries to show her NU friends who aren’t from the area some of her favorite local restaurants she has gotten to know well from living in the area since she was a child.

“I try to prioritize going to lesser-known places and telling my friends about them, so maybe it will be a place they like and they’ll come back with other people,” she said. “Because I just feel like it’s hard to find places if you don’t know.”

Becky Sebert, a co-owner of Becky & Me Toys, 620 Grove St., has noticed a decrease in college students stopping by independent shops. She attributes the change to Amazon, claiming that younger people, at least in Evanston, often shop online and don’t support brick-and-mortar stores enough.

In addition, Sebert observed that around the holidays, more elderly customers came by and fewer middle-aged people stopped into her store.

The shop sent out an email to members of its frequent buyer program in January, urging them to make Becky & Me Toys their go-to toy store, as opposed to shopping online, so the business can stay afloat. The email told customers that to keep Becky & Me Toys in business, they should try to visit more than once or twice a year, and do more than just buy gifts to complement big ones they’ve ordered online.

While shopping, many people will tell Sebert about their online purchases offhand, not realizing the impact their actions have on the store’s bottom line.

“They’ll come in here and take our time and we’ll explain the item, we’ll show it to them in person — then they look on their phone here and see it’s a dollar less or maybe even the same price (on Amazon),” Sebert said. “We can’t survive on people just coming in and looking.”

Local solutions for local problems

Although online shopping continues to threaten local merchants, Evanston leaders are looking for solutions and several organizations are carrying out programs aimed at supporting these businesses.

The city is planning to spend time this year listening to local business owners’ needs, Zalmezak said, adding that he’s interested in creating new programs to help. Last month, Central Street added new special service areas, which fund marketing activities and neighborhood beautification to businesses in those districts.

John Kim, a co-founder of Backlot Coffee, 2006 Central St., said he’s satisfied with the level of support he receives from the city.

“When I need help, I can go to them,” Kim said. “Other than that, I don’t necessarily expect the city to be actively involved in what’s going on on the business level. They’re there to run a city and provide services and be available for everybody who needs them.”

The group Downtown Evanston provides many of those services. It offers marketing assistance to businesses in the area and places ads on the radio, websites, public transportation and newspapers, among other initiatives.

The association hosts workshops for business owners on topics ranging from social media and search engine optimization techniques to decorating their windows for the holidays. The group also organizes several events like Hygge Fest and the Warm Bevvy Walk that encourage people to visit various stores.

The Main-Dempster Mile, another Evanston community organization, unites business owners in southeast Evanston through events, like the Evanston Wine Walk and Small Business Saturday. On May 14, the group will host the Evanston Craft Beverage Crawl to celebrate local spots like Sketchbook Brewing Co., Few Spirits and Kombucha Brava.

“(The Main-Dempster Mile) is a really nice organization where all the small businesses in the area come together and organize events and visibility, so it’s really great,” said Regina Sant’Anna, owner of Kombucha Brava, 717 Custer Ave. “They’re organizing this, so I think there’s a lot of help from the city in that way.”

Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson
Evanston couple Regina Sant’Anna and Douglas Skites opened Kombucha Brava’s taproom in July 2018. The business will participate in the Evanston Craft Beverage Crawl on May 14.

Beyond the Purple line

Those who work in other parts of the city, however, can’t always see the same foot traffic compared to areas immediately near the Purple line, like the downtown center, Main-Dempster Mile and Central Street.

The 5th Ward, located in west Evanston, is one such area.

“Generally, the 5th Ward businesses are stable, and some are scaling, but there is certainly room for more economic activity throughout the 5th Ward,” Ald. Robin Rue Simmons (5th) said. “We have segregated business corridors and … if you have a business model that depends on pedestrian traffic or other traffic, it’s not as competitive as other merchant districts in the area.”

William Eason — the managing partner of the restaurant Jennifer’s Edibles, 1623 Simpson St. — said more people, especially students, should come to the area. To help promote his eatery, Eason worked with Northwestern to become a part of the Wildcard Advantage Discount program, which invites businesses to give discounts to students, faculty and staff.

Already, he said, the program has helped attract more students to Jennifer’s Edibles.

To provide further support, the city also has offered a grant for facade improvements, updating awnings, lighting and signage on streets including Church Street, Dodge Street and Simpson Street, Rue Simmons said.

The alderman is a member of the city’s Minority, Women & Evanston Business Enterprise Development Committee. It established the Entrepreneurship Support Program, which provides grants of up to $3,500 to local spots to fund things like professional services and business structure to set them up for success.

Graphic by Roxanne Panas

Black Business Consortium Evanston North Shore, which four store owners founded in 2015, also seeks to support minority-owned shops. Each April, the consortium hosts a bus tour that highlights many black stores throughout all wards, in conjunction with a business expo where owners in the consortium convene and showcase their products.

Clarence Weaver, one of the founders of the organization and a co-owner of C&W Market and Ice Cream Parlor, 1901 Church St. said the event has been helpful.

“That’s probably one of the biggest moments when we all come together. We get a chance to hear in April what a lot of people are doing and what a lot of people need,” Weaver said. “From there we have quarterly sessions to address some of the things that we see as an issue collectively.”

Some of these businesses also commit to employing area residents. Hecky Powell, the owner of Hecky’s Barbeque, 1902 Green Bay Rd. often hires younger people, especially Evanston Township High School students.

That’s important, he said, because his family has been in Evanston since 1902 and he wants to continue helping the ward.

“Employing especially young people from the community is teaching them the work ethic, teaching them a skill,” Powell said. “It’s giving back to the community that has given a lot to me.”

Investing in the future

The city could do more to provide support to small businesses, owners say.

Eason said the city should do more for minority-owned establishments in particular. Though the 5th Ward is more racially diverse now, he added, it’s still a hub for the black community and the city should invest in it more, starting with making loans more available for prospective store owners.

“There still is a level of institutional racism that black people run into when it comes to getting loans and things of that nature,” Eason said. “There are a lot of folks out here that have good ideas and want to get started in business but are pretty much scared.”

Daily file photo by Maia Spoto
Jennifer and William Eason stand behind the counter at Jennifer’s Edibles. William Eason said becoming a part of the Wildcard Advantage Discount program helped attract more NU students to the restaurant.

Donnelly, the owner of Unicorn Cafe, said Evanston needs to restore character to the downtown area.

One city she said Evanston could look to for inspiration is Crested Butte, Colorado — a town of about 1,600 people, about 230 miles southwest of Denver — because it prohibits big corporations from opening locations there. Though Crested Butte is smaller than Evanston, Donnelly said the city should take note of economic development policies found in similar small business havens.

“When I first moved to the North Shore 20 years ago at least, Evanston was charming and really picturesque and welcoming,” she said. “It’s now lost that character and charm.”

While Sebert is grateful that Downtown Evanston already promotes her store, she also had ideas for the city. She believes the city should launch a campaign educating people about the importance of shopping local and reminding them that doing so keeps tax dollars in the city and pays employees who also live there.

She said something like that could help stores like hers stay alive.

“It’s heartbreaking, to be honest — a lot of tears. When you own a business, it’s like a part of your family,” Sebert said. “The thought of having to close is really, really sad and really, really hard.”

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