Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Agility, creativity, and community engagement are three important advantages small retailers can lean into during challenging times. All three are on display at local Chicago eatery, Wood, which transformed its outdoor dining area into a pop-up garden shop while dine-in service is suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. I had the opportunity to talk with Wood co-owner, Gary Zickel, to understand how the idea came about, the purpose it serves for both Wood and the local community, and what advice he has for other small retailers in difficult times.
According to Gary, the Illinois shelter-in-place order, which went into effect in mid-March, was "devastating" for Wood, which has been a popular dining spot in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood since its opening in 2012. "Our business was 99% dine-in and one-percent carry-out." He said, "So we had to either close or try to keep people employed by keeping the doors open and getting creative."
The team at Wood adapted the menu to be more take-out friendly. However, because Wood wasn't well-known for delivery or carry-out service, Gary knew they would have to do something unique to stand out. That's when Gary reached out to Kehoe Designs, a full-service event design and decor company, to discuss the possibility of a partnership. "We've worked with them many, many times, and they're always a class act," said Gary. "I also knew that they were doing pop-up markets in other parts of the city, so it made sense to talk to them."
On a warm, sunny Friday in May, Green Market Garden opened for business in Wood's 600 square-foot patio space, offering indoor and outdoor plants, shrubs, and even small trees. Gary's main objective for the endeavor was to draw traffic to Wood and grow awareness of their take-out and delivery menu, which face-masked staffers hand out to curious passers-by and shoppers. When asked how the neighborhood has responded, Gary reported, "It's been a big hit! People are just so excited about it." The outdoor market has attracted a steady stream of shoppers (socially distancing, of course), while Wood has seen an increase in daily deliveries and has now launched lunch and Sunday brunch menus, as well.
When I asked Gary what he thought led to the success of the market, he responded with the kind of insight and empathy that small retailers develop by being engaged with their communities and on the front lines of their businesses every day, ""Well because everybody's been stuck at home now for weeks, and people are just starving for a breath of fresh air. They want a reason to get outside, and they want something positive and comforting to bring into their home or office. They want to surround themselves with things that make them happy."
As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Gary if he had any advice for other small retailers, grappling with the new realities of life with coronavirus. "Just because your business does one thing doesn't mean it's the only thing you can do." He replied, "Brainstorm, get creative, and don't be afraid to try something new. You want to stay within your core competencies, but you can partner with others to help you - maybe a vendor or business partner. Everyone is looking for solutions right now, so it's a good time to reach out for ideas and solutions. And it may even turn into a longer-term partnership."
Green Market Garden at Wood (3335 N Halsted Street) will be open through the end of May — perhaps longer if Chicago's stay-at-home order is not lifted at that time.