Roadwork has U.S. 30 businesses in survival mode
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com October 13, 2012 1:50AM
Domenic Bandera stands on a part of U.S. 30 that is under construction in front of his restaurant, Caffe Milan, which he owns with his wife, at 8303 W. U.S. 30, Frankfort. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 15, 2012 6:08AM
Despite all outward appearances, Caffe Milan on U.S. 30 in Frankfort is open for business as usual.
But the usual business has dropped off by 50 percent, according to owner Domenic Bandera.
“The front of the restaurant looks like we’ve been bombed,” he said.
Diners coming and going have to heed the orange barrels that now line his narrow entrance, or they, too, will drop a foot or two into the dirt that used to be his parking lot.
Bandera and his comfy little sandwich shop are bearing the brunt of the U.S. 30 widening project that has been a two-year work in progress along a nine-mile stretch, to create four lanes from Harlem Avenue in Frankfort west to Williams Street in New Lenox.
He isn’t alone, though. Many merchants along the highway reported declines in business ranging from 10 to 50 percent, courtesy of construction that will go on into at least next year.
Some of the affected businesses are in a strip plaza and able to feed off the traffic generated by other storefronts. But Caffe Milan stands alone on the southeast corner of U.S. 30 and River Road.
Bandera said he has developed a rapport with the construction workers and fed them sandwiches.
“They have been very nice,” he said. They have managed to keep his entrance open — which is now off River Road. But it hasn’t made up for the “tremendous” toll the road project has taken on his diner.
He is surviving on his catering service.
The curb of the new highway will be within four feet of his front window, Bandera said. His front parking lot is gone. Once construction is done, he will have to build a new lot in the building’s rear and reconfigure his main entrance, which now faces U.S. 30.
Those costs were factored into the price the state paid him for his land — taken through eminent domain — but his land was bought when the market was low, Bandera said.
“I can’t do my parking lot until the construction is done. They have a two-year easement to store their equipment here. I have to wait, and prices keep going up. I’m losing money every year,” he said, adding that federal taxes also took a bite out of the money he got from the state, which did not include compensation for loss of business. “I’m an independent business person trying to stay alive.”
‘Why is it taking so long?’
For some businesses already struggling to survive in a tough economy, the roadwork has been a “double whammy,” said Keith Shephard, owner of Feil Water in New Lenox. “If people can go someplace else, they will. There is less loyalty today.”
He also lost his front parking lot to the state, and his customers are buying bottled water and softener salt elsewhere.
“I basically lost all my parking — and I didn’t have a lot to begin with,” Shephard said. “From the condemnation process on down, big government does not care.”
The business owners eagerly await the end of construction, and some look forward to the benefits that a new, wider road may bring.
“Why is it taking so long? It’s crazy,” said Sue Kim, of Welkers Cleaners in New Lenox. “This could put us out of business.”
If there is a bit of good news along the orange-barricaded slalom course that has been U.S. 30 for the past two years, it is that crews are pushing to have the new lanes done before the snow season arrives, according to New Lenox and Frankfort village officials.
IDOT spokesman Josh Kaufmann said crews will continue working as long as weather and temperatures allow.
“If all lanes can be completed before weather and temperatures shut work down, we will open all lanes — two lanes in each direction,” he said.
While it is not possible to predict where specific lanes can be opened, “it seems probable that a significant length of the project can be opened for winter,” Kaufmann said.
Work on the medians, traffic signals, sound-abatement walls and more will resume in the spring. Completion of median work will require lanes to be closed next year, he said.
“It’s gone longer than expected,” Frankfort assistant village administrator Rob Piscia said. “But it will be like a boulevard when it’s done. People will be happy.”
Now that construction has moved to the south side of the street, where there is no underground infrastructure work to do, progress should move quicker, New Lenox village engineer Will Nash said.
“They have accelerated the job and extended their normal working hours to get this done before winter,” he said. “We will need help from Mother Nature. We need the beginning of winter to be like last year.”
When the work shifted from the north to the south side of the street, Phil Knippen, of Tropical Smoothies — on the south side of U.S. 30 in New Lenox — said his business dropped 50 percent.
