My name is Dennis Murphy. My wife Bunny and I have lived and worked in Oak Park for 30 years. We’ve always been in the restaurant business.
Our first Oak Park restaurant was in Downtown Oak Park, then known as The Oak Park Village Mall. The Mall was a pretty place. The village trustees, following the recommendations of the survey takers, had created a downtown shopping district that was car free and pedestrian friendly, a lot of trees and flowering shrubs, a lot of benches and grass covered berms. The Mall however, due to that law of unintended consequences, also had a lot of empty storefronts and not a lot of customers.
Everyone did their best, but after years of struggle the downtown property owners and merchants went to the board of trustees and convinced them that the Mall was a costly mistake. The business people each said they knew what their individual business needed and what their own customers wanted but that not all the businesses had the same needs nor did all their customers have the same wants. They needed the ability to make independent decisions rather than follow the consensus decisions of a mall. They asked the village trustees to hug those trees out of there, open Lake Street to automobiles and then stand aside and let the individual businesses do their jobs. The trustees agreed, the independent businesses did their jobs, and today, new independent businesses, including many restaurants, fill those once-empty storefronts. It took a lot of individual decisions by a lot of independent businesses to make Downtown Oak Park more than just a pretty place.
I will repeat the words “individual” and “independent” often because it’s always the small, unique, individual, independent business that leads the way with a roll of the dice. They know what their independent business needs, they know what their individual customers want and they commit their own time, energy and money proving it. Of course, if it’s a good roll, the big chains with their consumer society sameness, follow.
My wife and I next opened a restaurant in the South/Marion district then known as “the wrong side of the tracks.”
South/Marion wasn’t a pretty place. One building had a gun shop at street level with transient rooms hidden behind dirty windows on the two floors above. That building along with a large single room occupancy (SRO) hotel down the block assured South/Marion a lock on the Oak Park SRO transient market. Across the street, was a decrepit theater with sticky floors and slimy movies. What a great area to open a restaurant!
Today South/Marion thrives. The vintage hotel housing our restaurant is completely renovated and filled with visitors from around the world. The gun shop building is converted to condos. The theater razed and replaced by an office building. The SRO hotel refurbished and returned to its turn of the century charm. New restaurants and retailers fill the district. The village provided new lighting and streetscaping. But it was the many decisions of independent businesses, knowing their own individual needs, knowing their own customers’ wants, and willing to invest their own time, energy and money that accomplished the rest.
Look at the Avenue/Lake district. What an amazing success story! A district where unique high-energy businesses, including a lot of restaurants, have replaced a bunch of outdated retailers in tired storefronts in a remarkably short period of time, Avenue/Lake could be a textbook example about how the individual decision making of independent businesses revitalizes an area. And it is at Avenue/Lake that it becomes impossible to question the economic impact of restaurants.
Today, Oak Park not only has a lot of restaurants, Oak Park has a lot of busy restaurants, Oak Park has become a dining destiny.
Restaurants are not easy businesses. Restaurants are capital intensive, labor intensive and time intensive. Give a customer one negative experience and it threatens to erase any positive experience that precedes it. Customer critiques come fast, freely and frequently. What the customer wants and doesn’t want is conveyed on every visit, always face-to-face and sometimes nose-to-nose. The successful restaurants only response to “Jump!” is “How high?” Restaurant Rule number one is “Ignore what the customer wants and you’ll want for customers,” with the rest of the rules being derivative. Fortunately, judging by the amazing vitality of the Oak Park restaurant scene, what the customer wants is what the customer gets.
The restaurant business is also highly competitive. Every Oak Park restaurant competes with every other restaurant that’s a thirty-or-so minute drive from its door. Oak Park may be a dining destiny but there are some real knockout alternatives along the drive.
Oak Park restaurants face a higher occupancy cost than those in surrounding communities. They have to impose, or simply absorb, a higher sales tax rate than the surrounding communities. They have more restrictive operating hours than the surrounding communities. They don’t need additional operating restrictions such as the proposed smoking ban, well intended but always with unintended consequences, that could further reduce their competitive abilities.
But still Oak Park restaurants thrive. They know their customers are quite capable of deciding what they want, by themselves. They know their customers are quite capable of expressing those wants, by themselves. They know that by not responding quickly and correctly to those customer wants the restaurateurs will be in their restaurants, by themselves.
Oak Park restaurants pay high property taxes and produce record sales taxes. Restaurants generate huge payrolls, payrolls that support families, payrolls that cover rents and mortgages, payrolls that pay tuitions and student loans, payrolls that are spent throughout the village generating more taxes and more payrolls. Oak Park restaurants are producing good times for their customers, for their employees and for their village. Oak Park restaurants know their needs, know their customers’ wants and know what decisions to make to satisfy both.
To all the candidates for the new village board:
I thought it strange that the Oak Park Board of Health would decide to present its recommendation for a smoking ban to the current village board and at this time. I thought it more logical to present it to the new board after the coming election. That was until I read a question on Smoke-Free Oak Park’s survey, “would you be more or less likely to vote/or a candidate for Oak Park Mayor and Village Trustee if you knew that candidate supported an ordinance that prohibits smoking in all indoor workplaces, restaurants and public places in Oak Park or would it make no difference in how you would vote.
suspect that it is for the responses to this question, despite its uncertain relevance to the survey and its certain irrelevance after the village election, that is being presented here. Decisions about important issues should be based on the possible consequences and not, even partially, on their potential to enhance or lessen a candidate’s electability. I hope the candidates read the question, read the answer, and then make the decision to trash them both.