Some Evanston-based businesses managed to adapt to and thrive amid the changing business environment presented by COVID-19 restrictions.
This is a series about three of them. Has your business changed? Contact the RoundTable so we can tell your story.
Social media mavens in the making
Ayla’s Originals (1511 Sherman Ave.) is a retail bead store owned by Ayla Pizzo, a well-known beader and jewelry designer. When COVID-19 restrictions went into effect in March 2020, she and her husband Joe, who manages the store with her, were faced with a near total loss of income. A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan kept them afloat temporarily.
But they changed the business and created a new way of selling directly to customers’ homes: They became social media entrepreneurs, hosting Bead TV on Facebook Live two to three times a week.
Through diligence and perseverance, and some encouragement from Carol Freeman, their good friend and experienced Facebook Live presenter, the Pizzos kept at it and developed a following.
Their audiences were not huge, but the people who tuned in were devoted beaders who recognized the breadth of the selection and expertise the Pizzos offered. And they bought the products featured. Week by week, sales improved.
Once COVID-19 restrictions eased a bit and and they reopened the store in July 2020, retail traffic was still down significantly. Ayla’s Originals is located in downtown Evanston, 100 feet north from the Holiday Inn Chicago-North Evanston. Prior to COVID, the store had benefited from the tourists staying at the inn and wandering around downtown. That summer the hotel was housing homeless people, not tourists.
But thanks to their success with Bead TV, Ayla said the store income stabilized, although they are both tired.
They operate the store Wednesday through Sunday, film about six-seven hours a week and spend another day managing invoices, packing orders and shipping. Ayla described her state of mind as “retail burnt.”
The next big push is to get their new website launched and include functionality that will allow viewers to order directly from Bead TV.
Shift to a floral design studio
For the past 23 years, Joanne Leiman has owned FlowersFlowers (1110 Davis St.), a floral shop located across from the main branch of the post office. She, too, changed her business model because of COVID.
Whereas before it was a store where people could wander in and buy flowers or plants without an appointment, now Leiman’s business is strictly a floral design studio.
The government shutdown closed her business for six weeks. She laid off her staff so they could collect unemployment. When they finally returned, COVID restrictions kept people out of the store. Leiman found she and her staff were more efficient without breaking to accommodate random retail traffic.
The bulk of the business continues to be everyday occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, get wells and thank yous. While many large weddings were postponed during the pandemic, many others proceeded at a more intimate scale. Leiman said, “Every bride still wants a bouquet.”
Leiman started a successful subscription program for weekly or monthly floral deliveries and her customers continued to send flowers.
Said Leiman, “You have to remember back in the early days of COVID, before the vaccine. We were sanitizing everything, especially the containers we use for the flowers.
“People were stuck inside their homes, they couldn’t see their friends, yet they still wanted to show support, show that they cared, and what better way to do that than with flowers? I realize how fortunate we are, to live and work here, and have a clientele that can support a luxury product.”
She now has more people working for her than pre-COVID. Her biggest headaches are the precarious supply chain. She said, “I never would have thought back in March 2020 that things would have turned out the way they did. We feel very lucky.”
Getting in shape out in the open
Another business owner that demonstrated nimbleness and ingenuity is Tani Mintz, owner of Sharp Edge CrossFit (1326 Dodge Ave.). Mintz, a relatively new business owner, has been in Evanston with Sharp Edge CrossFit for only about five years.
But she was raised here and loves the community.
Mintz said the support she received from former Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl’s office was instrumental in her signing a lease here instead of Skokie. A graduate of ETHS’ Class of 2002, Mintz has always been athletic. She fell in love with speed skating after attending the Winter Olympics in February 2002 in Salt Lake City with her family. She told her parents she wanted to become a speed skater and try out for the Olympics.
And she qualified for three Olympic trials, skating the 500 meter, 1,000 meter, 1,500 meter and the 3,000 meter distance races two to three times each. After she retired, Mintz attended Marquette University in Milwaukee and graduated with a master’s in business and a law degree in three years.
Mintz worked out and coached at CrossFit throughout graduate school. She realized owning a gym, helping people get fit and being her own boss was a satisfying career. It combined all her interests and made good use of her education.
She started looking to open a gym in Skokie, but kept running into bureaucratic hassles. She envisioned a gym with garage doors, a requirement that narrowed her choices considerably. Then Tisdahl reached out to Mintz and said Evanston would help her find a location. Paul Zalmezak, manager in the city’s Economic Development Division, provided guidance on city ordinances.
Mintz got the space in Evanston with the garage doors she wanted and she is still there. She signed the lease on Aug. 1, 2017. Mintz opened the gym two months later.
The store is not a drop-in but a membership model and there are classes throughout the day. The garage doors are open when it’s not raining from spring through fall, but prior to COVID they had made use of a strong heater for winter months when the garage doors were closed.
COVID restrictions hit and the gym closed for 10 weeks. When it reopened it was at reduced capacity and the garage doors were kept open. Mintz kept the heater on, and mask-wearing members worked out in winter weather clothes. They warmed up with the exercises led by Mintz and the other coaches.
The members loved the new approach. Membership has increased 33% since the pandemic. Mintz said people seemed thrilled to be able to get out of the house and to resume their exercise routines. At the height of the pandemic, Mintz reduced class size slightly, to about eight. It’s now up to about 10.
The changes to her business were prompted by the pandemic. Yet, Mintz said they helped the business thrive and distinguish itself among North Shore athletes looking to stay or get in shape.