Eric Carlson, at The Chicago Dough Co., said his fell 30 percent.
“It’s definitely a challenge. From one day to the next, I don’t know where the driveway will be. Delivery trucks can’t always get in,” he said.
Knippen opened his shop in April, in the midst of the project, and said his landlord gave him rent concessions through this October, when the project was initially scheduled to be done. He doubts that he can renegotiate his lease.
“I will make it through winter. I was just hoping to make it a little easier,” he said.
With the temporary closure of Marley Road, Carlson lost a major access to his pizza restaurant.
“Realistically, (the roadwork) has to be done. Unfortunately, it takes a bite out of us,” he said. “I’m just hanging in there.”
Merchants are keenly aware that their customers, no matter how loyal, don’t want to navigate around cement mixers and jackhammers to shop and dine.
“It’s put a good-size dent in our business,” said George Panagos, of Country Charm Restaurant. “I have a lot of older customers, a lot of retirees. If they see a barricade, they stay away. We have a loyal following, but the impact is still there. People have other choices.”
Panagos believes business will improve once the work is done. He already has established new parking areas to the rear and side of his restaurant to replace the one he lost in front.
“The new road will be gorgeous when it’s done,” said Pam Garcia, manager of Creative Toy Mart in Mokena. Since it’s a specialty shop, her customers are willing to “make the effort” to get there, she said.
“Fortunately, we’ve done OK,” she said.
At Hawgs-n-Dogs in Frankfort Square, Brad Andrews said he has seen more dump trucks than cars in front of the family’s restaurant at 80th Avenue. With the place lacking a driveway entrance sign, folks often miss it, and “there’s no place to turn around,” he said, explaining why business has fallen 50 percent.
But the “light at the end of the tunnel” is that he fully expects business to pick up once roadwork is over and there is a new stoplight at 80th Avenue, he said.
“Everyone is just trying to hang on until then,” Andrews said.
To market, to market
Coping with construction not only has challenged their business, but their marketing skills as well.
Panagos has several signs posted along U.S. 30, alerting customers about where to enter and where to park. Italia Imports, in the same plaza, has piggybacked onto those signs, promoting its $6.99 lunch special.
Frank Gatto, of Gatto’s Restaurant in New Lenox, tried to lure in those potential new customers who are working outside his door with 10 percent off coupons.
Joe Pascale, of Aurelio’s Pizza in Frankfort, emails maps to his customers, letting them know how to reach his restaurant.
“I knew it would be a battle,” Pascale said. “You have to let people know they can avoid the construction.”
Pascale and many other merchants praised the efforts of their village officials for working with the contractor to keep their driveways open.
“If there is anything they can do, they do it,” said Pascale, who has been coping with the closure of Elm Street — a major access to U.S. 30.
“Just give me my openings,” he said.
He admitted the recent closure of Enrico’s Italian restaurant on LaGrange Road may have eased his pain. Enrico’s shut its doors to make way for the construction of a new Mariano’s food market.
Gatto’s, another Italian restaurant down the road, may have benefitted as well.
“I really can’t complain,” Gatto said. “We are surviving just fine. The village is doing a nice job of making sure people know where to go. It’s a long ride some days. If it takes you 20 minutes to go a half-mile, you’re not going to come here. But most days, traffic is moving along well. As long as you keep traffic moving, people will come.
“Winter will be interesting,” he said. “The snow is a wild card. If there’s a curveball, that will be it.”
The new Portillo’s restaurant in New Lenox doesn’t seem to have suffered. Mayor Tim Baldermann reported that its opening day on Sept. 18 drew the largest crowd ever for the restaurant chain, and its parking lot continues to fill up.
Anne Burchett, a volunteer worker at the Nearly New Resale Shop at U.S. 30 and Locust in Frankfort, said she is “grateful” for those customers who do make it in. Some construction workers have even come in to buy tools, she said.
“I keep saying it will be awesome when it’s done. It will be a safer, wider road,” she said. “The end is in sight.”
“It has to improve business once it’s done. They’ve been talking about it for 20 years,” he said. “You just have to be able to survive.”