Tim and Bobbi Hays knew nothing about bagels before making them their livelihood.
Ray Binkowski walked away from a mechanical engineering job to buy and run a gym.
Mohammed Labadi sleeps maybe four hours a night.
Such is life as a small business owner.
For the Hayses – who opened Barb City Bagels, 122 S. 1st St. in DeKalb, in December 2014 after careers in education – being the owners of a small business isn’t about amassing great wealth. It has become a way to help their children go to college – their sons, Benjamin, 21, and twins Aaron and Jacob, 19, are attending Moody Bible College in Chicago and are looking to join the ministry.
“A friend of mine who owns a business in another town, she always likes to say when people buy at a small business, you’re not only buying a product,” said Bobbi Hays, who lives in Cortland. “You’re helping to pay somebody to let their kid have dance lessons, or to be able to get the extra speech therapy they might need if their child has speech issues, or allow them to send their kid to college.
“It’s not just buying a product. I’m helping people be able to make a better life.”
Five years ago, Labadi opened The Huddle at 817 W. Lincoln Highway in DeKalb, a burger restaurant in a space tucked into the back of a strip of stores, and said he’s just now breaking even. A bright-green bumper sticker next to the front door reads, “Support Your Local Economy.”
Labadi graduated from Northern Illinois University with a degree in electrical engineering, before realizing a long-held dream of opening a restaurant, which he said began when he worked at a restaurant during college.
“It inspires you when you see locals doing well and creating jobs, and their business is prospering,” said Labadi, who lives in Cortland. “We want to do that. We want to do it. If we work together, we can create a great amount of resources, with NIU and the students that are looking for internships and have ideas. We have people in DeKalb with the means to do something with those ideas.”
While some businesses start from scratch, Binkowski bought a previously established local gym and eventually got a new location and a new name – FitWorkz, at 1690 Sycamore Road.
Binkowski jokes that he spent five years pestering Paul Wright to sell him the Wright Athletic Club, before he finally got his wish in 2007. While studying mechanical engineering at Northern Illinois in the 1990s, Binkowski caught the fitness bug and lost more than 50 pounds. He sold his stake in a mechanical engineering company for the chance to own FitWorkz.
FitWorkz has been operating in DeKalb since 1978, changing hands and locations before settling on Binkowski’s shoulders. He admits that taking over an established enterprise has its benefits – people know the brand – but it also puts pressure on the new owners to not be the ones who run it into the ground.
“With small business, every day there’s always that question: Am I going to be able to make it today? This month? This year?” said Binkowski, who lives in Sycamore and has written three health-related books, including “Eat By Color.”
“But at the same time, I think most small businesses owners just decide failure is not an option. It’s just the way it is. I’m going to find a way to innovate and be resourceful enough to resolve any problem.”
Some small businesses realize that they must adapt to the technological age. Binkowski recently announced his gym will begin to operate 24 hours, and he’s created online workouts for clients who don’t live in the area. The Hayses use an iPad to process point-of-sale transactions and provide free Wi-Fi to attract college-aged clientele – a customer segment they said has grown almost 20 percent.
Labadi said his location close to campus is both a strength and a weakness. When NIU is in session, business is good. But in the summer, things slow down.
“It would have been much cheaper for me to close the business in the summer – much cheaper,” Labadi said. “I’d say it would be about 30 percent of what I lose, but I don’t want to do that for the sake of my employees that are here full-time or part-time and for the sake of the regular customers. You have to plan accordingly when you look at the whole year.”
At Barb City Bagels, they bake between 400 and 800 bagels a day, donating to leftovers to First Baptist Church of Sycamore. While the company helps the community by giving the leftover bagels, Bobbi Hays said, the reliance on the community helps keep Barb City Bagels in business.
“If we all decided to help each other just a little bit more, maybe we’d need a little bit less of Uncle Sam,” she said. “Life is crazy and busy, and cities are big, but there’s something to be said for neighbor helping neighbor.”