By Marci Eden Shear
Sweeties ice cream parlor opened its doors just up the street from Wrigley Field on April 10, 2000, the day of the first home game of the season. Snow was in the air, and the first person to walk in the door was a Cubs fan who'd had too much to drink at the game and threw up on the floor.
"He didn't buy anything," says Noelle Bou-Sliman, who owns Sweeties with her fiance, Bob Giannola.
Despite its ominous start, the ice cream shop weathered a cool summer and a harsh winter intact. Now, as the 2001 baseball season gets under way, storm clouds of uncertainty are gathering over Sweeties and other neighborhood businesses, thanks to a reported plan by the Tribune Company to build a multiuse commercial structure next to Wrigley Field.
Though no proposal has yet been presented to the City Council, the new building might house a Cubs Hall of Fame museum, a multilevel parking garage, stores selling sports-related merchandise, and a food court. It would go up just northwest of the park on the triangle-shaped piece of land that's currently occupied by a Byron's hot dog stand, a parking lot, and a car wash. Naturally, it's the food court that has Bou-Sliman and Giannola most concerned.
"Being by the ballpark, that was the whole thing," says Bou-Sliman. "We kind of wanted this place to be a destination for people, like, 'OK, kids, we're going to the game, and then we're going to go to Sweeties.' That kind of thing. I wanted people to be like, 'I remember as a kid I went to Sweeties.' I want to create good memories."
A native of Chicago, Bou-Sliman first began making good memories for people as an actor. She studied at the Goodman School of Drama, and her first job out of school was with Second City. Over the years, she costarred on Jack and Mike and had a smattering of guest spots on Early Edition, 227, and Jake and the Fatman. She appeared in the movie Chain Reaction, and shared two scenes with Tom Hanks in Nothing in Common and one with Harrison Ford in The Fugitive.
Like most struggling actors, she supplemented her income working in the food-service industry. She cocktail waitressed, and after attending the Culinary and Hospitality Institute of Chicago worked in the kitchens at the Drake and the Palmer House Hilton. Along the way, she came up with the idea of someday starting a catering business that specialized in oversize food. She even came up with a name, "Big Mouth," and trademarked it.
In June 1997 she was in a Chili's restaurant and noticed "Big Mouth Burgers" on the menu. She called a local restaurant manager, who gave her the number for the corporate office of Brinker International, which owns Chili's, Maggiano's Little Italy, and Big Bowl, among other restaurants.
"I spoke to some big shot, and I said, 'Sir, I own the trademark for Big Mouth, and I own it for the category sandwiches, soups, sauces, and cookies,'" Bou-Sliman says. "It was a long phone battle for me. At first they didn't want to have anything to do with me."
Bou-Sliman hired a lawyer, but when she still felt like nothing was getting done, she fired him. "I took matters into my own hands, and I started to call this big head honcho that at first wouldn't return my calls but since my lawyer had been contacting him now he would take my calls," she says. In September 1998, they settled the case, and with nearly $35,000 in her pocket, Bou-Sliman decided to pursue her dream and open her own business.
"I didn't feel like I had the amount of knowledge to open up a catering company in reality. But ice cream is hard to screw up because it's just frozen." She and Giannola found a storefront at 3731 N. Clark, a space formerly occupied by a Baskin-Robbins.
Bou-Sliman's business plan included serving soups in the winter months and selling candy and cookies. She also had a vision for the shop's atmosphere. "Like a parlor from the 1940s with the glass parfait glasses, the straw holders....We have 40s music, the phone number is 868-1940, the pictures on the wall--all the Life magazines--are from the 1940s. The more money we make, the more we want to make the decor like the 1940s."
The decor isn't the only thing that's evolving. Homemade pasta, not part of the original business plan, has been added to the menu in response to customer demand. "That's a perfect example of evolving to the needs of our customers," Giannola says. "It's different when you go to a privately run place [as opposed to a franchise]. We can evolve to meet the needs and wants of our customers."
