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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

COVID-19 Makes Business Startups More 'Scary'

Melanie Rust and Erika Zilm posing for a photo sitting at counter
Tiffany Bode Photography
Erika Zilm, right, opened La La Boutique in Bloomington with her mother, Melanie Rust, in June.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put tens of millions of people out of work and dramatically changed the American way of life. It's not an easy time to open a business.

Empty dining room at Jack's Restaurant
Credit Facebook/Jack's Restaurant
Jack's Restaurant in Normal reopened in late June after being closed three months due to the pandemic.

Diyora Haydarova opened Jack's Restaurant in Normal in March. She named it for her son. It serves Mediterranean cuisine with an American flair. Haydarova said the first week was great. Then the state shut everything down because of COVID-19.

“We didn’t know about this pandemic and we were ready for a big weekend and we got a lot of product and suddenly we closed and I felt bad,” Haydarova said.

Haydarova said the restaurant stayed closed for three and a half months. Jack's reopened with half the staff. It relies on carryout and delivery for half the business.

Dine-in capacity remains limited, and Haydarova said many aren't ready.

“The numbers (of COVID-19 cases) are going higher and I feel like people are still scared to go out and eat as before,” Haydarova said. “They don’t feel like it’s safe.”

Haydarova said some customers have come back since reopening. She’s counting on social media and good food and service to keep them going back.

A restaurant experience is about more than food. Atmosphere can build customer loyalty, but there's no dining experience when customers aren't allowed inside.

Empty dining room at Lexington Social
Credit Facebook/Lexington Social
Lexington Social, built in a restored train depot, plans to open its dining room in late July.

Jon Fritzen is opening a fine casual restaurant in a restored train depot in Lexington that he can't wait for people to see.

“It’s truly a unique building and a unique dining room and area,” Fritzen said. “Anytime people come in here, they just can’t believe the transformation that this building has gone through and that they are really excited to finally be able to come out and dine.”

Fritzen said he is counting on ambience and food to make Lexington Social a regional destination. Lexington itself has just 2,000 people.

Fritzen delayed his opening a few months when the pandemic hit. He said COVID-19 actually took pressure off his timeline to open.

Lexington Social has done curbside and delivery the last few weeks. Fritzen said he scaled down the menu to focus on entrees that travel well and can fit tighter budgets.

“It’s hard to get people to pay that kind of a price and then to maintain the quality where people get that value,” Fritzen said. “That’s the adjustment that we made.”

Fritzen said during stressful times like this, people want comfort food. He plans to open the dining room by the end of the month.

Retail comeback

The pandemic presents challenges for retail as well as restaurants. Stores rely on walk-in traffic, and fewer customers want to go outside now even with a partial reopening of the state.

Erika Zilm opened La La Boutique, a women's clothing store, in downtown Bloomington in late June.

“It was a really scary this to open a business in general, it was ever scarier during a time when we were dealing with something that we’ve never dealt with before,” Zilm said. “I think just staying focused, staying positive and knowing that we’ll get through this together.”

Zilm opened the boutique with her mother, Melanie Rust, just as Illinois moved from Phase 3 to 4. In a strange way, she said, the timing worked.

“I think it was just good timing, everybody was just itching to get out a little bit and shop local and everybody has been cooped up for a couple of months so they were anxious to come out and we felt that support for sure that weekend,” Zilm said.

Zilm said her clothing store not only offers curbside service for anyone leery about setting foot inside the store, they'll ship too. Even so, she said a boutique doesn't present the same health risks as a restaurant. Groups of customers tend to be smaller and they don't linger as long.

Even as these new business owners have taken a deep breath and opened their doors, others struggle and some have closed for good. No one thinks it will get easier any time soon.

Multiple Bloomington-Normal restaurants, including Braize, Slim Chickens, Tony Roma's and TGI Fridays in Bloomington and most recently Fazoli's, have permanently shut down since the pandemic began.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

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