Here on localoakpark.com you'll read about the good, the great and the needs-some-work. The goal? Let business owners see some things that could help them be just a little more successful.
A few years into owning the bread bakery my then 2 yr old daughter had terrible eczema. The doctors didn't suggest getting her tested for allergies at that point in time. Probably, now, just 6 years later it would have been the first thing out of the doctor's mouth.
When she was 3 years old, she had her first anaphylactic attack. She had bitten into a pecan candy.
We made nutty nut breads every day at the bakery. And my daughter had largely grown up in the dust, not liking bread AT ALL. She wouldn't touch it. But she was exposed to it almost daily. When she had the reaction I shouldn't have been as stunned as I was. I didn't even think it could be nuts.
A dermatologist finally insisted we get her allergy tested. And for sure she tested highly allergic to pecans walnuts and a few other things.
When she was four we sold the bakery.
A year after her official diagnosis she was having some severe reactions to things that had been mildly cross contaminated. We found out that she couldn't even breathe the vapors if someone was roasting or cooking with those same nuts.
Needless to say, there is no traditional bakery around that makes a safe cake for my daughter. Pans have to be triple washed before nut oils are fully absent. And even then, it's possible the oils are just baked into the metal.
I decided to figure out how to use fondant. I decided to start baking big cakes. I put my hobby time and energy into cake.
I had already dabbled a tiny itty bit when we owned our bread bakery. I had made a cake for a friend, just because. I had taken a cake decorating class with my grandmother years before.
I make cake for almost every occasion anyway. I like to bake. I'm good at making rich cake that taste not overly sweet.
After we no longer had all that beautiful baking equipment I put a lot more time and effort into being artsy with little cakes. The baking part was easy, the decorating part took some practice. It still takes practice.
I am still far below the skill level of professionals. But it's fun. I have something beautiful I can take to parties. I can contribute my time and passion to something that would normally cost much much more when purchased at a bakery. I can save money (maybe).
If truth be told, I like the accolades. I like to brag about the fantasticness I can't even believe myself I made.
We all need something to feel good about. For me, that's a piece of cake!
It's been a few years since Erik's has completed their redo, re-haul and renovation. I still like the food, but I question the restaurant's new design every time I go in. In fact, I love the veggie wrap. It might just be my favorite lunch of all time.
The old Erik's was, well, it was old. The wooden tables needed to be refinished, the poly coating was getting sticky. The walls were gathering a greasy kind of dust in corners. The yellow paint was out-dated. The menu board needed an overhaul to go with the newer menu items they were offering regularly. Years before the renovation, I was complaining about all those things.
I was excited about the remaking of a childhood favorite.
But I have been disappointed in some of the things that have hurt Erik's atmosphere in the process.
Mind you, I love the crispness to the furniture and the orange hue. LOVE THEM. So it's not all bad. It's just that the restaurant is so close to being FANTASTIC. I wish it would "go all the way."
Here are the things that make me cringe and itch a little every time I go in. Each one has a quick fix. I know, with all my heart that fixing these little things would increase traffic for Erik's - so I hope you are listening.
1. THE SMELL.
I don't care what kind of restaurant you are, but you better up the garlic smell, or pop some popcorn, or fry some food in the lobby. Bakeries should do this same kind of thing with cinnamon and butter. A place should, at once, smell wonderful when you walk in.
Here is a quick fix that any small eating establishment can do tonight:
Get a fan that directs the cooking smell from the kitchen to the lobby. Even a small little box fan can make a difference.
An hour before opening roast some garlic on the grill with some rosemary or sage. Done. That's it. That's all you have to do. If you want folks to crave the potato chips with that special seasoning - put some of that seasoning in the candles that are on the tables.
Or work with a local small garden center to put bouquets of herbs on the tables: small, crisp looking bouquets.
Erik's is really designed as a day time eating establishment. Ideally, it should feel like daytime. But whenever I go in, it's too dark. The lighting is a bit dreary in opposition to the furnishings.The ceiling cans probably need to be doubled because of the front window being tinted. I would even go so far as to say adding 30 more of the same lights they now have in the ceiling would be good. Yes, I think 30 is right.
