Coffee, Cupcakes and Ice Cream (Oh My!)

Is downtown Highland Park getting too sweet for its own good?

There can be too much of a good thing.

A decade ago, downtown Highland Park was invaded by banks. Lots of banks. Different banks. Clicks-and-mortar banks. Private banks. So many banks, the City Council considered ways to keep out yet more banks, and eventually zoned the downtown a . Smart move, as many of those banks have merged, consolidated, folded or retreated due to over-development.

A few years ago, Highland Park residents fretted over empty downtown storefronts. How was it that the corner of Second and Central, home to a Gap for many years and Chestnut Court books before that, had stood vacant for so long? What about the one-time-Gsell's at St. Johns and Central?

In the last few months, something different has been happening in downtown Highland Park, and I'm not sure it's for the better. Sure, it's wonderful that the Starbucks at Renaissance Place renovated and brought in a Clover machine (review in a future column, perhaps). I, though perhaps not my wallet, am thrilled to see Z Gallerie open up next to Michael's. The lovely new Coldwell Banker office at the corner of Port Clinton Square marks a dramatic improvement over the empty shell of Columbia Audio/Video that stood there for way too long.

Among these new tenants, though, we have a sudden influx of copycats. Cupcakes, coffee, ice cream and other cuisine. It is as if someone suddenly decided that it doesn't matter what kind of business they are, just sign them up for a storefront in Highland Park! Somehow, literally facing off on Central, -- sandwiched between in Ravinia and in Highwood. In the mood for ice cream or frozen yogurt? Well, Highland Park is for you. In downtown alone, in addition to packaged product at the usual outlets, we now have Love's, Dairy Queen, Homer's at Potbelly,Yogen Früz at Michael's, Arriva Dolce gelato and yet another gelato place coming into the Border's space on Central. 

Looking for something more unique? Downtown Highland Park now features a yarn store near the bead store near a paper store.

I am all in favor of new business moving into Highland Park. But something is wrong, and others sense it as well. According to a Patch news story earlier this week, a group of their vision for downtown Highland Park. Since the Downtown Business Alliance already existed as a public/private partnership, there must be a reason for the merchants to organize additional advocacy.

Perhaps the reason is that we seem to be taking all comers. I'm sure some of our new businesses will be successes for now and long into the future. But two gelato shops opening within months of each other? That's poor planning that virtually ensures neither will do well. There just aren't that many gelato eaters in Highland Park. Those that are have probably had a "real" gelato experience, Italian-style, vs. the little dixie cups of bland, manufactured ice cream that I experienced at newcomer Arriva Dolce. Perhaps the next place will be better, but I hate to see them have to fight it out in just a few city blocks of our downtown.

When he ran for City Council, Tony Blumberg brought his experience from the Plan Commission and , "Good planning requires forward thinking. While we do have the immediate problem of wanting to bring in commercial income, we need to think about how we're going to do that in the long haul." Right now, we seem to be hovering just at the friction point of whether downtown Highland Park needs quality or quantity. I believe there is a way to balance both. The city and the Downtown Business Alliance, representing all its members, need to be mindful advocates of what we want downtown Highland Park to represent.

