When the COVID pandemic first hit two years ago, many small businesses in Oak Park struggled to stay afloat. Most temporarily closed their doors early on in the pandemic to deter the spread of the virus. Some found it harder to reopen because of staffing issues, declining demand, or rising health concerns.
Oak Park and River Forest High School senior Eleanor Green, and her classmates, Ezra Siegler, Dagen Renfro and Eva Spangler, started thinking. In a business incubator class, they focused on coming up with ways to help revive local businesses. They saw how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted brick-and-mortar stores in downtown Oak Park, and they just wanted to do something. The end result is The Box: Oak Park, a gift box service catering to area residents.
“What we really wanted to do was create an avenue to promote small businesses in Oak Park and have new businesses be able to try their products on a broader Oak Park audience,” Green told Wednesday Journal in an interview.
Green said the actual box looks simple on the outside — carefully arranged items on a soft bed of crinkled paper — but there’s a thought process behind the minimalism and the branding. She, Siegler, Renfro and Spangler considered things like the cost of the shipping boxes or the decorative paper to make the product pop. They thought about the items the businesses want to showcase: How heavy are they? Are they perishable? And what other materials do they need to purchase to help protect the product from weather damage?
“We want it to be a nice experience to open the box,” Green said.
Green and Siegler told the Journal they sold their first boxes over the holidays. The four partnered with Brewpoint Craft on Oak Park Avenue who offered up some latte kits and seasonal coffee bags. They also teamed up last month with Blackout Baking Co., also in Oak Park, for Valentine’s Day and more recently with Rare Bird Preserves, a shop on Harrison Street that specializes in fruit preserves, curds, pastries and more.
They often buy the products at a wholesale price and only sell a certain number of boxes. They sold about 50 boxes of Brewpoint Craft’s items. Fifteen boxes had latte kits, while 35 were packed with a couple of holiday coffee bags. With Blackout, the foursome sold 70 boxes, half with mini-chocolate chip cookies and a special hot cocoa mix while the rest featured the February cookie of the month, a savory dark chocolate sandwich cookie, Green said.
The foursome do it all: assemble the boxes, package them and make the deliveries. They’ve also divided up other responsibilities, including managing the social media accounts and the website, bookkeeping, placing orders and seeking vendors. All profits earned go to a bank account set up by the school and go toward their college tuition, Green and Siegler said.
“We don’t get to actually touch any of the profit. It’ll just be sent in a check to whatever university [we] decide [we’re] going to,” said Green, who is heading to college in Pennsylvania.
“It’s a really great program,” Siegler said of OPRF’s business incubator course, adding that once potential partners and buyers catch wind of where the money is going, they “aren’t scared to do things with us because it’s backed by the high school. They know their money is going to a good cause, and it’s not just going into our pockets, and we’re going to buy something.”
Green added, “It’s going to furthering our education.”
The young entrepreneurs said they gained the confidence to talk about their ideas in front of their peers inside the classroom and with potential small business owners in the community. They now see the value of networking and have a better understanding of the world of business itself.
“I definitely took a lot away from this,” Siegler said. “It’s kind of amazing, actually, how far we’ve come.”
Green agreed, pulling up The Box’s Instagram as proof of how she’s sharpened her skills while having fun at the same time, admitting she’s gone “a little overboard,” as she played around with the Instagram account and discovered new tricks to make it look more professional and align with their brand.
With graduation just a couple of months away, Green and Siegler said they’re unsure of the future of The Box: Oak Park but have toyed with the idea of expanding the business to other communities or creating an LLC. The possibilities are endless, they said.
Siegler leaves his peers with this message, a vital lesson as they enter the real world: “If you persevere, you pretty much always get what you want. But you really have to persevere.”