Their Life's Work: How suburban small businesses are adjusting on the fly

  • John Eggert of Relish Catering Kitchen in Schaumburg has completely changed his business model, turning his catering service into grocery delivery.

      John Eggert of Relish Catering Kitchen in Schaumburg has completely changed his business model, turning his catering service into grocery delivery. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 4/6/2020 10:25 AM

Illinois has more than 1 million small businesses -- some new, some old, some family legacies, others personal dreams.

Each proprietor has a story to tell about how things have changed dramatically for them with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, how they're adapting, how they're trying to hold it together and how their life's work hangs in the balance.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Here are profiles of four suburban small business owners in the first part of a continuing series.

The caterer

For the past seven years John Eggert has owned Relish Catering Kitchen in Schaumburg, making everything in house from scratch.

But when the stay-at-home order happened, Eggert saw both a brick wall -- and a way around it.

He decided to change his business model from catering to delivering groceries to fill a growing need.

"A unique situation for us is we are able to source a lot from our food supplier," he said. "They have a surplus of these things and they are packaged in large formats that are unable to be sent to grocery stores, so we are able to get rice, chicken, toilet paper and break it down into smaller portions."

John has also been preparing care packages and food for his furloughed employees. Taking care of them is his highest priority.

"If I don't have a quality person who does a great job, I don't have a business."

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"Things will go back to normal, it's just scary not knowing when that is going to be."

-- Mark Welsh

The restaurant

Catherine Amin of The Picnic Basket in Libertyville has been in business for the past 39 years. "I am thankful for every customer, for every order, for every donation, for every moment," she says.
  Catherine Amin of The Picnic Basket in Libertyville has been in business for the past 39 years. "I am thankful for every customer, for every order, for every donation, for every moment," she says. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

The Picnic Basket restaurant has been a fixture in Libertyville for 39 years.

Owner Catherine Amin has never opened additional locations, she says, because she likes to know her customers.

The Picnic Basket is not charging for delivery or adding gratuity onto the bill, "although many generous customers have added gratuity on their own," Amin said.

During the stay-at-home order, she's been able to keep all of her 12 employees, albeit with a reduction in hours.

"I'm not sure if any of the aid packages will help us," she said, recounting how she tried to apply for a loan with a local bank but was the 59th person in line on the phone, left her information and hasn't heard back.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The first two weeks I dealt with it one hour at a time. Last week was one day at a time. Now I am dealing with it until hopefully the end of April, but I think this may go a bit longer.

I am thankful for every customer, for every order, for every donation, for every moment."

-- Brian Hill

The dentist

Dr. Vu Kong teleconferences with a patient with a tooth problem. He has temporarily closed his Schaumburg and Palatine offices and works out of his Elgin location.
  Dr. Vu Kong teleconferences with a patient with a tooth problem. He has temporarily closed his Schaumburg and Palatine offices and works out of his Elgin location. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Vu Kong started his High Point Dental practice in Elgin 10 years ago and has since branched out to Schaumburg and Palatine.

Before the coronavirus hit, he employed 26 people. Now he is down to just five.

He temporarily shuttered his other two locations and has consolidated in Elgin.

Kong, whose father and grandfather also were dentists, walks around his office on his phone now, surrounded by darkened patient rooms no longer in use.

He teleconferences with his patients to assess their issues and deals only with emergency cases in person. And then, only the patient is allowed in the office while others idle in the parking lot.

He says he stays in touch with the employees he had to let go, and "They're pretty understanding."

"For us, four to six more months of this and it will be difficult to stay in business," he said.

-- Mark Welsh

The volleyball club

Cindy and Sean Gritzman have owned and operated Top Flight Volleyball Club in Elgin since 2008. "Being in limbo is just tough," Cindy says.
  Cindy and Sean Gritzman have owned and operated Top Flight Volleyball Club in Elgin since 2008. "Being in limbo is just tough," Cindy says. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

When Sean and Cindy Gritzman decided to start Top Flight Volleyball Club 12 years ago in Elgin, they went in thinking big.

"We knew we wanted to be one of the largest clubs in the area," Cindy said. "I didn't think we'd grow as quickly as we did."

With about 600 club players, plus hundreds more who attend clinics or camps, having to close the doors affected more than just the few full-time staffers and the legion of 41 part-timers.

"We needed to think about not just how this impacts us but all of our members and families," Sean said.

To keep everyone connected, they've used Tik Tok challenges, impersonate-your-coach contests, volleyball word and crossword challenges and online workout and college recruiting videos.

"Being in limbo is just tough. We don't know what to say, we don't know what to provide, and the families don't know what's to come," Cindy said. "That's one of the hardest things -- just not knowing."

­-- Rick West

• We're looking for more small businesses with unique stories to tell. We can't get to them all, but if you know of one we should consider, send photo director Jeff Knox a detailed email with LIFE'S WORK in the subject line at jknox@dailyherald.com and we'll consider it.

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