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How's Business?

Some south-side proprietors have weathered the economic storms of the past year.

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The last year has been hell on big business in ways we hear of on a daily basis, and perhaps it's true that what's bad for Enron, WorldCom, Andersen, et al is bad for the country. But how about small business? How has the downturn affected neighborhood storekeepers who do their own books and don't use surveys to determine customer satisfaction? We asked these south-side proprietors if they'd been affected by the fallout from September 11.

Village Video

10553 S. Western

Audrey Chesta opened Village Video in 1981, when VCRs were state-of-the-art and customers would rent practically anything that would play inside them. "The worst horror movies," she says, "like Microwave Massacre." (The box, she recalls, displayed a head in a microwave and a person waving a knife and fork.) "Just terrible stuff--stuff that people made in their basement. But people were so excited by the technology." DVDs haven't created anywhere near as much enthusiasm, not on the south side, anyway. Suppliers from the coasts might talk them up, she says, "but I think they forget where we are. People are more conserv--more sensible here.

"It's slower than usual. It's not terrible, but it's slow. Traditionally everyone would think, 'Oh, everyone is staying at home and watching movies.' But people are very selective about how they spend their time. This sounds sort of corny, but I think consumer confidence, or lack of it, is drifting down even into videos. No one likes anything that's out. A lot of the stuff I'm hard-pressed to recommend, I can't lie. There's a certain segment of the rental population who really wants to see Orange County, but there's a huge chunk of the renters who are much more selective with how they spend three hours, and I don't think there's a lot out there for them."

Top-Notch Beefburger

2116 W. 95th

Diran Soulian returned home from Korea in September 1953 to find his parents waiting with some news: it was time to move out. They were ready to sell their restaurant at 79th and Morgan and were looking to move to Beverly. "In the next three months we planned to get the new place, we found it, and we opened on January 9, 1954." The place was an immediate success, he says. Since then he's opened two more locations: in Oak Lawn in 1988 and in Orland Park in early 2001. Beverly and Oak Lawn are holding their own; "in Orland, we're paying bills." The three stores, taken together, employ 90 people.

"In Beverly, business has improved a little bit. Oak Lawn hasn't been affected. It's stable, gradually increasing each year. In Orland there's no history yet, we just started. In Beverly there's no parking available, it's a street-front store, but it's doing well. Mainly, I guess, because of the 48 years we've been in business. Burgers and fries and milk shakes are what half the American restaurants sell, probably. Ours is unique in a couple of respects in that we bone and grind our own round, and the french fries are cooked in something politically incorrect, and that's animal shortening."

County Fair Foods

10800 S. Western

For an independent, family-owned grocery store to survive in a world of chains, paying attention is key. Tom Baffes, who was a year old when his father Bill opened County Fair Foods in 1964, says that's one thing his dad taught him. "He's always said if you run one store well enough, you'll make as much money as you would in two or three, because when you have your mind on the other stores, you're losing what you could have done in one." Though his father doesn't work full-time anymore, he's active in the business and a role model. "He enjoys it a lot. He's 66, but you wouldn't know it from talking to him.

"Business is holdin' pretty steady. We had to hit a little harder on our specials and work a little harder, but food is something that is down the line as far as what people are going to give up, you know?

"What's nice about owning your own business, you can kind of, like my dad has, taper down as you get older. Sometimes when you're in the corporate world or other types of jobs it's just 'boom,' you just cut it right there, and that can be kind of tough on people."

Vets Live Bait & Tackle

10150 S. Indianapolis

On summer days when business is slow, Jack Vadas sits in a lawn chair outside the shop under the Chicago Skyway and listens to the traffic passing overhead: cars full of day-trippers on their way to Michigan and the Indiana dunes, buses filled with gamblers. The fish hooked by the casino boats go for a different type of bait than he's selling, he says.

"We've noticed tackle sales--low-end stuff--is moving. Last year it was about 50-50, this year it's mostly low-end stuff. We're not selling hardly any rod or reel combinations, or we don't seem to see anybody coming in and spending more than 20, 30 dollars. The 50 to 100 dollar range has been very dead this year....I had a bunch of ladies that used to come in here, about 15, 20 of them every day. And spent two, three, four, five bucks apiece on bait. I think I got one or two of them left. The others went to the boat....These gals, you see 'em once a month at the boat, or twice a month, and the rest of the time they're sittin' home waiting for their check. They used to spread these checks around into little businesses and go fishin' and now they go blow it in one day or two."

