Peoria businesses battled unexpected challenges during COVID pandemic
Greg Bone sat in his restaurant and could not help but get emotional when talking about the struggle of opening his eatery in 2020.
Bone, like many others, knew opening a small business would be hard even under normal circumstances. But the COVID-19 pandemic made it more challenging for new business owners locally and beyond.
Still, dozens of small businesses opened their doors for the first time in Peoria in 2020leaping headfirst into a world of unprecedented hardships. Owners of four Peoria small businesses who opened shop in 2020 recently spoke to the Journal Star about their experiences and what they learned.
Bone opened Bone’s restaurant in April 2020; Josh and Bryan Cannon, two Peoria brothers, opened the doors to 1Hundred Degree Fashion Wear in October 2020; Jodie Viera started Crafted DIY Studio and Bar in February 2020; and John Sims debuted Caribbean restaurant Jerk Hut in September 2020.
They had a common theme: Expect the unexpected.
A fighter’s mentality to stay open
Bone always wanted to operate his own restaurant and worked as a chef in his younger years. In 2019, he turned down a promotion in his corporate job, deciding it was time pursue his dream.
In November of 2019 construction began on Bone’s at 6015 Knoxville Ave., with a plan to open in April 2020 serving burgers, custard, fries and salads. Then the pandemic came, and Bone’s dream quickly became what he called a “nightmare scenario.”
Some of the vital equipment he needed to open got delayed, and when indoor dining was banned he had to pivot to a take-out only operation.
“Horrific, it’s horrific,” Bone said of the pandemic’s impact. “You know, you take your entire life and you save your money and then immediately you’re like, ‘Why did I do this?’ I really didn’t have a chance from the beginning.”
Bone adopted a fighter’s mentality in his quest to make his business work. He said it feels like the “deck has been stacked against me from the beginning,” but he now believes he is close to making it out of the storm — if he can just catch “a couple of breaks.”
“You feel like a fighter, you can take a lot of punches but at some point you’re not going to get up again,” an emotional Bone said. “You’ve just got to say enough is enough, and I am close to that point, but I am also close to making it and it’s like … dude, you don’t know what to do.”
Bone’s is still open and he said business has been good the last two weeks. Bone believes if business keeps up throughout the summer, or if the government replenishes COVID small-business relief funds, he will make it and Bone’s will be a Peoria staple for years to come.
‘Run it out to the cars’
John Sims was tired of having to drive to Chicago to get his fix for Caribbean jerk-style food, so the longtime self-employed businessman thought he might as well open his own jerk restaurant in Peoria.
Last September, Sims opened Jerk Hut at 1200 W. Main Street in Campustown. Despite the pandemic, Sims capitalized on the uniqueness of jerk food in the Peoria restaurant community.
“It kind of sparked a light. We don’t have anything like this in Peoria and whether it’s COVID or not, people are going to eat,” Sims said. “With that being said, it wasn’t really a fear of opening the restaurant, it was how.”
How to open a restaurant when there was no indoor dining and no person-to-person contact was the question Sims faced early on. He says he tried to use all of the “creative situations” coming from the pandemic to make his restaurant a success.
“People were adjusting and adapting almost instantly trying to save themselves, and I just took notes from that,” Sims said. “But having something unique and different in Peoria made it easier than it otherwise would have been.”
Sims’ bet that the novelty of jerk food in Peoria would draw customers paid off. While they could not dine-in, cars lined up in the parking lot and DoorDash orders came flying in for people wanting to get a taste of the new cuisine in Peoria.
“Run it to the car man, run it to the car,” Sims said of his business’s motto and plan for those first months. “We had lines and lines of people. We maintained our social distance, put our mask on, had our gloves. We took DoorDash orders and call-in orders and took them to the cars.”
If there was anything weighing on Sims’ mind, it was the absence of Bradley University students. He hoped the location across the street from campus would be a hot spot for college students, but with many not returning in person because of the pandemic, that did not happen.
But hope is on the horizon, with Sims saying he’s excited about students returning next month.
A tearful unicorn and a plan to stay afloat
Hanging on the walls of Crafted DIY Studio and Bar is a pink, purple and blue watercolor painting of a unicorn, which at a glance, looks as whimsical and happy as any unicorn. But, Crafted owner Jodie Vieira jokes it was drawn with her tears as she completed it the night she found out about the statewide shutdown in Illinois.
Vieira’s original vision for her business was to have a place where people would come work on crafts together while enjoying a cocktail. She envisioned birthday parties, bridal showers and date nights. COVID-19 shuttered that idea quickly.
Vieira says she finished her unicorn project, finished crying and then stayed up until 4 a.m. formulating a plan for how she could keep her craft studio/bar business open during a time when people could not come in. Her answer: Send the crafts to the people.
“We tried to replicate the Crafted experience in someone’s home,” Vieira said. “They could order a cocktail kit and a DIY kit and have like a night in. That’s one thing Cliff (her husband) and I did at our house and we documented it on social media to people, you can still have a date night.”
She packed 85 DIY kits to sell to people and send to their homes. She utilized Facebook to connect with customers and do tutorials on crafts and cocktails. For a brief period of time when only outdoor food and beverage service was allowed, she operated as just an outdoor bar. The business she did on social media was better than what she expected for a new business, but still she found herself thinking about the original vision.
“I wanted to come into the studio and hear hammering and laughing and drinks being made and I would come in and be by myself, nobody else could be right,” Vieira said. “It was really disappointing.”
Crafted is once again open for regular business. She now gets to hear the laughing and the hammering. As far as what to expect in the future, the pandemic taught Vieira to expect the unexpected.
“What we’ve learned from the pandemic is just to let go of expectations and be flexible,” Vieira said. “We’re just gonna have to continue to do that and roll with the punches.”
Pandemic, burglary cannot slow these brothers’ ambitions
The Cannon brothers had already found success with their clothing business, 1 Hundred Degree Fashion, through online sales. So, brothers Josh and Bryan Cannon decided it was time to open a brick-and-mortar location.
Before opening their Peoria shop, the Cannons were taking their clothing around the country, including to Atlanta and Chicago, to set up pop-up shops, riding the wave of cities increasing their support of Black-owned businesses in the summer of 2020.
By October 2020, the Cannons knew what challenges to expect from the pandemic: People were not going out to bars, restaurants or clubs, so the demand for trendy fashion declined.
But it was the challenges posed by other people that caught them most off guard.
Barely a month after opening, the Cannons went to their store to find it completely empty. Someone had burglarized them and they had to shut down until mid-January to restock.
“It was like, ‘Damn, we just opened,'” Josh Cannon said.
This was not about to slow down the Cannon brothers. The Cannons recovered from the burglary and say they are always looking to what is next. They say the pandemic gave them extra time to plan and think about where they would like to take their business.
“We just had to get whatever we still got together to chase this dream of ours,” Bryan Cannon said. “We can’t just stop and we’ve got to prove that this is just a small bump in the road. We’re already giants and we’re really kings and we deserve to be at the top. So we can’t just let a group of people who think they can take from us stop us.”