Erik's should be offering wi-fi. If they do, I don't see a sign that indicates that. And those gorgeous window bar seats would be filled with eager laptop working entrepreneurs - making the spot look just that more full - encouraging more folks to come in.
It should be louder. Does someone out there think that louder music would discourage conversation? Music at the right level encourages patrons to be able to talk freely. Where it is now, sometimes I feel like I need to whisper. And Erik's could funk it up a bit too. Yes, I think we should have a restaurant in the area that plays funk. (Maybe funk is debateable.)
I'm not ready for the menu to change, but I am ready for a menu board change. The script is too small to be seen from a good distance. I don't have a quick fix solution for that.
A digital menu board behind and above the counter with the daily special, that would be easy to install. It would look crisp like the furnishings, but it wouldn't be cheap. It would enhance the menu view though.
That's it. Just five items. I'm sure that with those five little fixes in place, Erik's can become a hub of activity for our community. I certainly would bring my lap top and sit in the windows, write and watch our wonderful world walk by. It a great spot for it. And I think it could be fantastic.
There may have been some controversy in years past about basketball hoops, and basketball courts in Oak Park. But you'll find no upset from this community member that there are some still around.
The courts at Longfellow have become a real treat recently for a certain kindergartner that comes to our house a couple of days a week. And I'm so thankful to the staff member who was there this past Monday.
Part of Scott's job on certain days after school is to put the hoops back up and keep an eye on the facility at Longfellow. It's never long after the hoops go up that there is a good group of kids waiting to play basketball. By kids, I mean high school aged, or junior high students who are tall.
In fact, they don't look much like kids. Maybe they aren't in school at all. Whoever they are, I'm sure they make arrangements to meet for a small game on nice days.
This past week, little Scott (who bears the same name as the park district staff member to little Scott's delight) couldn't wait to practice throwing the basketball through the hoop. The one side of the court filled up fast with some tall young men waiting to play.
They welcomed little Scott in like one of their own. They took turns with him while he tossed a ball. They praised him when he made a basket. When little Scott missed, almost knocking one of the them on his head, that young man quickly caught the ball and tossed it gently back to Scott so he could try again.
I wish I'd had a camera that worked well. The picture of this 3 ft tall little boy playing along side 6 ft high young men, was a vision. And the care that they treated him with, made me smile from ear to ear.
The whole experience was engineered or inspired by that Park District staff member Scott. He's a gem I tell you - a true caretaker is hard to find.
Thanks to Scott, I can stack up just one more reason I love the Park District of Oak Park.
So - thanks Scott for the great day that little Scott had. His dreams were answered on Monday for sure.
When things come up about gay rights in the US - I often think of my grandmother. And, I'm thankful that we chose to make Oak Park our home.
Honey, my grandmother, would have been 99 this year I think.
When I was in middle school her nephew passed away (young in the late 80's). It was one of the few times I witnessed her crying out loud. It was also one of the only times I ever saw her angry with her lifelong friend and confidant. We were in the car, her friend was driving, and she was shouting, choking on it, "People love who they are going to love and you can't be angry with them for it!" She continued when we were at home. "This isn't something that happened because of who he loved." I don't think we ever said the word gay in our house when talking about him, we just understood.
I am listening to the Supreme Court coverage on NPR as if it is election coverage. I’m nervous. I don’t feel like this is a slam dunk for gay rights.
My 3rd grader has asked some questions. Luckily, the discussion of oppression is already happening at school. It has been happening for years. At home, of course, we are constantly having the discussion about being caretakers of others, watching out for those who are “oppressed” in some way.
“Right now, there are a lot of people that don’t believe you can marry the person you love if they are of the same sex as you.” It took awhile to really explain this in simple terms. My husband was in the car with us. Luckily he realized she didn’t quite understand the “sex” term, so he broke it down a little further.