Bob Levi August 10, 2011 at 01:40 PM
Nice article, Ed, but you forgot to mention a basic principle of business success - customers want choices and businesses need to provide good products and services at competitive prices. And competition benefits the consumer. Customers votes with their wallet and the multiplicity of similar businesses is temporary. Look what happened to the bakery on 2nd street across from Port Clinton where the video store used to be. The nature of retailing continues to evolve. Big box stores provide mundane products, like nuts and bolts, and malls like Northbrook Ct. appeal to certain types of businesses, With the excess of empty stores, I think the city just wants to attract any type of business now to enhance the tax revenue base. As the economy improves, this might change. The types of stores you mention can bring people to town for various reasons. However, driving across Central Ave. last night at around 9:30, I noted both cupcake places were closed as was the gelato store on St. Johns. And the HP movie theater was dark too. It was a beautiful summer evening since the heat wave broke. The Dairy Queen was booming, as were the Japanese and Mexican restaurants just east of the Chase Bank. Both restaurants had lots of folks eating outside in the nice weather. I would image the new retailers group plans on investigating ways to enhance the CBD's vitality. Marketing any business can be incredibly difficult, but product, service and price are still the key elements.
Ed Brill August 10, 2011 at 02:26 PM
Guys, I believe in survival of the fittest as much as the next guy, but I don't think we should be recruiting businesses to fight it out on our city streets this way. The cupcake places have both said publicly they did not know the other one was coming; the downtown alliance recruits new merchants and has likely had a hand in the other new ice cream joints (thanks Lane for pointing out there is yet another place for ice cream). I think if we have and fund and staff an Alliance, they should be seeking diversity, not just willing tenants.
Stuart Senescu August 10, 2011 at 02:35 PM
So Ed is a closet Soviet style central planner? Gee, I didn't know that. When it comes to retail, I'll let the market place decide. The owners of these businesses risk their capital and I say go for it. I'll gladly let them risk their money to open up a store where i might buy something. If I don't, maybe someone else will and the store will be a success based on the return on invenstment goal set by the owner. Now will someone please do something 'retail' in the nice large building at Western/Old Elm (the former carpet,then hardware store) here in the Highlands? I'll bet its been empty close to ten years.
forest barbieri August 10, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Ed: A very timely article with a thought process that has certainly been on a lot of our minds. My thoughts on the subject would range from wondering if our city even has a retail plan other than filling spaces with anyone to thinking that sustainability is a word that falls under a "Green Czar's" realm versa an intelligent and sustainable business plan for our city. Does someone review potential businesses and approve business licensing? While I am a big believer in competition and may the best operator with the best product and service win, I think the cities retail management needs to at least be in the business of helping businesses and giving new businesses that small operators put their time, money and energies into, an opportunity to succeed or fail on their own merits. Believe me, there are some ideas that are sure to fail from the beginning and I am sure I am not the only one that see's a new business and thinks either nice move, or that’s a 3 month disaster. Having two cupcake shops open across the street from each other is POOR retail management and one that could likely lead to both shops failing. The only question becomes which, the natural ingredients or the supersized, will outlast the other? We have a new coffee/Ice location on St John's and now a Texas chain will open a Gelato store on Central. Personally as a lover of Italian Lemone Ice, I am excited. However, as a community member, I do feel for the local shop that will have to compete.
Ed Brill August 10, 2011 at 03:16 PM
Actually, I hear they are an Arizona-based small company (only three locations) and this is their first expansion (not clear if it is original owners or franchise). At least Frost makes their own gelato; it is not clear to me if Arriva Dolce does but I suspect not based on their advertising of it, the quality, and the display in plastic tubs (this is a dead giveaway when you visit Italy). So they are small businesses fighting it out, not a david vs. goliath. Same as the cupcakes, same as the barbecue. And yes, I share your instinct for "that's a three month disaster" -- I was dead right on Necessity Baking (even though I personally tried hard to make their wonderful products known, and even bought into their weekly subscription program. There are definitely others...
Stuart Senescu August 10, 2011 at 03:25 PM
When i think of Gelato, i think of Texas. The last thing HP needs is some Commissar deciding that two hot dog emporiums, three branded coffee shops, six women's dress stores, etc are enough for their markets and therefore someone should be discouraged from opening one more. Remember, someone owns the building and needs to generate rental income to pay the mortgage/taxes/upkeep. If new retail stores are discouraged by the city because its 'bad retail management'some landlord is not going to be collecting rent and the next thing you have is a poorly maintained store front. Is it true another restaurant is trying to open on the northeast corner of Green Bay and Central? Good luck to them. I feel that there is some cosmic battle going on between the open fire pit on one side of the street and the bubbling water leak on the south side, in front of Betts.
