For nearly six years, I’ve featured several small business owners in the southern suburbs in this column. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I checked with these businesses to see how they have been impacted. This is an update in this intermittent column series.
A year ago, Antonio Barnes and his wife, Syntyche Barnes, shared with me how the COVID-19 pandemic had hampered their entrepreneurial expansion plans.
But the owners of Midlothian-based Juiced By Shic!, a fresh juice and sandwich business, said the brakes were off. The couple is teaming up to open Meek’s Vegan Kitchen, a vegan restaurant at 12778 S. Harlem Ave., Palos Heights, which will offer a variety of vegan meals and sandwiches along with its beverage offerings this month. They will also open a juice bar in Forest Park in the first quarter and a juice bar in the Healthy Lifestyle Center at 839 W. 79th St. in Chicago in the second quarter, according to Antonio Barnes.
Antonio Barnes said: “We now have the opportunity to grow and expand the brand and we will work hard to do so.”
Early last year, the pandemic made them “more intimidated because things were changing so quickly,” said Syntyche Barnes. “But coming out of the pandemic, it’s even more of an attitude that if it works, it will work, and if it doesn’t, it won’t be because we haven’t tried.”
Entrepreneurs persevere through some challenging times. They originally launched their juice business as a takeout business from SHIC, a nail salon in Syntyche Barnes! An upscale nail boutique in Midlothian in 2018. They expanded with a second juice shop in Palos Heights. The second site offers seating tables and an expanded menu that includes sandwiches and smoothies.
But that opening happened in March 2020, just as the pandemic was starting to wreak havoc. Nail salons had to temporarily close for several months due to mandatory closures. But the couple continues to deliver their juice products from both locations, as well as smoothies, sandwiches, wraps, oatmeal and other items through pickup services and delivery apps.
Last November, the couple closed the Palos Heights location after deciding to team up with friends to open a vegan restaurant at a larger location across the street. They saw an opportunity knocking on their door.
“My friend has a vegan pizza restaurant in Houston, and he’s very influential,” Antonio Barnes said.
Closing the Palos Heights juice shop and moving it into the new restaurant made sense, he said.
Last year, the couple dealt with supply chain issues and inflation — the effects of the ongoing pandemic. These problems still exist.
“There have definitely been some improvements, but the effects haven’t completely diminished,” Syntyche Barnes said. “Our inventory of plastic cups, that’s really the hardest thing. Sometimes it doesn’t come in different sizes. Certain types of spoons are hard to find.”
Before the pandemic, the couple paid $50 per case for the cups, she said.
“Right now we’re paying $100 a case. The price goes up and stays there,” she said. “You have to adjust your prices so you can still walk away with a profit.”
But the couple are careful not to raise prices so high that customers will be put off.
“We work hard to be price conscious for our customers,” said Syntyche Barnes. “Price increases are always a last resort.”
She shared that for some items, they choose to switch to comparable lower-priced brands.
As for her expectations for pricing this year, “I don’t expect them to come back down, but I don’t think they’ll go up much higher, hopefully,” she said.
But their concerns about the pandemic persist.
“I’m really interested to see what this winter brings,” Antonio Barnes said. “That’s when it sprouts. You’ll be comfortable. It’s getting colder and things are spreading. I don’t think there will be any issues with closing, but time will tell.”
Revenue was up slightly last year compared to 2021, but 2020 remains the strongest year for sales, the couple said. They noted that the pandemic boosted 2020 revenue by about 25% over 2019 as customers became more health conscious and looked for ways to boost their immune systems. Syntyche Barnes says their client base today is made up of people who are more stable and are trying to implement healthier lifestyle changes. Entrepreneurs predict sales growth in 2023.
“We definitely expect sales to go up with new menu items and additional locations,” Syntyche Barnes said. “This will help spread brand awareness.”
The couple hope to one day franchise the business and say the pandemic continues to teach them a valuable lesson.
“Life is unpredictable,” Antonio Barnes said. “You can think you know something. The pandemic has shown that there are no promises. Nothing is guaranteed and things can change in the blink of an eye. Do the best you can while you have the time.”
Syntyche Barnes said she learned, “Don’t be afraid to try things, or take calculated risks, if you think something else would be better, if what you’re doing doesn’t work. Don’t be afraid to try something else.”
Francine Knowles is a freelance columnist for Daily Southtown