Fred Rogers made a name for himself asking one simple question: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Within the borders of Skokie and Evanston — or “The Skev” — being that neighbor means a little more for the small businesses.
Whether it’s catching the latest gossip at the town barber, grabbing a quick lunch at the neighborhood cafe, or meeting a friend for a pint at the brewpub, communities are created by the residents who know why it’s worth taking the extra time, or spending a few more bucks, to engage with and support local businesses. In this month’s Inside the Skev Podcast roundup, we dive into the stories that showcase just what it means to be a true neighbor.
‘The King and Princess of Skokie’
The air would still be crisp and the tree buds would be starting to bloom, but in Skokie spring had already started.The first sign? Mickey Natale’s red 1963 Chevy Corvette Stingray was parked in front of King Kuts on Dempster. Mickey, like his car, epitomizes the classic local barber. He’s a friend to anyone who walks through the door and the owner of a barbershop that moonlights as a community center.
“It’s a party shop with barber chairs,” Mickey joked. His daughter Liz runs the shop with him, and she agreed that the business license might say barber shop, but King Kuts was so much more.
King Kuts also has inadvertently become a haven for birds over the years as, like most animal oddities at a locally-owned shop, accidently become a staple part of the shop’s decor. That’s what happened after their Zebra Finches a customer gave them mated, which turned two birds into 18.
“We started giving them away because we had too many birds,” Liz recalled. “It became a joke. Free bird with haircut.”
Jokes aside, King Kuts has become an institution in Skokie for 57 years because the impact it’s had on generations of families. Grandfathers, fathers, sons and grandsons…a solid way to create life-long customers. Mickey started his business with his brother Kenny in October 1962, when the duo were just 19 and 23. They had one customer so loyal he drove from out of town for more than 60 years. Skokie honored the business for its 50th by making October 6th “King Kuts Day.” Local businesses have named staple cuisines and sandwiches after Mickey. He’s a character people know.
Over the nearly six decades in business, the King Kut crew has found its share of stories, and become part of its customers lives far beyond the shop. In the 70s when the long hair trend caused business to slow down, they grew their business plans by doing work on their customer’s cars after hours. They’re on the list for plenty of family weddings and bar mitzvahs and they usually know a lot about what’s going on in everyone’s lives.
Even in his 80s, there’s nowhere Mickey would rather spend his days. “That’s my life,” Mickey said. “They’re all my friends. We have so many customers and everyone is so unique. There aren’t many like us anymore.”
“You feel part of the community. You’re part of the families,” Liz echoed. “It keeps you healthier. You have your community and you always have somewhere to go.”
Want to learn more about King Kuts’ history? Listen to the rest of this edition of Inside the Skev here.
Kings Kuts is located at 3558 Dempster Street in Skokie.
Small Hops to Big Spaces
The craft beer scene is booming, but not all craft beer joints are created equal. Many start with a big space and hope people will come. Shawn Decker and Cesar Marron took a different approach: Start really, really small and grow through community support. From there, Sketchbook Brewing was born.
“One of the things that’s a little rate is how organic we are. We didn’t start with a big batch of capital. We were home brewers and we loved to make beer,” Sean said. “We recruited community members. It’s a true community-based brewery, That’s who came.”
Since opening in Evanston in 2014, Sketchbook Brewing grew fast and gained loyalty through its coveted membership program that the founders attribute to the brewery’s rapid success. The Skokie brewery plans are underway. Now they can call themselves true local Skevanstonians.
“We wanted to create a space for us to share what we were making. It was about creating a community space, instead of just creating a brewery. We couldn’t have done it without our neighbors and customers,” Cesar said.
Sketchbook began as a homemade creation, that started with humble roots and filling growlers in an alley. Demand blossomed and the friends who met at Evanston’s Homebrew Club quickly became business associates.
