Chicago businesses offering a human touch thrive 3 years into pandemic

Chicago businesses offering a human touch thrive 3 years into pandemic

What Jenise Rodriguez had to offer wasn’t considered essential, but it was something her clients couldn’t get anywhere else, judging by how they returned when she reopened her spa in 2020.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Rodriguez, a skincare professional based in Logan Square, was preparing to move her small business to a bigger location, but instead the state’s stay-at-home order left her scrambling to pay rent at her original space on West Fullerton Avenue.

Her business, Sanar Aesthetics, was one of many the Sun-Times talked to in 2020, and three years on, it’s one of many that have endured — thanks to the human touch, they said.

Rodriguez, 39, closed for about five months, first because of the lockdown and then because the pandemic delayed renovations at her new location, on West Armitage Avenue.

Sanar Aesthetics, located at 3658 W. Armitage Ave. in the Logan Square neighborhood, is seen in this photo, Saturday, March 18, 2023.

She offered online consultations, but had difficulty securing federal aid for small businesses and doubted the spa would last.

“I honestly didn’t know if my career was going to be over,” she said. “I was paying rent and I couldn’t even utilize the space.”

Even when she reopened, COVID regulations prevented her from offering facials, her most popular service — and 85% of her business.

But that didn’t stop clients from returning, and requesting back facials instead.

“When I opened back up, I was slammed,” she said.

“Clients were yearning for the human touch and contact at that point,” she added. “I don’t just give facials. I make people feel at ease and comfortable in their own skin.”

Prudence Faklaris attributed the success of her North Side cafe to something similar.

“It’s not just brunch food to us,” Faklaris, co-owner of Honeybear Cafe. “We try to make it more of an experience.”

Falkaris, 38, and her husband opened at 7036 N. Clark St. in Rogers Park in early 2020, joining a local business association. Soon, they faced a great deal of uncertainty. 

“Our members are completely freaked out,” Sandi Price, executive director of a Rogers Park business group, told the Sun-Times during the lockdown.

The cafe successfully navigated those early days by pivoting to outdoor dining and serving healthcare providers, Price said.

The cafe, however, has since become a neighborhood staple, which Faklaris attributed to their service.

“People crave people. You don’t understand how much weight you carry just by complimenting somebody, by saying hello,” she said. “We try to do that with our guests — ask them where they’re from, what brought them here and try to get to know them.”

John Whedbee, owner of Heart of Chicago Grooming, with his dog, Wally.

John Whedbee owner of Heart of Chicago Grooming and his dog Wally, inside his Pilsen grooming salon in 2020.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Longtime Pilsen business owner John Whedbee wished more neighborhood eateries had made it through the pandemic, but was thankful his dog-grooming business survived unscathed. 

“The initial shut down was really a moment of uncertainty,” said Whedbee, 35. “We had no idea what that was going to look like.”

But, like Rodriguez, when he reopened Heart of Chicago Grooming, 1921 S. Blue Island Ave., his schedule quickly filled.

He attributed it to his approach — only one dog at the business at a time, and the dog is never caged. That’s ideal for nervous dogs or owners who don’t want their dog caged.

“In the midst of the shutdown our clientele realized how valuable our service was,” he said. “They were frantic to get back in here.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.