There are more than 1.2 million small businesses in Illinois; the city of Chicago alone boasts 7,300 restaurants. Combined, they account for some of the biggest economic and labor casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic as stay-at home-orders have grounded potential customers and diners and put businesses on the brink.
While financial recovery programs still find their footing, in the past couple of weeks, a few Illinois small businesses have discovered a different kind of lifeline thanks to a wave of national exposure that has put an emphasis on goods from Chicago and beyond.
“We now have something we didn’t have before — hope,” said Lake Forest resident Cindy Kienzle, the founder and owner of The Hungry Monkey Baking Co., after her baked goods were evangelized by comedian/TV personality Howie Mandel on the growing online platform Talkshop Live.
It’s a “live streaming selling vehicle for anyone, anywhere at any time,” said Talkshop Live co-founder Bryan Moore. Or, as others like Forbes have playfully called it, “QVC meets Facebook Live.”
Launched two years ago, the social media retail platform was inspired by a mission to “save Main Street” and offers member business owners the chance to have a “storefront” without the overhead. Once registered on the free app, members are given a dedicated online channel, and followers are automatically notified any time the member business goes live.
“[Membership] has gone up considerably post COVID-19,” said Moore. “We are finding a lot of people are starting to use us as a resource to stay viable.”
The Talkshop Live team had been in talks with Mandel, the “America’s Got Talent” judge (and a one-time carpet salesman), before the pandemic hit. But as soon as stores started shutting down, Mandel partnered with the platform in a “Save Small Business America” campaign. Mandel pitches his favorite products in bi-weekly episodes; members can also submit an application on Mandel’s Talkshop Live page.
The first episode ran April 1 and featured The Hungry Monkey Baking Co.’s Social Distancing Treat Boxes, a gift box that includes loaves of traditional banana bread, chocolate chip banana bread as well as two small bags of triple chocolate brownies. All come from Kienzle’s homemade recipes and are made in a commercial kitchen in Northbrook.
“I’ve always had a dream to own a bakery,” Kienzle said, and by 2010 she had started her small business in the Northfield Farmer’s Market and is now selling in local food emporiums such as Sunset Foods and Olivia’s Market.
“When the pandemic hit, it’s not the kind of product you are going to necessarily Instacart,” she added. “And I was concerned about what was going to happen.”
So, Kienzle became an early adopter of Talkshop Live. Mandel came across her channel while looking for businesses to profile, and was particularly moved by Kienzle’s 12-year-old daughter Lily who has special needs and helps her mother assemble the gift boxes. In his pitch for the product, Mandel said the banana bread “is beyond anything I have ever eaten” and his testimonial helped Kienzle increase sales from about 150 to 200 gift boxes in a year to 800 within a month.
“Plus, we have received many calls from corporate clients wishing to donate Hungry Monkey [products] to our local communities, and to cheer up clients and their staff,” Kienzle said. “…For our tiny company it’s incredible.”
The April 15 edition of Mandel’s show featured Save The Girls, a maker of fashionable and functional cellphone purses, based in Belleville, Illinois.
“All within the same week, my two daughters lost their iPhones. One out on a walking trail and the other accidentally left hers in a pair of jeans she washed,” recalls owner Tami Lange. “As I was talking about the issue with my sister-in-law, she pulls her own phone out of her bra — the woman has breast cancer! I knew there had to be a better way to protect your phone.”
Lange’s company, which launched a cell phone “touchscreen purse” design that allows for ease of functionality and protection, sold $1 million in its first year in 2018, $3 million in 2019 and was on track to sell $5 million this year — until COVID-19 hit.
“We are in about 2,500 retail locations that were all shut down,” says Lange. “As a result, our sales went down by over 95%.” Lange’s sister told her about Mandel’s program and she filled out an application. Mandel, a well-known germaphobe, loved the design for its “germ-free” aspect as well as the fact that Lange donates 10% of profits to breast cancer research.
“We received a call from one of the producers who had some friends that lived in our neighborhood,” said chef/owner Anthony Reyes.
The restaurant is currently offering curbside service and deliveries through Caviar and Grubhub. The “GMA” segment also highlighted Reyes’ efforts to help his neighbors during the coronavirus pandemic. He has donated rolls of toilet paper, paper towels, soap and flour to anyone in the neighborhood in need — inspired to do his part after witnessing the work of his wife who is a nurse practitioner, and his brother, a Chicago police officer.
The “GMA” segment also featured a “how-to” for making the restaurant’s famous jumbo meatballs.
“The menu is based on good old-fashioned home cooking, and I think a lot of people at home are focused on that now, too,” said Reyes.
Before the pandemic, the restaurant was serving about 1,000 people a week, but once the restaurant closed its doors, the 30-employee staff went down to five people. “The one thing most important to me is to be able to bring them all back,” said Reyes, hoping the national exposure will help in that mission.
“Usually I sell about 150 meatballs throughout the week, but in two days I’ve sold almost 400,” he said. “People from as far as Georgia have been calling and e-mailing to get a hold of the recipe and calculating conversions.”
Reyes is appreciative of “GMA” giving the restaurant a voice, and said: “I would love when things get back to normal to have people come in here and say ‘I saw you on the show, I want to try to those meatballs!’”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.