Small Business Owner Spotlights
Hilary Cheng DDS, owner of Dr. Hilary Cheng general dental practice Read More…
Isauro Barrera, owner of one of Pilsen’s hidden gems, Barrera Shoe Repair Read More…
Elisa Ochoa, owner and dentist at Pilsen Smiles Read More…
Meet Mario DiPaolo, aka “Skip,” owner of Mario's Italian Lemonade.
We’ve all tried, or at least driven past, this iconic Chicago staple, Mario’s Italian Lemonade. Whether you’ve been coming here since the early 70’s like me, or your kids are experiencing it for the first time today—this business’s signature red, white and green facade and reputable customer satisfaction, has purposefully remained the same since the beginning.
I learned so much from Mario and his wife, Maria DiPaolo. Before we got to speaking about the business, Maria confirmed some things I had heard in the past: Mario doesn’t have a cell phone or email. He’s a simple, old school man, who doesn’t own a tie, doesn’t wear a watch or ring, nor cares to be in much else besides a comfy t-shirt. Despite having the means to own any car, and hire anyone, Mario drives his old, beat up car, and you can easily find him sweeping the front sidewalk of his business. When asked why he does this, “It gives me the opportunity to stay connected with my customers. I like to keep an ear to what their experience is like with our Italian lemonades, and let them know I appreciate them.”
Mario walked me back to the days of his childhood. Mario’s parents owned a general (mini department) store, one building east of the stand’s current location, where Mario and his little sister grew up. In 1954, at age six, Mario’s dad decided Little Mario was too hyper, so his dad put a cart with a bucket outside their store, handed Little Mario a hand crank machine with a large block of ice, and this was the beginning of the Italian lemonade we know and love today. While his two year-old sister, Donna, sat on a box beside him, Little Mario cranked this ice machine for hours and hours on end. People paid him two cents for this crushed ice lemonade he sold out of a squeeze cup. Within a year, Little Mario and his father upgraded to a steel-wheeled cart they built themselves. Mario remembers the days when the alley to the back of his house was made of cobblestone, so every night when Little Mario had to wheel his cart back to his garage, he’d wake up his neighbors. Finally, one of his neighbors had enough of the noise, so he upgraded little Mario to a fancier rubber-wheeled cart. The following year, Mario’s father handed him a hammer and chisel, and Little Mario had to break down the brick wall that connected his father’s department store to the building next door, where the lemonade stand operates out of today. (I don’t mean to interrupt the flow of this story, but can we pause to appreciate a 6 to 9 year-old Little Mario running his own business; collecting money in the coin machine his dad had him wear around his waist; prepping & closing shop for this business; and doing serious carpentry work?) Mario and his sister would run this business on their own through 1971. There is a great “Mario, the Italian Hippy” story we can insert here, but let’s leave it for another post. In the meantime, I will say this… If there’s a ghost writer reading this—please give this man a call.
Fast forward to today, Mario and Maria have three beautiful, adult children-- two sons named Mario, and a daughter almost named Mario. Maria had to put her foot down so her daughter could be named Davina instead. In Mario’s defense, he’s the biggest family man. Not knowing which of his children would want to take over the family business, he figured it’s safest to name them all Mario. The most fascinating part about talking with Mario is the way his face lights up when he speaks about his family, like when he describes his late mother’s talent as a professional ice skater, or his late father’s ability to cook better than anyone he knows. When Mario shares stories of the creative ways he courted Maria back in the day, his smile grows bigger than ever. It’s easy to see why-- Maria is a smart, hard-working and compassionate person. Between she and Mario, it’s no surprise their children have big hearts and strong work ethics. Maria started working for Mario’s Italian Lemonade as a young teen, and put herself through college working there. It’s only fitting she runs this operation today with her children.
I’ll leave you with the last thing Mario shared with me before we parted. “At the end of the day, I want people to remember me as a fair and stand-up guy, and my family business as one that values the happiness of our customers.”
SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS OF CHINATOWN
Meet Hilary Cheng DDS, owner of Dr. Hilary Cheng general dental practice.
I met Hilary Cheng for the first time when I came in to interview him for this small business spotlight, but the man’s genuine warmth, sense of humor and charming ability to storytell, made me feel like I’ve known him for ages.
“My seven siblings and I were raised working poor in Hong Kong. Growing up in Hong Kong during the 1960’s, a city that only had two universities for a population of 5 million people, meant there were slim pickings for those who would have the opportunity to go to college. If you weren’t a part of the crème de la crème, which my family certainly was not, you could rule out a college education, as well as a decent paying career. Knowing this, my parents offered me the single gift they could afford to give me: A one-way ticket to the United States after high school. With one suit case, one tote, one camera and one cassette recorder, on January 16th, 1970, I made my way across the ocean to this land of opportunity. I didn’t know a single person in the states, and I couldn’t afford the dorm at my Wisconsin university, so I found an old man who took me in and rented me a room for close to nothing. While I could read and write English decently, my comprehension and speaking ability were pathetic—hence the cassette recorder for lecture hall (thank God!). During the summer after my freshman year, I took a bus to New York to find work. The word on the street was that Manhattan was the place to be for a bustling city with good paying tips. I was able to land a job as a busboy, and quickly discovered my place was at the (way) bottom of the totem pole. I learned my biggest lesson in New York that summer—I no longer had any desire to study business in school. If getting my butt kicked as an immigrant busboy with limited English was a reflection of what my experience would be like trying to climb America’s corporate latter—I wanted nothing to do with it. By my second year of college I decided I wanted to be a dentist so I could have a more equitable sense of opportunity in pursuit of my career. In 1974 I graduated from undergrad, enrolled in UIC’s dental school, and the rest is tooth history.” -Hilary Cheng.