Those customers include people on their way to and from Cubs games as well as neighborhood residents. "[People have] been very supportive, and they've expressed it, verbally and financially," Giannola says. "We've had people say, 'Boy, we're so glad you guys are here. We hope you do good, because we want you to stay.'"
That loyalty gives Bou-Sliman and Giannola hope that they could compete if an ice cream chain store opened up in the new food court.
On March 25 the Daily Southtown reported that "Chicago city leaders are considering a deal that would allow renovations to Wrigley Field and then designate the stadium a Chicago landmark." The story, citing 44th Ward alderman Bernie Hansen as its source, described the proposed construction. It also said the Tribune Company plans to add additional rows of bleachers, build a new entrance at Sheffield and Waveland, upgrade the bathrooms and concession areas, and ask the city for permission to host more night games.
When contacted for this story, Hansen wouldn't comment on the new building's potential impact on local businesses. While he acknowledged that the proposed space would be "something commercial," he denied any knowledge of a food court. And he says he's not making any predictions one way or the other. "I'm still waiting to hear from the Cubs in regards to their final proposal before I present it to the community and we have meetings about it," he says. Cubs management did not return a call.
"If...people can just grab an ice cream cone on the way out from the game, we wouldn't want to see everybody walking past our store with ice cream cones in their hands saying, 'Aw, we could have gone there.' That's our nightmare," says Giannola.
"It would take business away from a small place like this," says Bou-Sliman. "I can't afford to lose people." On the other hand, she says, "If it's a chain, I think people, once they compared the two, would come here. I don't think that this neighborhood wants a chain. This is like a mom-and-pop-store kind of neighborhood."
Sweeties' owners aren't the only ones who feel that way.
"I'm against any changes to Wrigley Field," says Brian Nach, who was at the Wrigley Field box office on February 23, the day individual-game tickets went on sale. "I just don't think it's necessary, and it's going to detract from the ballpark. I think there are enough concessions and food places for fans."
Season ticket holder Rob Signorello has his own reasons for not wanting to see changes to Wrigley Field: for the last six years he has rented an apartment in a nearby house, the one with the Budweiser logo painted on the roof. "If they raised the bleachers and blocked my view from the attic, I would not be really happy about it," he says. "If they build something next to it, it's going to take away from the stadium. It's just going to create a huge traffic jam."
Wrigleyville resident Jennifer Szalla agrees with Signorello about the rooftops, but she hopes adding more parking and eating establishments next to Wrigley Field will in fact ease congestion in her neighborhood. "I think it's a good thing to add more parking. The places around here are just so packed after games they probably do need to add a few things."
"My concerns are not with the players," says actor Ron Mace. "It's more with the stadium. I don't think they should change it. It's beautiful like it is. It's like a shrine."
For now there's nothing to do but wait and see. If anyone's used to doing that, it's Bou-Sliman.
"My acting training is improv," she says. "I'm used to flying by the seat of my pants. I've been auditioning and living as an actor for so long that risk taking to me is normal. So improvising here is normal to me.
"Businesspeople would say that's really stupid." Before she opened the shop, Bou-Sliman sought advice from the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a volunteer arm of the Small Business Administration. "I would just go in there and riddle them with questions....And they would ask, 'Look, do you have any education? Did you take business in school?' Pretty much they all said, 'Watch out. You don't know what you're doing. You're going to get screwed over.'"
"I'm not thinking that I'm in a dogfight with the Cubs," says Giannola, a lifelong Sox fan. "We give the vendors who work at Wrigley Field, the people affiliated with Tribune Company, the people who work for WGN, the people who work at Wrigley Field--we give them 10 percent off. That was a nice neighborly thing to do. Nobody told us that we had to do that.
"Lots of people are angry with Tribune Company and how they've managed the Cubs, and it has nothing to do with retail sales," he jokes. "If the Cubs' decision to open a food court puts us out of business, do you think that ranks up there on a scale from one to ten with never seeing a championship team?
"I don't know which one would be worse. On the one hand, we've got a year in here; some of these lifetime fans have 70 years in there. It would certainly be an added insult to the injury."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.