With a look of shock she says back to us, “Well I’ll tell you right now that wouldn’t be fair for Kate, she’s going to marry Trish when they grow up.”
Jim and I looked back at her and almost in unison said, “Exactly!” She doesn’t need to know about taxes or death benefits. She is processing the issue just as she should be: we should be able to love who we love.
We live in a safe community. No one in Oak Park is going to ever tell my daughter’s friend that she can’t marry another girl (or at least no one that I know). It is common enough here for a family to have two moms or two dads.
I’m not sure that is the case everywhere. For as much support as gay rights gets publicly, I’m not sure that much of the suburban US wouldn’t try and convince my daughter’s friend to pick someone else. Maybe Kate would be “shushed” and told not to say that out loud if we lived someplace else.
This is a place where I can discuss equal rights with my daughter, openly, honestly and she understands. If she asks a question at school, her teachers are going to respond in the same way. I know it. That is extremely valuable to me.
I hope we move toward creating that same kind of community acceptance nationwide. I want a nation where the Kates of the world aren't shushed for loving someone. A ruling for marriage equality for all is only a step in this path, but it is an important one.
Thank you to all of you who have made and make our community the place it is. Thanks, to Honey too - who loved deeply and believed we should all be able to love who we love, just as deeply.
Sarah talks about consistency in store hours and building a following, and hurting your fellow retailers.
A whole area of retailers can be hurt if not everyone is on the same page in terms of store hours. It's why many plaza's or malls require open and closed times for their tenants.
People have to know when to shop near you. We are all busy, so planning ahead and making multiple stops in a plaza or mall or strip of businesses is just being efficient. And shopping for a gift for someone is often a chance to get out and look at different places, window shop, get ideas.
It is hard to plan your stop, when you aren't quite sure when the businesses are going to to be open. And it's hard to browse a shopping "district" when the stores don't have consistent hours.
The end result is that shoppers, community members and browsers just don't come as often.
I've heard this a couple of times over the last year from some businesses.
"People forget about us." My partial answer to this complaint is this: (not for all of you that have said it)
No, people don't forget about you. Initially, they just couldn't figure out when to go to your location. You don't really announce or advertise your change in hours to a large audience. As folks show up once or twice when your not there (ish) they remember NOT TO go back.
Unfortunately, I don't think "I'll leave early today businesses" understand how much the "ish" of coming and going hurts an entire area of retailers and struggling business owners.
So here are some ideas:
Put a sign on the door and proper lighting in the store that says, "Hope you enjoyed the window watching today, our next open viewing in store is Saturday from 1pm-5pm. Please see our store web site for special viewings and times." Then stick to the time. You have to open at 1pm. If you can't be there till 1:15 some days then let your sign say "1:15 - sometimes we actually open early"
If you are business that has to be closed when other retailers are open consistently, you have to light up your location (like a gallery walk) by having the lighting on EVEN when your doors aren't. Maybe set a timer, so that you have lighted window viewing hours, when those other folks are open. This at least allows for passers by and browsers to get a good look in.
Consistency in retail store hours, looking like a vital business strip when all stores are open, being a part of that consistency, helps out your fellow businesses, and keeps a retail environment ROBUST.
Together. Businesses succeed together.
Sarah talks a bit about encouraging good works, and adding to your email lists.
We are adding fish to our Good Works bowl all through Lent. Each night at our dinner table we write down a good thing that each of us has done during the day. And I love it. My son is encouraged to be able to write out a "Good Fish" or to be a "good fish" by saying hello and goodbye, clearing his plate, finishing his milk. I am taking time to pat myself on the back for"every day" things that I do well. As a family, we are taking time to think about how we can be sure to be bigger about our good works. We have some things to donate, we are going to volunteer as a family. Lot of good ideas are being shared at the dinner table.
After the bowl is full, we are going to hang some of our favorites from a "fish pole" in the kitchen and start over again.
It's the kind of simple thing that works great for small or big retailers too.
I will give a dollar here or there to the heart association when asked at major retailers. And I put extra coins in the Animal Care League jar at area businesses. I'm thankful when the businesses I support, support local charitable causes.