Upon graduating dental school, Hilary was invited by a couple of his classmates to open a lucrative dental practice in the suburbs, but he declined over something he wrote on his dental school application years earlier: He vowed to serve his community as a practicing dentist—and this is exactly what he’s been doing for the past 40 years. If you ask me, I’d say he made a great return on his parent’s investment back in 1970. While young Hilary Chenge had close to zero dollars in his pocket when he first arrived in this country, he was rich in determination and discipline. Fast forward to today, he owns his own practice, and all three of his adult children are following in his footsteps. His son, William, (pictured below) is completing his residency as a root canal specialist; his daughter is graduating dental school next week, and his other daughter is a dental hygienist pursuing a Master’s in Dentistry. We couldn’t write a better ending to Hilary’s story, if we tried.
Learn more about Dr. Cheng’s Chinatown practice and/or book your appt: 312.791.1829 – 2165 S. China Pl. #1A.
SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS OF PILSEN
Meet Jose Perez, owner of the neighborhood's indoor soccer facility, ChiTown Futbol.
Just before this photo was snapped, Jose cracked a joke about the camera adding 10 pounds. I suppose this explains why it appears we're both sucking in our stomachs. I met Jose, the jokester, over 10 years ago when he took over ChiTown Futbol. You really can’t think of a more fitting person to run this soccer venue. He grew up in Pilsen, and started playing competitive soccer at 6 years old. He ultimately went on to play collegiate soccer for the men’s team at the University of Illinois. While he was attending UIC, he returned to his community to help coach Benito Juarez’s mens soccer team. Regretfully, a couple knee, ankle and achilles surgeries later, Jose’s playing career was sidelined, but not before beginning his collegiate coaching career with Chicago State University and Robert Morris College.
Jose has remained just as passionate about sharing his knowledge for soccer today, offering private and community training to young adults & kids aspiring to pursue a pro career in soccer, or simply looking for a constructive way to spend their time. In order to free up his time for this, 6 years ago Jose brought in his son, Noel Perez (pictured right), to help him run ChiTown Futbol. Three years ago, and upon his college graduation, Noel took over operations full-time, making ChiTown Soccer a family-run business.
“I love working with my son, Noel. When he was younger and in school, he’d work here part-time, helping in anyway he could, refereeing games, managing the front desk, helping out in the kitchen and coaching some teams. Nobody else understands the business better than he does, especially with a fresh set of eyes. My other son is getting his Master’s in Athletic Training & Sports Management. Let’s just say the love of sports and training is a family affair. I’m proud I get to share my passion for soccer and business with my family.”
Learn more about ChiTown Futbol’s year-round, soccer sessions for men, women and youth leagues: www.ChiTownFutbol.com. 312.226.1988.
SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS OF WEST LOOP:
Meet the Arsenijevic sisters (& mom), owners of Family Barbershop on Madison Street.
Gina and Lexi are twin sisters who grew up hanging out in their late, Serbian-born father’s barbershop. Their father, Dragoslav Arsenijevic, a life-long, legendary barber, instilled a strong passion for cutting hair with his daughters. So much, Gina and Lexi attended barber school and opened their own barbershop in 2004. Going on it’s 14th year in business, this neighborhood barbershop is a West Loop fixture. Most notable, is that it’s a family affair, with their mom, Diana, sitting behind the reception desk, answering calls, partaking in friendly conversation, and sharing great stories of her late husband. Collectively, these three Arsenijevic women bring a unique charm to this male-dominated industry. There is a 69 year-old barber’s pole and photo of Dragoslav that sits in the corner of this barbershop, adding a unique essence to this (old-school meets new school) barbershop. My son and I have been getting our haircuts here for years, and suffice it to say, it’s never a dull day with Lexi and Gina.
“My dad had hundreds of clients, and he knew everyone’s name. He was always personally interested in his clients, as well as offering good quality work. This is the friendly and reliable atmosphere my sister and I are proud to establish in our barbershop.”
For a great quality cut (and fun shop gossip), I encourage you to look up Gina and Lexi’s Family Barbershop: 934 W. Madison St. - 312.829.0335.
SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS OF PILSEN
Meet Isauro Barrera, owner of one of Pilsen’s hidden gems, Barrera Shoe Repair.
A fascinating part of my visit to Isauro’s shop happened while we took photos of him for this Small Business-Owner spotlight. We must’ve taken at least a dozen of him behind his counter; in back near his machines; standing in front of his shop— all while he maintained a focused expression. Then I asked him to take a photo sitting on top of his shoe-shine bench—(where all his customers have sat for over two decades), and suddenly he couldn’t control his ear-to-ear grin. I asked what’s so funny, and he said, “I’ve never sat here.”
