The Scene

McHenry Riverwalk Shoppes debuts second season Friday

Tiny shops set to have first full season in retail incubators

Jess Stetson has been hauling puzzles, Lego sets and games to The Pieceful Project, since she got the keys on April 19. The store is set to open on Friday, May 3, 2024.

Before Danny Springer’s Bumble Bread Co. opened at McHenry’s Riverwalk Shoppes in July, he baked for 19 hours straight, making 13 flats of bread for his first day.

This year, he is one of three “tiny shop” tenants who are getting a second year in the retail incubator. Ten shops in all are set to open for the season Friday. Springer said his second year will help him fine-tune his business plan and recipes further.

This season, Springer plans to focus on his best-selling products, including cinnamon rolls and focaccia bread. “I will rotate in and out more, to keep it fresh, and have seven to 10 recipes here at all times,” Springer said.

The Atea Co. Coffee and Tea started out as an online single-source coffee bean and loose leaf tea retailer before the owners, Atik Altahif and Neshwa Rajeh, won one of the Riverwalk Shoppes leases. They were getting the store ready to open on Sunday, April 28, 2024.

The shops are owned and managed by the McHenry Area Chamber of Commerce. The business group selects the tenants each year, and provides months of weekly classes leading up to opening day to help the small businesses get off to a strong start.

On Sunday, Lori Fisher of Spring Grove was merchandising at her tiny shop, Preserved Peculiarities. Her “odd art” shop takes taxidermy mountings and other preserved bats and critters she’s picked up at estate sales and second hand stores and repurposes them.

“I am different from anything else here,” Fisher said.

She never thought that the chamber would pick her as one of the businesses to get the eight-month lease, Fisher said, because of the often-macabre nature of her art.

“They were dead before I found them,” she said, noting she’s active in animal rescues. “I am finding these pieces a new home. It is death, but death can also be beautiful.”

“I did not believe in myself until Amy (Humbracht) and Molly (Ostap) believed in me.”

—  Jess Stetson, co-owner of The Pieceful Project at the McHenry Riverwalk Shoppes, about the shops manager and chamber president, respectively

She and Jess Stetson said they got to know each other very well during the last four months of classes. Stetson and her husband, Jake, are the proprietors of The Pieceful Project, selling Lego sets, games and puzzles. Stetson said the idea was to create a space for nerds and nerd-adjacent people to gather, but she wasn’t sure if it was the right fit for a store.

“I did not believe in myself until Amy and Molly believed in me,” she said, referring to Amy Humbracht, the Riverwalk Shoppes manager, and Molly Ostap, the chamber president. Getting the eight-month lease made her realize, “let’s go do this for real,” Stetson said.

The chamber support encouraged them not only to open the tiny shop in McHenry but to plan a location in Cary. They plan to open a second store there in early June, and want to find a space in McHenry after the tiny shop season ends, Stetson said.

It was the fact the tiny shops existed that drew Atik Altahif and his wife, Neshwa Rajeh, to apply for a storefront. The couple moved to McHenry last June, and Rajeh found the Riverwalk stores soon after. They stopped and talked to the first crop of store proprietors last year before deciding to apply for one of the spaces last fall.

A physical store “was in the five-year plan,” Altahif said, but the tiny shop gives them the opportunity to work out what a larger space can look like for the business. The chamber’s classes “were a game changer” for them, too. “The price we paid (for the lease) - we would pay double for the information they gave us.”

In addition to offering roasted coffee and loose leaf teas, they want to help their clients discover flavors and learn about both, Rajeh added.

As incubator spaces to help bring more retail to McHenry and McHenry County, the leases are generally one season only. Springer said he asked for a second year for Bumble Bread to work out a few kinks, and give him more time to find a permanent space. “The goal ... is to transfer into a spot in town before next year,” he said.

Lori Fisher moves in one of her plants to "merchandise" her store, Preserved Peculiarities, on Sunday, April 28, 2024. The shop is one of the 10 McHenry Riverwalk Shoppes set to open Friday, May 3, 2024.

He also hopes to be open more days than the minimum required by the chamber contract, in addition to selling his baked goods at area farmers markets, Springer said.

McHenry’s Riverwalk Shoppes are located at 1202 Riverside Drive, along the Fox River about a block south of Elm Street. The 10 shops will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays, from May 3 to Dec. 29. Some of the shops may have extended hours.

Janelle Walker

Janelle Walker

Originally from North Dakota, Janelle covered the suburbs and collar counties for nearly 20 years before taking a career break to work in content marketing. She is excited to be back in the newsroom.