“We had enough money to put together a DIY brew system. There were no pockets to pre-pay for the materials,” Sean explained. Then the membership program started and the buzz around their beer was so good that people started buying into the concept,
“They hadn’t even tasted the beer, but they were investing in the idea of local beer. That was huge,” Sean said.
Sketchbook prides itself on being part of the community and using its brewery as a way to bring people together for good conversations. That’s why you won’t find TVs at either of their locations, which was a decision supported by customers.
“There is incredible community support. We personally just know a lot of people and that was the starting point for community connections,” Cesar said.
That community feel is emulated by the growth on Chicago Avenue that Sean says has a “”Brooklyn-esque feel” that has helped local businesses grow. Sketchbook is now ramping up business, expanding its space in Evanston as it gets roots into Skokie. This growth, of course, takes plenty of time investment from the owners and their families, but luckily their wives also work at the brewery.
“It’s always family time at work and it’s always work time at home,” Sean joked. “[Our wives] got pulled in when they saw into it the community was.”
Want to learn more about Sketchbook Brewing’s story? Listen to the rest of this edition of Inside the Skev here.
Sketchbook Brewery is located at 821 Chicago Avenue in Evanston, and are building a second facility at 4901 Main Street in Skokie.
‘A Place Where All People Are Welcome’
It’s common for restaurants to come and go. Blind Faith Cafe in Evanston, however, remains a staple that’s celebrating its 40th anniversary this month. Owner David Lipschutz joined at the age of 22 with the original owners, Ivan Newell and Fran Welch.
Ivan met Fran after inquiring about a room for rent, and eventually that random encounter turned into a love interest. The two, in “blind faith” opened a cafe and ran the joint with just one employee. By 1982 Ivan and Fran were focused on their growing family, which left little time or energy for the cafe. They approached David about buying the cafe and he eagerly took their offer. His lead of faith was filled with plenty of ideas to transform the restaurant into his own dream.
The vegetarian establishment was a trend-setter and managed to wade what it describes on its website as the “waning hippie days of the ’70′s, the beef-crazy ’80’s, the PC ’90’s, and the booms and busts of the last decade.” If there was any community that would support David’s vision, it would be Evanston.
By 1985, Blind Faith Cafe landed in its current location, which included a bakery and another dining room. The cafe was officially a staple in Evanston. Through zoning battles and obtaining a liquor license in a once dry community, David faced his fair share of restaurant owner challenges, but that has only invigorated him.
David himself considers himself more of a baker than a chef, but he’s become a master of both. It was when he was eight he would bake Jiffy mix cakes at home. Now his goal remains sharing his passion for vegetarian cuisine with his community.
The cafe has kept a few classic dishes from the 80s, but David prides himself on mixing things up and experimenting. Some of the best dishes came out of chef tests with whatever was leftover in the fridge. One of his most notable former employees was Stephen Colbert, which David jokingly admitted wasn’t cut out for the restaurant business.
As an Evanston kid himself, David found pride in being part of the community, which he found struck the perfect balance for Blind Faith Cafe’s patrons.
“It’s a small, big town. That’s one of the appeals of Evanston. It’s not suburbia. It’s not Chicago. It’s got that nice balance of the two,” David said. “The cafe has become one of the backdrops of Evanston.”
Four decades certainly designates his establishment as an institution, and David is content with that title.
“Some people function well in an institution and I guess I’m one of them. I’ve had kids come in with their parents and they came back and worked for me and then came back with their own kids — and then they worked for me. I’ve seen three generations come through as staff, as customers, as neighbors. I’m proud of that.”
David is also proud to be a place where people feel comfortable coming.
“Blind Faith is definitely a place where all people are welcome. We want people to feel like they are in our living room and our dining room. They are our guests and we sincerely want them to have a good experience. We want to let them know if they aren’t happy, we want to make them happy.”
Want to learn more about Blind Faith Cafe’s story? Listen to the rest of this edition of Inside the Skev here.
Blind Faith Cafe is located at 525 Dempster St. Evanston.