Isauro left Mexico for Chicago at the age of 14 and instantly picked up odd-end jobs as a shoe shiner in the loop. He was particularly good at what he did, and caught the attention of professional shoe repairmen, (including an Italian, a Polish, and a Mexican), who all took him under their wings at different points of his life. He learned a different skillset from each of them, making him a skilled and versatile shoe repairman. But you wouldn’t know this from the humble shoe shop he opened 18 years ago, which I assure you shouldn’t be judged by its cover. Isauro’s shop doesn’t have a website, nor an FB page (yet), but what he lacks in marketing savvy, he makes up for in heart.
“My goal is to teach the young folks the work I do here for two reasons: The first, the shoe repair industry is becoming a lost trade; secondly and more importantly, I think it’s important our youth have opportunities, no matter what their story is. Everyone deserves to learn a trade… and a second chance.”
Learn more about Isauro’s services, which include luxury handbag repair; Air Jordan restoration; and shoe redesign, (applying an entirely different fabric to your shoes). 312.265.1078 - 1004 W. 18th St.
SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS OF PILSEN
Meet Edna J. Vazquez & Jeffery Lung, owners of Pilsen’s newest fitness studio, Vive Healthy Sport and Nutrition.
Shortly after being re-introduced to Jeff and Edna by my daughter, (aside from learning Edna is from my same home town in Monterrey, Mexico, and Jeff is fluently trilingual in English, Spanish & Mandarin Chinese,) I realized this husband & wife duo is likely the fittest couple in town. Between the two of them, they’ve run thousands of miles in races as accomplished ultra-marathoners. For those who don’t know what this means, (like me,)— it means they run 100 mile races. (Yikes!) Additionally, Jeff is a seasoned boxer and Edna has raced across the globe in Spain, China, Belgium, Venezuela, Chile, Africa and Antartica, before life brought them both to Pilsen. Today their mission is to build a strong community through physical activity and healthy lifestyle education. The three values that guide their holistic business model is Inspiration, Integrity & Innovation.
“Our experience with ultra-marathons has served as a metaphor for life; the long distances, the ability to meditate and accomplish your dreams with optimism in spite of all that’s around you. We believe that with ultra-marathons, just like in business, the same principles: risk, perseverance, strength, resistance, hard work, concentration, dedication, faith and an unrelenting drive, are all required to move to the next mile and milestone.”
Learn more about Jeff & Edna’s profound health philosophy and their group fitness & nutrition classes: www.vivehealthysport.com - 312.624.9947 965 W. 18th St.
SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS OF CHINATOWN
Meet Pui Chiu, owner of 超群餅家 Chiu Quon Bakery in Chinatown.
Mr. Chiu’s story reminds me of my late father’s, as it shares the common thread of the immigrant’s pursuit of the American Dream. Both men’s level of education was cut early in grammar school in order to join the workforce to help provide for their family. Mr. Chiu, like my father, left his country at an early age to seize better opportunities for his family in this country.
Mr. Chiu left Hong Kong for Chicago in the the early 80’s. He worked for many bakers in this city before opening his own bakery with his wife, Cora Chiu, in 1986. When they first opened their bakery, it was a small 1200 sq. ft. space with a handful of staff. To date, Chiu Quon Bakery employs over 30 people, and is the longest standing bakery in Chinatown, with over 32 years in business. This bakery is a neighborhood staple, where loyal customers come in every morning for their fresh baked breakfast.
“I'm proud of the contribution our bakery has brought to our neighborhood. I share this passion with my wife, and our kids help out, too. It’s the most rewarding feeling to come to this country with no money and unable to speak the language. 30 years later I get to see my grown, bilingual children pursue their education, and start & run businesses of their own.”
Chui Quon Bakery is known for their traditional Hong Kong style (angel food-like) cakes, BBQ pork bun and Cantonese breakfast & lunch menu. Learn more about Mr. Chiui’s story and bakery: www.cqbakery.com - 312.808.1818 - 2253 S. Wenthworth
SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS OF PILSEN
Meet Elisa Ochoa, owner and dentist at Pilsen Smiles.
“There is a huge disparity in the Latino community in terms of health care. There’s often a lack of communication between the doctor and patient. I remember times in my childhood when I was called on to translate the English spoken by health care providers (bankers and other professionals) for my parents, who migrated to Pilsen from Mexico. As I got older, I knew I wanted to work more hands-on in these situations to make it easier for families like mine.”
Elisa Ochoa designed a business model to serve her Latino Community. She works early morning and late evening hours to accommodate the schedules of her working patients; she provides a kids room for parents unable to secure child care during their visits; and offers access to payment plans for those in financial need.
Proud of the community work Pilsen Smiles brings to 25th Ward.
P.S. Help me congratulate Elisa on her pregnancy. It's a boy!
Learn more about Elisa Ochoa’s story and Pilsen Smiles’ family practice:
www.PilsenSmiles.com - 312.971.8528 – 18th Street & Morgan