Ed Brill August 10, 2011 at 03:28 PM
well you made me laugh :-) Yes, a new restaurant called "M" (that will be easy to find on the search engines) is supposed to go into that space. I've emailed the owner to try to interview him for a future column. I have heard the "bubbling water leak" is supposed to have a finial sculpture of some kind, but right now I agree with that characterization. The water seems to be everywhere but in the fountain.
David Levinson August 10, 2011 at 03:54 PM
About all those sugary businesses, we used to say, "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker!"
Catherine Lambrecht August 10, 2011 at 05:13 PM
Coffee, ice cream and cupcakes are less expensive forays into food business. Considering the lack of availability of credit, these require considerably less cash. It also mirrors the food trucks of low capitalized businesses. Their low price point makes it an easier purchase for a consumer, too. Competition will settle who wins the coffee, cupcake and ice cream business.
Catherine Lambrecht August 10, 2011 at 05:14 PM
(continued) It was my understanding the Baskin Robbins closed because they didn't want to remodel their location per their franchise agreement. Dunkin Donut's 41 owner acquired a franchise, which is not an unusual business pairing. If there is any lineage to the owner on Central Avenue location, it maybe a sale of a franchise. My dentist is sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and a liquor store. She can rightfully complain about her landlord's choice of tenants. I cannot envision any oversight group in Highland Park offering more than an advisory opinion on what businesses any landlord agrees to rent space to. It was my understanding some storefronts remained vacant, because the vacating tenant was under contract to continue paying rents. Landlord had no real incentive to move on, because likely today's rents are lower. While I am glad to see less vacant storefronts, I know of situations where landlords by demanding excessive rents also caused some businesses to close. Supply and demand has responded by people taking their businesses elsewhere. I remind people when I was a child, Highland Park was a lot less upscale. We had both a Walgreens and a Woolworhs across the street from each complete with counter lunch service. Those days are behind us. I will be considerably more worried if a dollar store opens on Central Avenue.
Stuart Senescu August 10, 2011 at 05:39 PM
Highland Park has enough dentists.....but a tattoo parlor....now there's an idea for a business! What a combination: Late Night HP & a Tattoo Parlor! I bet there's not a tattoo boutique (let's get modern here)between Central St in Evanston [who knows what those crazy NU kids are into?] and Rt 176 in Lake Bluff. Talk about capturing a geographic market. I can see it now...forget the face painting at taste of HP or the 4th of July parade; have a unique North Shore Experience: a Tattoo Birthday Party! followed by a dip at the HP Water Park.Be the first kid at Edgewood to come back from summer vacation with a tattoo! "My parents went to the Turks & Caicos and I stayed home with my nanny from Belize and got a Tattoo!"
forest barbieri August 10, 2011 at 06:39 PM
Certainly, the concept of landlords renting to whomever is willing and able to pay the rent and does not by nature of their business, upset the social conscience of the community, is something I can agree to being a landlord myself. However, I do feel that some process of thought should go into at least an advisory to potential new businesses that another cupcake shop is planning to open across the street. Then the potential tenant has the option to let the best woman in this case, fight to establish retail dominance or consider another location not in such close proximity as one or both landlords could be left with keys to vacant storefronts. Here is where a retail business community advisory could help both a landlord and potential tenant from making bad business decisions or at least an informed decision. As I understand it, both Uncle Dan’s and CVS Pharmacy vied for the corner property that Uncle Dan's now holds. Not sure how the process played out but I think relative to Walgreens being up the street, the community was better served with Uncle Dan's, although from a landlord perspective, I could see CVS as an attractive rental.
Catherine Lambrecht August 10, 2011 at 06:41 PM
For the kids, buy the kids temporary tatoos at the Dollar store and have a party! This tatoo-dentist-liquor storefront sandwich is on Milwaukee Avenue between Lake-Cook and Deerfield Roads.
Larry Hillman August 10, 2011 at 08:57 PM
Excellent write-up, Ed! HP's Business District is at a crossroads. We can go easy. Or we can go smart. I see success only if we work to rebuild our "niche" and better serve customers seeking unique retailers and restaurants. And we need residents to understand the importance of shopping locally. The Alliance can become a great forum to encourage that direction. And it will do that when retailers are finally allowed a greater role ... and when property owners stop clipping coupons and start taking steps to reinforce and improve DowntownHP's image, diversity and convenience. Bob Buhai made that happen in the late '70's. Its time for a tune-up. P.S. Any idea what the tatoo parlor is paying, I might be interested!
Walter (Tripp) Hainsfurther August 10, 2011 at 09:38 PM
