The convenience store on the corner of Church Street and Dodge Avenue was off limits for generations of kids who passed it on their way to Evanston Township High School across the street.
Back in the day, rumors of its being dirty, or worse, a hotbed of crime, gave parents like Wendy Weaver reason to warn when her children were teens, “Don’t you ever go in.”
Ms. Weaver and her husband, Clarence, bought the store three years ago. Now instead of selling drugs or stolen cell phones, their C&W Market and Ice Cream Parlor is making deli sandwiches, scooping ice cream, and positioning itself as a “safe haven for kids.”
The Weavers purchased the store expecting to transform it “to serve our community,” the store’s motto and their promise.
One of their first projects was to move the counter so they could “greet people,” Mr. Weaver says. That signaled the couple’s intent “to create an environment that makes our customers comfortable … to establish a rapport,” he says, instead of “creating the feeling that we’re watching that [they] don’t steal. Because at the end of the day, what’s a bag of chips?”
A new attitude prevailed as the Weavers set about compensating for the fact that “kids didn’t have a place that showed them respect.” After three years, Mr. Weaver says he knows “90% of the kids who come in.” When ETHS teens “come out in full force” after school, he says, “they’re buying products, but also socializing. We don’t limit the number of kids, because it creates a trust issue.”
With its floor and ceiling redone and coolers meticulously cleaned, the store presented a different face to the world. It still stocked the products its customers counted on – snacks (chips, crackers, nuts, candy bars); beverages (juices, milk, soft drinks); canned goods and cleaning products. The Weavers opened a deli with fresh ham, turkey, and corned beef sandwiches; hot dogs; and their best-selling product, meaty nachos. And to serve the formerly African American neighborhood whose current population Mr. Weaver estimates at 50% African American, 30% Hispanic, and 20% Caucasian, the store expanded its selection of Mexican candy and drinks.
Mr. Weaver refers to their work at the store as “part of a ministry”; it is perhaps the centerpiece of a strong commitment to Evanston. The couple, Ms. Weaver says, are also “involved a lot in Second Baptist Church,” where he is a minister and she, a deaconess. “We’re trying to get the church more involved in the community,” she says. Mr. Weaver is on the board of Y.O.U., Youth and Opportunity United, which recently moved into new headquarters a few doors away.
The Weavers make a point of hiring those other employers shun – the elderly, single parents, youth applying for their first job – and teaching work ethics.
There is an easy flow of people – customers and friends – in and out of the store. Two little boys who come in and ask the price of nachos get Mr. Weaver’s undivided attention. Evanston Police Officer Adam Howard stops by for a casual chat and to catch Mr. Weaver up on a program familiar to him, one that matches EPD officers with at-risk middle-school boys to build their social skills and confidence. Would Mr. Weaver, the officer asks, share his experiences on Entrepreneurship Day?
For the time being, both Weavers are keeping their full-time day jobs, which have provided financial security in the face of their large outlay of capital. She works for Northwestern University as an insurance advocate; he commutes to work in downtown Chicago. Every day after work they spend several hours at the store to see how the day went, prepare for the next day, talk to employees, and close.
“We are finally starting to rise above the debt,” Ms. Weaver says. But even before the store began to turn a profit, they extended its reach. Because they always liked homemade ice cream and believed that “ice cream brings families,” Ms. Weaver says, they annexed the space next door on Dodge Avenue for an ice cream parlor.
“We checked ice cream products as far away as Texas,” Mr. Weaver says. Research steered them to Wilmette-based Homer’s, whose gourmet homemade ice cream Ms. Weaver found to be rated in the top 10 nationwide. The Weavers say they are pleased with Homer’s service, the training they provided, and the fact that, in addition to Friday deliveries, they are available till 11 p.m. if the need arises.
The menu is a veritable Weaver family album, with specialty ice cream treats named for the Weavers’ parents and other relatives. But the shop also reflects neighborhood tastes. Customer request, for instance, inspired the mangonada – two scoops of Homer’s mango ice cream drizzled with a spicy Mexican sauce, topped with fresh mango, and served with a straw-like candy stick.
So Trenton Hunt, 17, can enjoy his large vanilla and chocolate ice cream cone while his friend, Jacqueline Balleza, also 17, savors a Mexican candy. He comes often, Trenton says, even in winter; he says he likes the way the Weavers connected the ice cream parlor to the market with an opening in the wall. The teens are in no hurry, hanging out with their friend Monique Ebanks, 16, who has worked there since last summer.
This is the scenario Ms. Weaver says she envisions, “down the way” – the market as “the place kids drop by and stay to socialize and study.” She says she would like to bring in fresh produce so C&W becomes “the neighborhood grocery store,” where she would like to work full-time when she retires.
The market is more than a business for the Weavers. “Because of the lives of so many that we touch, it’s such a fulfilling experience,” Ms. Weaver says. “It is our sanctuary.”