ROCHELLE — Since the Rochelle Chamber of Commerce, Rochelle Retail Advisory Board and the City of Rochelle opened The Spark Shop last October, things have been “going well” at the retail incubator for local small business owners, Chamber Executive Director Tricia Herrera said May 31.
The Spark Shop is housed in the historic filling station building downtown. It’s for businesses that are currently home-based but are looking to someday have their own brick and mortar location. About 10-12 vendors are in the space at a time selling merchandise on a quarterly basis. Vendors at The Spark Shop also have access to the Small Business Development Center at Kishwaukee and Waubonsee Community Colleges that are aimed at helping small businesses.
“We have some new vendors coming in this quarter that starts June 1,” Herrera said. “We had some good turnout for holidays like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. The products in that store are very geared towards those types of holidays. Easter too. The vendors are starting this week and we have three new ones coming in. They'll be locked in for the popular fall/holiday season. Our vendors that are in there now have all chosen to return."
Two businesses that have been through The Spark Shop are already starting to look at storefront spaces and are putting business plans together and meeting with the SBDC.
“All of the things that program is designed to do,” Herrera said. “We didn't expect people would be so far so early in the program. Because opening a business takes a lot of time and courage to go out on their own. In two of the businesses, we're much further in the planning than we thought we would be at this point."
Herrera said The Spark Shop project has been “great to work on” so far. It’s been a learning experience due to it being unprecedented. For example, a point of sale system had to be worked out when being used for 10 vendors as opposed to just one. Signage had to be worked out due to not being able to place larger signs or attractions at the historic building. Vendors had to learn about paying for expenses like lawncare and snow removal.
Vendors have had to learn how to make decisions about other things such as where and how to advertise their businesses. What’s been a learning experience for all is exactly why The Spark Shop was formed.
“It's for the small businesses, and then it's going to enhance the community when those get bigger,” Herrera said. “Several of our vendors have said, 'This is great for us. This is exactly what we needed to do. We just didn't know how to get started.’ And that's what that program is about. I think it's doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing. And I think people know about it and they're stopping there to shop.”
The Spark Shop’s biggest challenge since opening has been staffing, Herrera said. Part of being a vendor means you have to staff the shop yourself every so often, and a lot of its vendors have full-time jobs during the week when the shop is open.
Herrera said a vendor hasn’t always been available to staff the shop and sometimes the responsibility has fallen back on the chamber office and volunteer students from Rochelle Township High School have staffed it to earn silver cord hours.
Since The Spark Shop’s inception, the neighboring communities of Oregon and Sycamore have started up similar incubators. Herrera said what sets The Spark Shop apart is the fact that the city donated the use of the filling station building and vendors don’t have to pay the overhead cost of rent.
Seeing vendors’ success has been an enjoyable part of the project, Herrera said. She loves sending checks to vendors once a month and hearing the amounts were more than they expected. One vendor recently got the largest custom order they’ve ever received due to exposure from The Spark Shop. Another got 250 new likes on social media after announcing they were a new Spark Shop vendor.
“Those kinds of things are what makes it all worth it for me,” Herrera said. "It's fostering that small business growth and adding to the community."
The Spark Shop is open Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.