Ed: I understand the concern about "too much of a good thing", but it is difficult to legislate or regulate against it. Competition tends to take care of that. My guess is that some of these businesses just won't make it. As someone who was on the Plan Commission when the POSO was developed, let me give you some insight. Banks are actually traffic killers. How often do we actually go to the bank as opposed to banking on the internet or in some other manner? Yet, landlords loved them because they paid above market rents. The corner that houses Uncle Dans was set to be leased to a bank when the POSO was adopted just prior to a lease being signed. The then Owner let the space sit empty because he couldn't get another tenant to pay the rent level the bank was willing to. It took the sale of that building to get someone with vision to lease the space. Not a good thing. Landlords are also enamored with national tenants. My opinion is that those belong in places like Crossroads or Northbrook Court. Successful downtowns are built by boutiques and other businesses run by local merchants who understand their clientele. Our economic development team needs to be working with landlords and perspective tenants to be the bridge. As far as Frost goes, my daugheter spent 4 years in Tucson and everytime we visited we made the pilgramage to Frost. Worlds best gelato! Can't wait until it opens. It will blow everything else away.
Stuart Senescu August 10, 2011 at 10:25 PM
Tripp, Have you had the gelato in France? - while sitting on a bench overlooking the Seine? World's Best? I will demur until they open up. I note that in the last couple of days a brand new huge sign has gone into the windows of the former hardware store/carpet store on Western seeking tenants. Gee I hope something goes in there that will be selling something i may use or consume. Its the North Shore, Larry - Tattoo Botique. You have experience?
Walter (Tripp) Hainsfurther August 11, 2011 at 01:14 AM
Stu: I wouldn't say that the ambiance is the same as Paris, but the gelato is good. Regarding the hardware store, I wouldn't count on it leasing too soon. That area of town just isn't a priority. Kind of like the small commercial district in Braeside. I would note that it talks about medical offices. It's a better location for that then the vacant office building a block away, which should be residential.
Bob Levi August 11, 2011 at 01:41 PM
Reading the above comments has almost caused me to go into a diabetic shock just thinking about cupcakes, ice cream and gelato. But fortunately, contemplating a tattoo parlor has taken my mind off of sweets. Whew! I'm having a tough time envisioning a HP forty-something lady getting a tat while munching on a cupcake with a side of gelato while sipping her favorite coffee brew. ;0}
Molly August 11, 2011 at 08:51 PM
Oh Bob, guess you haven't spent much time at Hidden Creek or a yoga class lately. You might be surprised how many tats are lurking under those E Street denims.
Bob Levi August 12, 2011 at 12:44 PM
Molly, You've indicated there's a market in HP (and possibly along the North Shore) for a tattoo parlor. I wonder how HP residents would react to this type of establishment in the CBD? Would it be as dramatic as the nine-year of discussion about what to do about HP's deer problem? I doubt it. BTW - It's been proven that the final decision on an alternative to killing some of "our" deer herd was the wrong one. I seem to recall several hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars being spent for the sterilization program with little or possibly no noticeable improvement in controlling the deer herd's growth. A report was cited in the HP News a while ago. But I digress. Let's say someone is willing to pay a landlord's asking price to establish a tattoo parlor in HP. I'd bet the City will step in and find some health reason or an ordinance violation to keep the business out of town. So much for the free enterprise concept. I seem to recall that HP has an ordinance whereby an establishment must serve food to get a liquor license? If so, I would imagine the ordinance was enacted to keep taverns out of town because of the "seedy" image. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong about this.
angela shaffer August 12, 2011 at 03:22 PM
A thriving downtown is one that is frequented and supported by its community. We should celebrate the growth that's taking place and pay tribute to all of our businesses. Retailers work hard and risk their hard-earned money everyday (in our community). In truth, they are putting their faith in us! They deserve recognition from those who are showing their lack of it. How many of you who have contributed to this forum have ever owned a business? You want a diverse thriving community? Now is the time to stand up and show your support!
Ed Brill August 12, 2011 at 03:26 PM
Angela, as the recruiter for the Downtown Highland Park Alliance, there are some clear questions in this article and the comments that you could be addressing. Perhaps more than cheerleading, you can offer some answers to how we ended up with two cupcake places, two gelato places, and what the plan is to add businesses that will increase the desirability of downtown? I'd be happy to do an interview format or however you'd like to discuss.
forest barbieri August 12, 2011 at 05:13 PM
Angela: I can only speak for myself but I have indeed owned several US & International businesses as well as sat on many Board of Directors, so I would hope I have some understanding of business. I am sure many of the others in the forum have also have a lot of business experiemce. While it sounds good to say we should all stand up and support our local businesses I would say we need businesses that are relavant and meet the needs of the community. Open a stupid business and you get stupid results. There are no laws other than the laws of simple economics that regulate stupid businesses. Fail to provide value or service and you are likely to fail. Open a business that is too narrow in scope and likely your margins will also be narrow. However, I think the underlying premise of this discussion is to provide some direction and business synergies to help businesses at least be able to make informed decisons and instead of encouraging any business to open it's doors, provide a statistical and practical overview of the market along with current and historic business trends and competition within the area, so that better decisions can be made. I saw 3 more businesses either closing or in one case closed on Central, west of the tracks. Not surprising from a consumer point of view and I would hope that someone can persue businesses that may have more sustainability to eventually take those places.
