Twilight Zone no more, downtown Highland Park jumped back to life on Friday

Survival, revival and a TikTok marketing success story in this northern suburb, where some businesses reopened Friday after months of a COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

SHARE Twilight Zone no more, downtown Highland Park jumped back to life on Friday
On Friday, Ruby Iliopoulos, manager of Country Kitchen, a Highland Park institution, was presiding over new, blue outdoor dining tables while the big back lot was being repaved so the restaurant can erect a tent for even more outdoor dining. “We’re adapting for this next step, starting back up little by little,” she said.

On Friday, Ruby Iliopoulos, manager of Country Kitchen, a Highland Park institution, was presiding over new, blue outdoor dining tables while the big back lot was being repaved so the restaurant can erect a tent for even more outdoor dining. “We’re adapting for this next step, starting back up little by little,” she said.

Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

Most of downtown Highland Park has been frozen in place since mid-March, as if a set for a Twilight Zone episode titled “The COVID-19 Encounter,” where all the people in a town suddenly vanish as retail storefronts stuffed with merchandise eerily remained intact.

I don’t know how this episode will end, but Friday there was a welcome, upbeat plot twist. The coronavirus pandemic shutdown eased in Chicago’s suburbs and this North Shore city – as so many suburbs - jumped to life.

Suddenly, retail stores, hair and nail salons, barber shops and restaurants with outdoor dining were open for business. People were on the street — many, not all, in masks. The vibe was survival, revival, and in some places, bless them, extreme sanitation.

At 8 a.m., Highland Park Village Manager Ghida Neukirch was overseeing crews blocking off part of Sheridan Road, just off Central Avenue, to convert public space to an area for outdoor diners.

Down the block, Stepan Mikula, owner of “The Barbers” was finishing restoring his shop after repainting, restaining the floors and spreading out the chairs. He will reopen Saturday.

He’s been closed since March 14 and the economic impact was “horrible.” He’s bringing back his five barbers, contractors he was not able to pay these past months.On Saturday “all four chairs are booked solid.”

The family-run Rock N Rags in Highland Park used social platforms to build out its business during the COVID-19 shutdown. Shown are (from left) Steve, Kira, David and Jami Kessler

The family-run Rock N Rags in Highland Park used social platforms to build out its business during the COVID-19 shutdown. Shown are (from left) Steve, Kira, David and Jami Kessler

Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

There is a pent-up demand for hair services.

Mikula said he is booked for the week ahead.

The barber shop ambience will change. No more hanging around, talking about sports. Said Mikula: “It will be in and out basically.”

Wary consumers may be more easily wooed back to stores, salons, banks and medical offices if convinced they will be safe.

On Friday, H.P. Hair Image, Inc., 486 Central, was an example of a salon following strict sanitation protocols. The stylists were gloved, masked and wore disposable gowns. There was plenty of space between the hair stations.Customers also wore masks.

Patricia and Jim Mayberry have operated the salon for 36 years. They were able to get through the shutdown by drawing on personal funds and a break from the landlord.

Jim Mayberry anticipates all staffers — four-full-time, two part-time — will soon be back on the payroll.

To get ready for reopening, Mayberry obtained: 800 masks; 4,000 gloves; 24 face shields; safety googles for customers to wear during blow drys; almost 2,000 Clorox wipes; and four gallons of hand sanitizer, along with 24 smaller bottles.

Illinois guidelines suggest customer temperature checks before being allowed into health clubs; outdoor restaurants; hair and nail salons and barber shops.

Mayberry also has two no-touch thermometers.“I take temperatures of the employees and the customers when they come in,” he said.

For two Highland Park businesses, the pandemic proved true the proverb, “necessity is the mother of invention.”

The Country Kitchen, 446 Central, is a Highland Park family-owned institution, on the main downtown street 42 years this June.

Friday, Ruby Iliopoulos, the manager, was presiding over new, blue outdoor dining tables spaced apart while the big back lot was being repaved so the restaurant can erect a tent for even more outdoor dining.

“We’re adapting for this next step, starting back up little by little,” she said.

The restaurant never closed, offering takeout and delivery and branching out into curbside groceries.What started as an at-cost service to her workers — so they could avoid the health risk of going to grocery stores —proved over time to be a new profitable line of business.

“It’s been a good money maker ... that allowed a little extra cash flow in a tight situation,” she said.

A few blocks away, another family business, Rock N Rags, 613 Central, reopened on Friday after being closed since mid-March — thoughits on-line business increased during the pandemic.

“My kids are geniuses,” said Jami Kessler, who with husband Steve run the womens’ clothing store. Children David and Kira oversee the online operation.

“When the store closed, we knew that we needed to innovate in order to stay relevant,” said daughter Kira, a 25-year-old fashion merchandiser who came home from New York to help the business.

“So we leaned on social networks such as TikTok and Instagram in order to reach new followers. This resulted in tons of videos going viral; over 50,000 Instagram followers and over 100,000 Tik Tok followers.”

Virtual styling appointments resulted in orders from Lebanon, Kuwait, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Ireland, Kira said. “It’s crazy.”

And that’s what we know for now as “The COVID-19 Encounter” plays out.

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