Local News

Amid COVID-19 pandemic, a look at one block in Downtown Geneva where new businesses open

Owners share how pandemic didn’t stop them: ‘‘The dodgeball missed us’

GENEVA – The coronavirus pandemic brought national changes to the economic outlook – as well as changes to the local business climate.

The Kane County Chronicle looked at West State Street between Sixth and First streets. Some businesses closed, such as Geneva Running Outfitters and About Face + Body and Salon 38.

Others stayed, such as State Street Jewelers, the Gift Box and SG Geneva Shop and Interior Decorating and Nobel House.

In all, from the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 to now, Geneva logged 76 business closings, 76 new business openings and 21 existing businesses relocating to Geneva, according to city records.

New businesses on West State Street include Sofie’s Market, Cuttery + Catering, Bell Jar Vintage, Fit Spa, Kopp Law, Lash Dash and BenAxis Brokerage.

Also opening during the pandemic were Ash Beauty Co., 123 W. State St. and Art History Brewing, a microbrewery, tap room and seasonal beer garden, at 649 W. State St.

Blinka Optical will be an independent eyewear retail store at the former running shop at 221 W. State St., opening soon.

Three owners who opened shop on the stretch of State Street talked to the Kane County Chronicle about the challenges of going forward with a business plan during this period of uncertainty.

Ash Beauty Co.

Angela Swanson, owner of Ash Beauty Co., said she left a commission salon at the end of 2019 and began renting a chair in the area.

“My husband and I were working out in the basement together and I was like, ‘I really want to have my own space.’ And he was like, OK,” Swanson said. “During COVID, I came to the realization that I either want a space in my house or I would rent a suite. I wanted to own something.”

They just didn’t find a space for her to have a salon, they found one of the oldest buildings in Geneva – known as the Yates Building, built in 1848 – and they bought it.

It had been the Ivy Love Boutique, a retail store and hair salon that closed in 2019 before the pandemic.

The space was for rent and the building was for sale. They sold their townhouse and got a Small Business Administration loan, and bought it a year later, in September 2020.

“We walked in and fell in love right away,” Swanson said. “The woman at the SBA we worked with was amazing. She really wanted to help small businesses during COVID.”

The downstairs of the building is the salon.

“It’s 1,600 square feet with just five stations, two shampoo bowls and a break room in the back, but it’s spacious because I didn’t crowd too much into it,” Swanson said. “We are all well over six feet apart.”

And the apartment upstairs is where they live.

To make matters more complicated, both were still working at their full time jobs — she as a stylist and her husband Eric as an air traffic controller — all while trying to get the new space up to speed.

Then Swanson found out Nov. 6 that she was pregnant.

“We did as much renovation we could do ourselves — painting and flooring — I was working through morning sickness,” Swanson said. “We hired a company to do the big things.”

It took three months, start to finish, and they opened Dec. 9.

“In June, it was insane when people were coming back to get their hair cut, the demand was so great, we were turning people away,” Swanson said. “We could not fit new people into the schedules.”

Blinka

Pam Rancour, owner of Blinka, said her business is still in the permitting process with the city and is not ready to open yet.

But COVID was not an influence on their decisions, nor did it delay their business venture, she said.

“It had no bearing on it at all. Nothing via COVID has slowed us down or made us make one decision or another,” Rancour said.

She and her family are St. Charles residents, but they wanted their business to be in Geneva.

“The small town feel close to the big city is what I think makes Geneva really great,” Rancour said. “Both my husband and I come from a long line of retail backgrounds and so looking for good locations and good community and support was important to us, while we were picking our location to open up. Geneva was easy because of that because it’s all there.”

Retail eyewear is a growing market, Rancour said.

“It’s a way to help people not only be able to see better, but to feel better in the eyewear that they’re in. You can create a superior optic for them,” Rancour said.

The store will not do eye exams, but customers can bring their eyeglass prescriptions there to be filled, she said.

“We are carrying independent designers that are like pieces of art for your eyes,” Rancour said.

She and her husband researched other areas, but kept being drawn to Geneva’s main street and when this spot opened up in July, they leased it.

“It’s been really smooth sailing. We used local architects and accounts and an attorney to not just be a merchant in Geneva, but also to help support the other businesses in there,” Rancour said.

Art History Brewing

Tom Rau of Art History Brewing started the process to open his business in August 2019, getting City Council approval for production brewing in a business district.

In April 2020, near the beginning of the pandemic, city officials granted Rau’s request to share the cost of installing a new 10-inch water main, at a cost of nearly $62,000 each.

At the time, officials said the larger water main would also incentivize new development at Richard and State streets.

They opened May 22.

“Unique to the pandemic was being able to be flexible in terms of your business model,” Rau said. “We had built a business model centered around a community tap room with local distribution to area restaurants and no big emphasis on canning or distribution to a wider market.”

During the shutdown, Rau said they were open, but they could not bring anybody inside and could only sell beer to-go.

“We followed state guidelines at the time when they allowed indoor seating with social distancing. In June we allowed people inside. We have patio seating so we could seat people outside,” Rau said. “Outside seating became very important.”

A few months later, they were shut down again during the second wave, but again, being flexible, Rau said they moved away from selling draft beer to selling canned beer to local restaurants and retailers.

Because of the shutdown, local restaurants weren’t selling that much beer, anyway.

“It was a concerted effort to build up an account base of retailers and bottle shops,” Rau said.

Squeaking ahead of COVID-19

It took two years total create the business plan, find the space and get the financing, Rau said.

“We closed the financing before the pandemic. It was very fortuitous,” Rau said.

The other issue was timing to get their 14 tanks delivered.

“We ordered all the equipment for the brewery in August 2019. Some of these tanks came from overseas and got on a boat just before the shutdown of the ports. Our tanks arrived in the United States in January or early February. Some were coming from China,” Rau said. “The dodgeball missed us.”

At one point, they were trying to get Nicor to do upgrades and the gas utility would not send anyone unless it was an emergency, he said.

Then in addition to needing a larger water main for the brewery and sprinkler system, Rau said they found they needed a new electric transformer.

“The city responded quickly. We paid for it, but they got us a new transformer,” Rau said.

When they celebrated their first year in business, Rau said they called it Year Zero – for the pandemic, and for all the coordinating and worrying.

“We had Year Zero Barley Wine and Year Zero Barrel Aged Stout,” Rau said. “T-shirts too, and labels.”