angela shaffer August 12, 2011 at 05:55 PM
Hi Ed, nice to meet you! I would like to personally invite you to an Alliance board meeting where we can try and answer some of your questions and concerns. They are open to the public and take place the second Tuesday of every month at 7:45 a.m. at the Highland Park City Hall, 1707 St. Johns Avenue. The process (I reiterate the word "process") for any downtown's growth is made up of many components and involvement from many parties. Unfortunately, I do not have all the answers to your questions. With regard to like-minded businesses, my position is to encourage and not discourage those who want to join us. After all, we do have one of the largest downtowns on the North Shore located in a fantastic community. As I suggested earlier, the development of a great downtown is a process, and I believe strongly that we are headed in the right direction with positive momentum. As a Highland Park resident myself, I am proud to say my downtown is thriving! This is more than many surrounding communities can say about theirs. I look forward to seeing you at the next board meeting!
Andrew August 12, 2011 at 08:48 PM
I agree with Ed. Someone should've warned the "second" cupcake store that a first one was already in the works. An entrepreneur opens a business based on the environment. Probably both of those stores thought the environment LACKED a cupcake store. As for planning and sustainability, I'm a big fan of both. My anchor in whether or not a downtown is functional and attractive to all its residents is The Old Lady in Manhattan Test. If you've ever been to the Upper West or Upper East Sides, they're all over the place. Old ladies, pushing those metal grocery carts. They live in the neighborhood and walk to everything. They never need to drive. Rarely need to take a car. They can function independently. If an old lady can walk to everything she needs, you have a downtown with all the pieces in place. A bank. A post office. A grocery store. A small hardware store. Doctors, dentists, pharmacies. Entertainment, florist, cafe. Hair salon, small housewares, you get the idea. I'd like to see a small hardware store return to downtown. As much as I like Mutual Ace, 41 and the u-turn off 22 are a pain in the butt just to get a couple of screws, a furnace filter or a spare key made.
Molly August 12, 2011 at 10:21 PM
Perhaps the tattoo parlor could serve venison thus solving both the deer issue AND providing a diverse retail experience. I enjoy downtown, especially as we live a few blocks away. It's wonderful my teens can easily find their way to the square for an ice cream (and whatever else they do). Our family owns a service business - despite the economic problems we find ourselves busier than ever. There is certainly competition for the same customers but we provide excellent service and clients respect this. I would venture the same goes for retail stores. Look how many HP stores have been open for years - New Balance, Bett's, Ross's, Uncle Dan's, Campus Colors, TWO different candy stores that have basically the same product, Sunset Foods, etc. Personally, I shop where I'm welcomed and can find the product I need. New stores such as Lori's, Table Complements, Fired Works all fit this bill. The various events held downtown are all wonderful. I feel bad for many businesses because of the construction, people are avoiding HP because of West Park Ave, Green Bay, etc. Of course on the flip side, if I can't leave the city limits because of construction that means I'm doing more shopping here at home (anything to avoid Lake Cook Rd & Deerfield Rd!).
Larry Hillman August 13, 2011 at 08:51 PM
Individual Highland Park CBD property owners have ceded much of their traditional responsibilies to the City and the city-like Alliance. Many property owners are now far less active than they should be in leasing, marketing and improving their properties and, I think, it shows. The Alliance has great potential ... but I don't believe it can (or should) replace the creative, entrepreneurial, pride of ownership spirit needed to make a really vibrant and successful shopping/dining district. Even the very best Alliance, or any other committee driven organization, is ill suited for the the task because a shopping district, as much as anything else, is about ambiance and entertainment. Individual property owners really need to step up, retake the reigns and start pursuing something other than the first tenant or easiest solution that comes along. Then we'll again have a CBD all of Highland Park can be pround of.
forest barbieri August 13, 2011 at 11:31 PM
Sorry, I meant East of the tracks not West. A tougher retail geography as it dies in evening hours.
Ed Brill August 25, 2011 at 02:41 AM
As a post-script, I was driving down Sheridan Road today and saw in the space next to Vibe at 1935 (what was briefly an art gallery)...a banner for a frozen yogurt place. Really?!??
william brown September 01, 2011 at 10:57 AM
At one time HP had 5 Grocery Stores in the CBD. 2 Banks 3 Dept stores, (Sears, Wards, Garnetts) 6 Pharmacy's 7 Dry Cleaners 2 Movie theaters, 4 mens clothiers, 8 womens clothiers, 4 service stations. 7 Lunch Counters. you know things change........


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