Small Businesses on One Chicago Street Struggle to Meet Demand as Covid-19 Restrictions End

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CHICAGO—The owners of Roscoe Village Bikes say the shop should be thriving as Covid-19 restrictions fade away, but sales this month are down about 10% from a year ago because the shop can’t get enough new bikes and key parts to meet demand.

“Our suppliers are telling us that they have containers full of bikes sitting in the water” waiting to make it through overloaded ports, said

Lesley Tweedie,

co-owner of the shop. Some bikes she orders today might not arrive until October, she said. “It’s hard to sell a bike with that much uncertainty.”

Like small businesses across the country, most of the shops on Roscoe Street, a neighborhood shopping district on Chicago’s North Side, are eager to get back to normal after a year in which coronavirus restrictions held back foot traffic and limited in-person dining, shopping and services like haircuts. While business is coming back, small shops are now facing unexpected challenges, like shortages of workers, materials and capital that are preventing them from fully taking advantage of the state’s reopening earlier this month.

Five of the nearly 50 businesses on the strip, including a music school for preschoolers and a Latin fusion restaurant, closed permanently, said

Colton Davis,

business services manager for the Lakeview Roscoe Village Chamber of Commerce. But 10 new businesses have come in to replace them.

Lesley Tweedie, co-owner of Roscoe Village Bikes, says some bikes she orders today might not arrive until October.

A Federal Reserve study in April found that small businesses fared better than expected nationally during the first year of the pandemic, largely because of federal loan and stimulus programs. While about 600,000 businesses fail annually in a normal year, the pandemic took out a further 200,000, far fewer than some predictions, the study found.

Now, as restrictions ease in Illinois, foot traffic on Roscoe is picking up, and the street is starting to look almost as busy as it did pre-pandemic.

“I don’t want to prematurely say that we’ve already bounced back, we’re about 90% there,” Mr. Davis said.

Unlike most businesses on the street, Roscoe Village Bikes had a banner year last year, as cooped-up Chicagoans bought bikes as a way to get in some socially distanced exercise, Ms. Tweedie said. The shop is getting a lot of service business these days, but the lack of parts and new bikes is weighing on sales, she said.

A few blocks west of the bike shop, sales are brisk at Savannah Supper Club, which offers cocktails and comfort food like prime rib and banana cream pie.

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But owner

Marc Wuenschel,

who opened and closed multiple locations of his three small restaurant chains in the city during different phases of the pandemic, is paying more for rubber gloves and chicken thighs as well as cooks and bussers.

He had planned to open Savannah Supper Club in March 2020, but that was pushed back to June by the pandemic. The restaurant was able to pull through the year by expanding its outdoor footprint to sidewalks of adjoining businesses and promoting themed takeout packages with multiple courses and wine.

Mr. Wuenschel said he has enough staff at the location, but he has struggled to hold on to them, since some workers changed to other industries such as construction during the pandemic, and others are getting attractive offers from rivals.

Marc Wuenschel, at his Savannah Supper Club, says he is paying more for rubber gloves, chicken thighs, cooks and bussers.

“Right now, the challenge is people are trying to steal my employees,” he said, causing him to raise pay in the kitchen by $2 to $3 an hour to around $18 to $20 an hour.

Trudy Robinson,

owner of women’s and baby clothing boutique Kickin’ and high-end women’s shoe store A Pied, had a challenging year. Kickin’s lease was up about the time the pandemic started, so she had to operate out of a series of temporary spaces and improve her online offerings. At A Pied, she would change the stock in the window to attract interest during lockdown, but it is hard to sell shoes when customers can’t come in to try them on, she said.

She emerged from the pandemic in May with both businesses housed in the same subdivided space, on a corner between the bike shop and the supper club. Sales are coming along, she said, but she has had to get creative to keep stocked with fresh merchandise since many manufacturers are selling items that are similar to what they were offering last year.

‘There’s been a lot of hills and valleys and ups and downs,’ says Trudy Robinson, working with her husband, Matt Foley, at Roscoe Street’s Kickin’ and A Pied.

She took a gamble on a line of fancy leather flip-flops. They can’t be found anywhere else in Chicago, but they are still a lower-priced item than she would normally sell. She is now thinking about what to order for fall and hoping she will be able to find new items, even though she normally would have done that months ago.

“There’s been a lot of hills and valleys and ups and downs, and you kind of have to have that steel stomach to make it through this all,” she said.

Write to Joe Barrett at joseph.barrett@wsj.com

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