Vegetarian Gourmet Express

3031 W. 111th

Sometimes it's best not to know too much about what you're getting into, because if you did you'd never start. Take Ben Kai. Even though his brother (and business partner) Tsadakeeyah was on the scene before he moved here from Washington, D.C., two years ago, no one informed Ben that Mount Greenwood--with its heavy concentration of police officers, firefighters, civil servants, and other enthusiastic meat eaters--might not be the ideal location for a vegetarian restaurant. "Two years ago I may have had some doubts," he says, "but it was a good step. We feel we're in the right place at the right time.

"Our numbers show there wasn't a rapid drop-off or a major drop-off as a result of September 11, as it may have affected some other industry or business. The type of client or customer that we have comes to us based on the fact that this is a healthier way to eat, and so I think those health concerns, personal and individual, have outweighed what happened on September 11. We feel that we're on a cutting edge of an increasing trend of more people looking for nutritious, healthy food to eat, especially in light of the lawsuits against McDonald's and Wendy's. Even though it seemed to be quite outlandish, it does address the fact that too much fat derived from animal products does cause some health issues."

Fox's Shoe Repair Clinic

10941 S. Western

Norris Fox had already repaired enough shoes to put a small army on the march 20 years ago when he decided, "If I'm going to work and work hard, I'd rather do it for myself." He'd been doing so for others for the 22 years previous. Though he's seen plenty of changes during his four decades in the business, some things have remained the same. Summer is still the slow season--people go on vacation, wear sandals, go barefoot--and his store is still "basically a one-man operation.

"With a lot of people being laid off, instead of buying new shoes they're getting them repaired. And that helps business. But there have been changes in the way shoes are constructed; they're coming out now with a lot of the man-made material as opposed to the regular leather. And that makes it kind of hard to repair. Some of them, money that they would invest in to have them repaired, I look at the shoe and if I don't think it's worth it, I'll suggest it to them....I'm putting my own foot in my mouth, but I have to live with myself."

The House of Music

2057 W. 95th

Neither Best Buy nor Coconuts, Borders or eBay could shut down the House of Music, but one day early last September a systemic infection put George Silha in the hospital. His store was closed until December, when Silha found an employee who'd worked for him when he first opened the store in 1955 to open the place again, part-time. Since then he's hired a full-time manager. He puts in three days a week now but wishes he could do more. "It's not the way I want it; it's because of my health.

"Business is off. That's because I wasn't there all the time, but basically it is off. Look what's happening to our country now, with all the strikes going on, United, all that stuff. That's kinda scary--it doesn't look too good. But when you specialize in something people come to you anyway. So basically, it's been decent, considering....The economy is off, but if you have what they want, they'll come to you.

"I don't need a vacation because I'm not there every day of the week anymore, and I'm here [in a physical rehabilitation facility], which is like a vacation. I lost a lot of weight since this happened to me. I was close to 400, now I'm down to 250. I was a big guy. If I could walk, I would even lose more probably. I got my mind saying, 'George, I'm gonna do it.' If I don't, I don't, that's all."

Toria's Gallery

10853 S. Western

Though winter is a more reasonable time to get a tattoo, because "you don't have to worry about swimming and vacations and all that stuff," Toria (who goes by just the one name) says that summer is her busy season. One of the few female tattoo artists in Chicago, Toria got her start 21 years ago drawing portraits for her now ex-husband. She opened in her present location, in what had previously been a dentist's office, in March of 1995, a few months after the divorce was final. September is always the start of Toria's slow season, but two years ago, she recalls, business practically came to a standstill. She says she felt the downturn early, and believes that business may now be on the upswing.

"Things are getting better. It's still not where it was before September of 2000, but it's better than it has been. I can see it coming--it's on the rise. And it's more stable....People seem to be more responsible now. They're not so extravagant. If they want something they'll wait. They'll set up an appointment and have it when they have the money. It's not like they're just playing a game with me.

"I'm not a grocery store, where they need to have food, right? This is not a necessity for them, what I do. It's a treat for them, I guess. Things get good and they can afford it, they do it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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