Wheaton native using creative streak to help reshape his hometown's downtown social scene
Eric Schlickman walks through a hollowed out former painting supplies store in downtown Wheaton and sees a vastly different future for it.
The place at 111 E. Front St. has an old feeling to it: the paint, the glass, walls all look like they haven't been touched in years. There is dust everywhere. In the back is stacked furniture from one of Schlickman's restaurants, stored here while the floors there are being redone. It's dark like a nightclub just after sunrise.
This is Schlickman's blank canvas.
"A lot of people wonder when is enough, enough," the 39-year-old former architect said. "Like my wife for sure. She's like, when are you done? And I don't know what it is. There's an internal drive to do these projects and to create things, but I couldn't tell you why. It's not for money, it's not for publicity. It's nothing other than just like create."
Some people paint. Some do sculpture. Others write.
With architecture in his past, Schlickman expresses his creativity through entrepreneurship.
A surprising transition
A 2002 Wheaton North High School graduate, Schlickman became an architect after graduating from the University of Kansas. After a while, however, commuting to Chicago from Wheaton began to wear on him, taking valuable time from his young family.
"I knew I needed to get out and do something new," he said.
When a for sale sign went up on the building at 302 W. Front St., Schlickman saw an opportunity for a family-style burger joint and tap house, a place where kids could play while mom and dad took a few minutes to reconnect.
"Without knowing anything about restaurants, I kind of had this idea of what 302 should be," he said. "Growing up in Wheaton and knowing Wheaton really well, I knew that a family friendly kind of tap house was needed, because you see it all over the country."
About the same time, May 2018, Schlickman learned Shane's Deli, "a Wheaton staple," was closing. He organized a group of friends to buy the place and keep it open.
"I didn't know sales tax, payroll, all of that kind of fun stuff. So I texted them and said, Hey, do you guys want to save Shane's," Schlickman said. "And in two days or three days, we bought the deli from Shane. It was quick."
He since has bought out his friends, remaining friends. Meanwhile, 302 opened in September 2019.
"Then COVID happened," he said.
Funny thing, though, 302 did well during the pandemic, in part because burgers and fries are conducive to takeout, and in part because of the huge outdoor patio perfect for social distancing. The place did well enough that he opened a second location -- on March 2, 2022, 302 Day, of course -- in Town Square, even though it's just about 2.5 miles away from the original.
"Knowing Wheaton, yeah it's crazy to open a second location within 2 miles of each other," he said, "but north Wheaton and south Wheaton couldn't be more different. People from south Wheaton don't want to cross the (downtown railroad) tracks, let alone Roosevelt Road."
The Town Square location isn't doing quite as well as the original, but it is doing well. Schlickman said he has a 10-year lease.
"We're not going anywhere. We're kind of committed to that, clearly, and know that it's going to take some time to grow," he said.
But Schlickman's creative side wasn't sated by 302 and Shane's. Maypole and Subourbon opened in March at 121 W. Front Street. Maypole, a restaurant, is on the first floor. Subourbon -- a membership-based whiskey bar/speak-easy and a collaboration with Bob Davidson, owner of Blackberry in Glen Ellyn, and the owners of Common Good Cocktail House in Glen Ellyn -- is downstairs. Maypole isn't a Schlickman concept, but he is an adviser and investor, part of a group effort, he said.
"I have found that I am a serial entrepreneur," he said.
It helps that he has found talented people to run Shane's and 302, and he gives them latitude to do their jobs. When he's needed, he'll go run the grill. But he has freedom to spend time with his family and to explore his creative side.
"When things are busy in the store for me, I don't have the time to dream," he said.
The next project
That brings us back to the site of his current innovation, the empty space at 111 E. Front Street, site of Schlickman's next, to-be-named venture. He hopes to open it next winter.
The concept is not just about dining but giving visitors something to do afterward. There will be a restaurant in the front of the building, an event space in the back, with an outdoor patio on the east side of the building.
What kind of events? Schlickman has ideas.
Day to day it would be a sports bar with a few TVs to watch March Madness or playoffs. There could be Ping-Pong tables, shuffleboard, arcade games. Maybe ticketed live music here and there, movies, dancing, some private events. He's even thought of bringing in a temporary boxing ring on occasion.
Schlickman isn't worried that he might be oversaturating downtown Wheaton, and he's got good reason to believe there's room for more.
Downtown Wheaton expects to welcome 4-6 more restaurants in the next year, said Allison Orr, executive director of the Downtown Wheaton Association, of which Schlickman is a board member.
"It's definitely on the upswing and I think downtown Wheaton is becoming more and more of a destination for people to go have some great dining experiences," Orr added.
She credits the city for its commitment to the "indoor-outdoor dining vibe" it developed during the pandemic, but also for the recently completed streetscape on which the city spent more than $35 million to make the area an attractive place to visit and socialize.
"It's a very real payoff with a ton of restaurants flocking to downtown," Orr said.
The area will have more residents as well, with several apartment complexes being built. Schlickman can stand outside the former painting supplies store he's working on and point to some of those new apartment buildings just blocks away.
"I think we'll see a big influx of young professionals and people who enjoy going out and dining and having fun, exciting things to do," Orr said.
Not done yet
So when is enough, enough?
Schlickman said he has one more project idea in him, an idea he's not ready to share yet, though he expects to open it in downtown Wheaton also.
Maybe growing 302 or Subourbon or Shane's to other suburbs -- he likes the Fox Valley and Glen Ellyn as possibilities -- maybe even out of state, if he can find the right people in those areas to operate his establishments.
Consulting also is a possibility.
"He's very creative and he definitely values collaboration, which is huge and a huge part of the foundation that we're trying to build at the DWA as well," said
With his many Wheaton connections, he said he's already helping many local businesses of all types as a friend or adviser.
"And that's a ton of fun for me and takes up a lot of my time," he said.
He's also acting as something as a faux realtor for people looking for places to open a business in Wheaton. In Wheaton he's something of a connector or ambassador.
"Getting to know a lot of people or having them know you is a huge asset," he said.
Whatever direction Schlickman goes, you get the feeling he'll find an outlet for his creative energy.