It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Chicago shopping districts. But between supply chain problems, inflation and the shadow of a pandemic, the outlook for small retail and food businesses continues to be uncertain this holiday season.
Still, as we approach the close of a third year of the COVID pandemic, there are reasons to be optimistic for Chicago’s small business landscape, says Isabel Velez-Diez, director of economic recovery at the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
“We have seen 4,700 new businesses get new licenses since the beginning of … the pandemic,” said Velez-Diez. “We’ve also seen the license renewal stay at the same percentage as it was pre pandemic. So we are very hopeful, optimistic that things are looking up and things are getting slowly but surely back to normal.”
With that in mind, the city’s business-facing entities are shifting from addressing short-term needs to longer-term planning and activation.
“Now that things are starting to reopen, we’re having a more thoughtful and impactful thought process through the funds we are distributing and how we are distributing that assistance,” said Velez-Diez. “We have a storefront activation program to bring in businesses that have never had a storefront before into vacant storefronts, and at the same time revitalizing commercial corridors … we recommend visiting all those spaces because it’s really great for the small businesses and the communities they’re in.”
Pilsen Chamber of Commerce secretary Jackson Flores said the bumpy economic road of the last few years now culminating in across-the-board inflation has made it a tough environment for small businesses.
“I think one of the things that we’re seeing right now is the cost of rent, utilities, payroll, it’s going to continue going up and we’re looking at different types of businesses that are creating different business models that have adapted since the pandemic,” Flores said.
Little Village’s businesses are also having to weigh the effects of rising costs, says Mike Moreno Jr. of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce.
“As you see the rising costs of products go up, a lot of people are concerned about what’s a necessity these days. So you see a lot of consumers that are kind of holding on to their money a little bit more, maybe buying down,” Moreno said. “For us small businesses, the concern is how much higher is, is the inflation going to go. We’ve already seen a massive increase within the last year and a half.”
Moreno says many businesses have had to quickly get up to speed on tech for payment and social media marketing.
“A lot of small businesses don’t have the resources or sometimes might not have the understanding of technology, but when it comes to understanding how to use social media as a form of marketing, especially, has tremendously helped a lot of these small businesses that are out there,” Moreno said. “We’re trying to incentivize consumers that come in by whether they had deals or … trying to showcase something unique that other locations might not have … even working on websites and starting online businesses has been tremendous for small businesses out there.”
Carolina Juarez, business district manager at the Rogers Park Business Alliance, said while gaining access to capital is a hurdle for any business, Latino-owned businesses often have a learning curve for understanding American banking systems as well.
“I think what’s most difficult is for businesses to even realize what kind of help they need. A lot of times the Latino businesses that we work with kind of only work with cash,” Juarez said. “And so through our entrepreneurial training program, Grow/Progresando, we’re able to support those businesses and help them along the way, starting from maybe even having a bank account, then maybe a line of credit and then maybe trying to learn more about their credit score.”
The RPBA’s Grow/Progresando Entrepreneurial Training Center offers instruction in English and Spanish.
“It is free to all Chicagoans. It is a weekly session or a boot camp where businesses or people who are interested in opening a business can come and learn all about how it is, what it means to start a business and what it means to maintain your business, and maybe even expand things like access to capital, things like marketing, things like site location,” Juarez explained.
Flores said these sorts of programs and outreach by chambers of commerce and other community organizations act as vital conduits of information and education between business owners and the city.
“If you log into the city’s website, is it easy for anyone to just decipher that type of jargon? I would say absolutely not,” Flores said. “And I think this is where grassroots organizations and a lot of these nonprofit organizations step into play because they break down a lot of the red tape, they make the information accessible. And I think when it comes down to it, the city needs to partner with organizations like those so they can continue having their ear to the ground.”
Community organizations can also help address language gaps with the business owners in their areas, says Moreno.
“There are a lot of people that live in Little Village roughly, 76,000 people. It’s the most densely populated neighborhood in the city of Chicago but not everybody there speaks English,” Moreno said. “So it’s very important that we’re getting those resources out there, that we’re actually walking the community and reaching out to small businesses that maybe aren’t familiar with the resources that are available for them.”
Velez-Diez says a common mistake made by fledgling businesses is not checking zoning regulations before signing a lease for a new storefront.
“Sometimes business owners get really excited about starting a business and they might want to start a place where there used to be coffee shop, but that coffee shop might not have followed all of the rules to have a coffee shop in that space,” Velez-Diez cautions. “So make sure to go to our website and check all of the licensing zoning regulations to make sure that all they want to do, they are able to do.”
Alderpeople and their staff are often the first city officials aspiring business owners encounter when starting their enterprises. Juarez says that it’s also critical for alderpeople to show ongoing support for small businesses in their wards through attending ribbon-cuttings, visits and promotions on social media.
“Rogers Park has been very fortunate to have the administration that we’ve had. I think it is important that alderpeople stay engaged,” Juarez said. “It’s about staying present and making themselves well known and helping the entrepreneur.”
Ultimately, however, it’s the community members themselves who can most help small businesses by making the conscious decision to support them with their patronage, says Flores.
“You move into a neighborhood because the rent is cheap, but then you’re taking business to big box stores outside of the neighborhood and you’re forgetting that the dollar goes so much farther [in the neighborhood],” Flores said. “It’s not just goods and services, it’s circulating within the local economy, it’s taxes that go back into the community and it’s shaping a community identity. If you’re going to move into a neighborhood where you can afford the rent, you get a cheap taco, that’s fantastic … But at the same time this is the fabric of the neighborhood. You need to take care of the neighborhood. It’s an ecosystem.”