Perhaps the only members of our community who can truly relate to the events of the last few weeks in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic are those who lived through World War II—those monumental moments when Lake Foresters and other North Shore residents were asked to house local officers from Fort Sheridan without question, selflessly set aside their daily routines, and ration their food for the sake of the common good.
What our nation learned then holds true today and leaves us with inspiration for the positive impact that is possible when a few small businesses and organizations come together.
With all local schools closed, supplies flying off the store shelves, health clubs shutting down, restaurants dramatically limited to takeout or delivery only, and tension building every day, it’s the mindset of local businessmen like Jeff Urso that give us hope during this unprecedented global health crisis.
“We’re not competitors, we’re neighbors,” says Urso, owner of Donati’s Pizza in Lake Forest.
Urso, who grew up in the area and has raised his kids here, is taking a remarkable move to back up that statement. He and his restaurant staff are now offering to deliver items from Heinen’s grocery store in Lake Bluff for senior citizens who order a pizza for delivery.
“For senior citizens who are afraid to leave their homes or who just can’t, our drivers are happy to get essential items for them,” Urso says.
In addition, Urso is offering his team of delivery drivers to other area businesses, such as Graffitti Grill and Forest Greens Juice Bar, that haven’t traditionally offered delivery. It’s an opportunity for restaurants to keep kitchens open even if their dining areas are closed. Most important of all, Urso is hiring drivers to meet the demand created by his expanded delivery services—and has made a point to bring on drivers who’ve been left unemployed by the health crisis.
Carla Westcott, owner of Market House on the Square restaurant in Lake Forest, has started a delivery service so customers can dine at home. With grocery stores short on products, her team is meeting a demand for family style meals, such as whole roast chicken and shrimp spaghetti pasta for four. Supply chains remain strong and her suppliers are ready to get her more products. But she’s most concerned about her employees.
“All day today, we’ve had two people here full-time working with employees and teaching them how to apply for unemployment,” Wescott says. “What keeps me up at night are the line cooks and dishwashers. It’s goes beyond our community, to North Chicago and Waukegan.”
Wescott says one way that consumers can help businesses like hers during this time is to call their legislators and advocate for a stimulus package to support the food industry. Employees in the industry rarely qualify for sick or vacation pay, and this time of year is already slow.
Scott Price of Toms-Price Home, which operates five home store locations throughout the Chicago area, including stores in Lincolnshire and South Barrington, wants to emphasize to consumers that his family business remains open.
“All of our stores are open although some of our mall locations might have shortened hours,” Price says. “Our employees are taking all of the necessary precautions, including using hand sanitizer.”
He has even slashed floor models by 50 percent to meet the instant need created by the health crisis. Many people are now working at home and have not up until now had the furniture and equipment they need at home for a productive working environment.
And even if consumers aren’t venturing out, business goes on. Toms-Price Home stores keeps 40 interior designers on staff, all of whom will make home visits to help consumers upgrade the look and feel of their homes.
“Our team of 40 designers is willing and ready to come to any house with their iPads and do layouts and drawings and help with your design right there in the home,” Price adds.
Lucy Callahan, owner of Peachtree Place in Northfield Village Square, is taking it day by day.
“We have told our staff that if they’re not comfortable coming in, they don’t have to,” Callahan says. “We are definitely seeing a major difference in the number of transactions between now and a week ago.”
Callahan says Peachtree, which sells upscale gifts, stationary, jewelry, and other products, is offering curbside delivery service and is taking phone orders, and also orders over FaceTime, so buyers can view products in the store. A decline in restaurant business in the mall is having an obvious effect on foot traffic, but Callahan says she and her staff are stepping up.
“We’ve always had great customer service and have gone over and above what is necessary,” Callahan says, “but now it’s more important than ever.”
Joanna Rolek, Executive Director of the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce, says that while these are challenging times for businesses, she’s seeing the community come together.
“Jeff Urso and others are the example of the best in our communities right now,” Rolek says, “They are people who are rallying for patrons and rallying for the business community, especially for businesses that may not have the opportunity to stay relevant. It’s the small businesses that we so love that will feel the most impact.”
Rolek says the Chamber is stepping up its social media activity to stay connected with members and also to promote more collaboration among members during this time. The chamber is also helping area businesses connect with federal, state, and local resources that are being offered to provide financial relief.
Rolek adds that gift cards are a great way to support local businesses during this time. Cecelia Lanyon, owner of The Gallery and The Peanut Gallery in Lake Forest, has launched what she calls the Buddy System, which accepts donations from the public to support small businesses in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff. Gallery and Peanut Gallery staff purchase gift cards from local businesses and, once normalcy returns, will host a party for all of those who donate, and raffle off the gift cards. Those who wish to donate can click on the Buddy System link on the restaurants’ websites (thegallerylf.com or thepeanutgallerylf.com) for more information.
While the virus will continue to present challenges to local businesses, it might also present opportunities. Connie Dornan, a realtor with @properties in Glenview, says the current situation is more like 9/11 than the recession in 2008.
“The black swan occurred on 9/11, when things went haywire, but by November we had recovered,” Dornan says. “What we have here is a healthy economy, a healthy housing market, and we are not in recession.”
Dornan adds that while there’s no getting around the short-term impact to the economy, once health officials get the spread under control, recovery will be around the corner. Her advice for those looking to buy or sell homes is not to wait.
“I’m still getting daily traffic to my website because buyers are at home and have time on their hands,” Dornan says. “Wasting market time is irrelevant. If you’re live on the market, I can increase excitement even if there’s no physical appointment happening.”
While the constant barrage of news reports about the virus can take its toll, Dornan’s many years of experiencing the ups and downs of the industry prompts her to offer a reminder.
“Homes will continue to sell and buyers will continue to buy,” she says. “The fundamentals of our economy are strong.”