But, I don't always have an extra dollar at the cash register. Also, I already give in loads of ways.
I'd really love it if a business supported me in my personal charitable efforts.
Small businesses can easily congratulate their customers for community good works by starting a good works fish bowl. (And add to your email lists at the same time)
1. Put a fish bowl at your front counter: decorate in a fun way that fits your business.
2. Create a form that has a fish on it, or looks like a fish. Include a spot for customer name, email address, (address and phone too if you want it). Leave the front blank for the customer to include their example of what they have done to be nice, do good, support a charity etc. If you are a kid based business, be sure the fish are on bright paper and start hanging up your own fish lines on your ceiling.
3. You need to decide how you are going to give them a big pat on the back: Monthly drawing for a $20 gift certificate to one fish. Maybe you could give a gift basket of your wares, free coffee, scone, to a good work that you like the best.
It doesn't have to be a big thing. You could even just post the customer's great good work story on your store's blog or Facebook page.
You should always have a way to catch your customers emails anyway. Starting a good works fish bowl, gives you a fun way to fish for emails and start a culture of giving in your shop.
Sarah grumbles a bit more about the importance of smiling in your business
As a local shopping blogger, shopping editor, shopping photographer - I have reason to be out and about in stores a lot. At this time of year I'm out more than you can imagine.
Often stores are super pleased when I walk in. They love it - I will be featuring some of their items. And that's free. Most stores are pretty happy.
I was out and about recently, in Oak Park, and I stopped by a store to take photos where the clerk gave me a funny look, arched her eyebrows and said, "As long as you already cleared it with the owner."
She didn't smile and say hello when we walked in either. She was sitting at the counter on the computer. She barely looked up and asked, "You won't be moving things around will you?"
Hmmm - this is a hard one. I try to be the least bit intrusive as possible, but yes I often have to move things to take photos, get them into the right light. I looked at her and said, "Not too much, we'll be sure to put things back."
"Yes." she said. Then she sat back down at the computer and proceeded to ignore us. I think this might be her general demeanor truly. It wasn't just about us.
Usually owners partners, team members say these types of things to me
1. If you have any questions please feel free to ask.
2. Can I show you this new thing that just came in?
3. I'd be happy to give you a hand if you need one.
But this clerk said NOTHING to me and my photo partner. I heard her talking on the phone with someone explaining that the day hadn't been too slow, that she had a lot of business earlier in the day.
Then when we were done we said Thank you and turned and left. She didn't say good bye.
I looked at my friend/photo assistant and said this as I walked out, "That person is the difference between a successful business and a business that will struggle."
And I kept thinking that everything in that store was cute and fantastic and wonderful, but that I wouldn't want to support a store with a woman behind the counter who smirks.
No she wasn't the owner. The owner has a big wide wonderful smile. If the owner was in the store behind the counter, sales would be strong always.
But with a smirky clerk, I'm not too sure how successful that store can be...or whether it will sustain.
Small businesses need a regular program of secret shoppers. Because a business that can execute cute and adorable merchandise displays without the customer service isn't going to do so well.
So here is what you can do: PLAY BY PLAY.
Schedule some friends that have never been in that store to visit casually. Make sure it is at a time when you aren't around.
Give your friend $20 - $40 to spend on product in your shop. (You could do this as a gift certificate too) Let them keep the product they shop and buy.
Give them a list of things you want them to look for as they walk in the store and give them a rating system. Your customers aren't just going to be influenced by good service, so be sure you include some things that tackle your facilities and signage.
Put these questions into an e-based form. You can save a form like this in Google Docs, send it out over and over again to different people and get a good comparison from day to day of how your store is doing. If you have multiple locations be sure to include "What location?" as your first question on your form. Also if you are going to get multiple secret shoppers, be sure you include a spot for the "shopper" to fill out their name as well.
1. Lighting - Dark or bright
- Is the front door clean?
- Is the floor swept/vacummed. If there is a problem - please note location
-Is the merchandise dusted? If there is a problem - please note location
3. Was it apparent where merchandise was located in the store?
Merchandise display and stocking
1. Is the merchandise displayed where it is easy to find? Easy to pick up and easy to look at?
2. Are items in stock in the store?
3. Are you able to reach the items you want to look at?
4. Were you able to find the price of the item you wanted easily?
1. Did a clerk greet you within the first 20 seconds that you were in the store? How long did it take for the clerk to make eye contact and say hello?
2. Were you offered assistance within the first 5 minutes of being on location? At any point was a suggestion made for you?
3. When you made your purchase, did the clerk ask if you found what you were looking for?
4. Did the clerk say, "Thank you" &"Have a Great day" & "See you soon" as you left.
5. Did the clerk seem knowledgable about the store and product?
PRICING AND VALUE
1. Were you able to find an item in your price range?
2. Did the product pricing seem of value?
Sarah talks about the simple task of the customer service clerk: smiling.
I was at Walgreens recently, the one in River Forest on Lake Street specifically, and I found myself trying to make the photo clerk happy.
I had ordered my photo cards on line.
Walgreens.com is great about this. I can have photo cards to me in an hour depending on the size and where I can pick it up. I may live right across the street from a different Walgreens, but if I can pick up cards without hastle - any store in 15 minutes of my house is great.
Walgreens sent me an email that my order was ready to be picked up. So I drove right over. When I arrived I gave the clerk my last name, but she said she didn't have any photos for pick up with that last name. She asked me for my phone number and I gave her my cell phone (not home) and again, she said she didn't have anything for me. "Well," I smiled at her, "they were 5x7 photo cards - I just got the email that they were ready."
She kind of snapped a bit at this, "We don't get emails here. We don't do anything with emails here!" So I smiled more at her, she was obviously having a bad day. "No no, it's okay I have the email right here from Walgreens.com, I bet there is an order confirmation number on it that will help you find the photos. "
And sure enough, thanks to my smarty pants phone, I had access to the email with the confirmation number on it. Upon offering up this confirmation number she was able to find my order.
"You didn't say they were folded cards, I would have known if you had said folded cards." I smiled again (she had not as of yet smiled once during this interaction). "Well - thank goodness for modern technology we were able to find them right away." And I smiled at her again. Still she gave no smile back.
Then while she was ringing me up I got a little chatty with her. "We just aren't good about sending out thank you notes, but with the photos on the cards I feel obligated to mail them out right away. And my family loves them!" I'm really out going. When I need to, I can lay on the charm. I got a mini chortle, half grinned smile from her with that little chatty admission.
I had turned her! I had won! I was thrilled that she had gone from grump to mildly amused in 15 minutes. My work there was done.
Here is the problem: THAT INTERACTION IS SUPPOSED TO BE THE OTHER WAY AROUND
After years of being in retail and sales, I have it "in me" to want to turn folks' days around. It comes with the training. Folks who are good at retail sales (not sales in general) understand that the point of the customer interaction is for the clerk to make the customer happy. And in this circumstance, I just fell in to that pattern of behavior, even though I was the customer.
Sometimes customers are trickier than others. Some of my regular customers at the bakery might have taken me a couple of visits before I had them smiling out of the corners of their mouths despite their grumpy exterior.
Happy people spend more money. If you run a big box or a little box, happy customers make for a better work day.
I'll even go out on a limb and say before you do anything else in your retail workday (merchandising, stocking, selling) you have to smile at your customers.
No, this isn't me coaching you through an adage that the customer is always right, because we (they) aren't. BUT the customer should always leave happy, satisfied, feeling better then when they walked in. That means both consumer and clerk have to smile. It's a simple little thing. Even when, as a clerk, you are having a bad day, you better fake it and smile anyway.
Sarah rants a bit about the disconnect some folks have between their business and a business or person that helps them to connect with their community.
Oak Park is a tricky town to advertise in.
We as a village have more journalistic entities than many spots. We have some proven leaders. And in the past months we have some that are falling swiftly behind.
And all of those newspapers, community news makers, struggle with revenue. Even The Chicago Tribune is struggling to bring in revenue in an increasing digital and social sphere.
I believe that as we move forward with social media, digital media, social sharing, it is the community news sources that will help drive local small business, community events, and relationship building in communities like ours. But those small news sources rely on something huge: advertising dollars.
Subscriptions help for sure. But they don't float the boat.
In our village, a business has to decide which entity will offer the best value for their advertisement.
Classifieds in our metro area suburb ARE A BIT TRICKY:
In my small sphere of classifieds there are numerous free choices that are a bit info overload and require quite a bit of sorting on the part of the consumer. Frankly the area of advertising that has suffered the most from the free options is the classified department at all newspapers and media outlets. I don't begrudge the free listings - I think some of that is super important.
But in my world - I'm pretty small scale and I compete with some major free players. I sell Classified advertising for the Wednesday Journal Publications. We as a publishing entity are hyper local. Folks don't have to sort through all of Chicagoland Craig's list, but folks placing the ads do have to pay. (Mind you, we don't charge for things that are being given away, obituaries, or lost and found - that's just good policy.)
I'm 100% commission. Yep think about that for just a bit and then read on. I place the lost and found ads, or to be given away ads just because it's a nice thing to do.
If you are selling things for your garage sale and you put it on Craig's list, chances are that Garage Sale gets a little lost with all the rest. So quite frankly I think our Garage Sales are a bargain at $25. But this summer I had quite a few folks say plainly to me, "You mean it isn't free - oh sorry - I'm only looking for a free listing for my garage sale." Really? I think they don't know I'm all commission. I get paid when they pay for an ad. I should probably say that a lot more often than I do. "I'm 100% commission, I only get paid when you pay for your ad." That'll help me with bill collections too.
This kind of statement - I want it for free - is akin to some of these other things:
1. Walking into a small independent bookstore, chatting it up with the owner, getting their literary recommendations and letting them know you are going to go use your Amazon gift card instead of shopping at their store. (it happened at a bookshop near you - I heard the story from the clerk).
2. As a business or community organization owner, manager, director expecting that the local paper can write a story every time you have an event - but never advertising. Even when we couldn't pay the bills at the bakery, if I had a press release picked up by the Southtown I scrounged to get some bucks to run an ad the week or week after. This seemed like the right kind of partnership to me. I knew we benefited from the press release. So of course we would benefit from an ad. And the paper had supported me, so advertising was the best way I could support them. This holds true for non-profits as well.
In regard to #2 above, sometimes I think people in our community were over done with all the media outlets - so they said no to all of us media outlets. And for sure, sometimes you have to work the system, because we all need a financial break once in a while.
As I see more and more businesses that ask for us as community members to support small business and shop local, I have to note that the same kind of plea applies for locally produced community based journalism. (note the word journalism) When Bright Ideas closed (I am picking on them a bit) they were pretty angry with us as a community for not supporting them as a business (there were other issues of course). They blamed the ease of internet shopping. I suppose news sources can say the same thing.
Look - Wednesday Journal Publications isn't going anywhere.
And taking into consideration my current employer bias, I'm glad I've worked even for a short bit for Wednesday Journal. It's a truly locally owned, locally managed, locally produced paper. Did you know the Oak Leaves has their graphic artists contracted outside of the US? Yep - I think they send their artwork to India. Where I sit, my team of 5 graphic designers for our advertisers sits at the end of the hallway. I often wish we had a tin can system set up so I could just talk into a Campbells Soup Can for fun.
The editors are local. They support and love our Oak Park, River Forest community.
I'm a local classified sales lady. I suppose this rant is mostly because I have started taking that commerce "disconnect " personally. I'm mildly offended by the expectation of "free." I know that folks don't mean to make it personal. But that's what I mean about the disconnect. Somewhere along the way, folks forgot that there is a human behind the transaction - someone, people connected to the commerce. And if I get mildly offended I guess it's in my right, I am after all 100% commission.