Since 1971, Metro Centre has made its home in the heart of Peoria. Originally founded by Marvin Goodman, in recent years his grandson, Eric Brinker, has taken over the family business. Aesthetically, it has undergone many transformations, but the heart of the company remains the same: creating an atmosphere of a small town’s Main Street in the heart of the city.
Part of that Main Street appeal can be seen in the many family-owned businesses that call Metro Centre home. Nearly all of the businesses are family-owned, including the franchise operations. As Brinker told iBi last year, “What makes Metro Centre unique is it’s only in Peoria…It’s not something you’re going to find anywhere else.”
Pottstown Meat and Deli
In 1993, Bob and Katie Barth bought Bob’s father’s grocery store and transformed it into Pottstown Meat and Deli. Years later, the store is still around, but no longer in Pottstown. It has since joined the community of family-owned businesses located at Metro Centre.
Four generations of the Barth family have worked at the store over the years. Currently, Katie, Bob, their son, Jason, and Bob’s brother all work at the store in various roles. They all work behind the meat counter, and Jason takes care of the store’s specialty items and alcohol selection, while Katie runs the catering part of the business.
Over the years, as Pottstown has evolved, the Barths try to stay focused on the customer-the hallmark of family-owned businesses. Katie feels that their store, like many others at Metro Centre, provides an environment in which customers and employees know each other by name. And like Brinker, she believes that the community atmosphere at the shopping center is what allows these businesses to thrive.
Bob’s advice for starting a family business is as promising as it is cautionary. “It helps to build a stronger family relationship. If you’ve got a good relationship to begin with, I think it’s a good idea, because I think [working together] builds on it. If you’ve got problems within your family, it’s going to spill out into the business, without a doubt.”
He added, “For a family-owned business, the business is truly your life. Everything is wrapped up into it-financially, physically, mentally.”
When one thinks of family businesses, franchises don’t exactly leap to mind, but they are just as much family businesses as any other. This is very much the case at Metro Centre.
Prior to becoming a licensed member of the EmbroidMe franchise in 2003, Patricia Wright owned an independent embroidery shop for three years. She currently runs the branch as office manager, while her two daughters work as an embroiderer and computer expert.
Wright decided to convert her store to a franchise out of necessity. “We were at the point where we needed to grow or we needed to get out-and it seemed the easiest way for us to grow at that point.”
She feels fortunate to work with her daughters. “We don’t have any fighting or carrying on,” she says. Like many other family businesses, they do their best to keep business and personal lives separate, but like many others, do not always succeed.
“We have done a very good job of that so far, but sometimes it does become a challenge,” she notes. “Once in awhile at Christmas dinner, somebody will say something…and we realize that we’re onto business and shouldn’t be there.”
Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory
For seven years, the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory has sold 35 different kinds of caramel apples, fudge, chocolates and other candy confections. Although a branch of an international franchise, Peoria’s Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory is still very much a family-owned business.
“With a franchise, you have more of a support, and you’re not just stepping off the edge, into the unknown,” says Craig Sprague, part-owner of the store. The other owners include his mother, Shirley; father, Jim; and wife, Tania.
The Sprague family faces the same challenges and responsibilities as other independent businesses. They operate with small advertising budgets and place customer satisfaction above all else. “Most corporate stores just don’t give you the kind of service you get at a small business that’s family-owned,” says Craig. “Service has got to be the priority.”
Soy Candles by Sharon
Sharon Harkless started making candles in her home back in 2001. One of the latest additions to Metro Centre, she has gone from working out of her home to a shop in Glasford to finding a second home in Peoria.
Today, all candle production takes place in the original Glasford store, where Harkless creates the all-natural, 100-percent soy candles for her stores and for wholesale. She hand-pours them in a wide variety of scents ranging from baby powder to lily of the valley.
Outside of the shop, Harkless allows local groups and clubs to use her candles in their fundraising programs, offering them the top 10 fragrances of the season to sell. “The candles, they’re really easy [to sell]. I have found that [charities] come back and say that they sell themselves,” she says. Offering these groups half of the proceeds for their fundraisers makes charity work an important facet of Soy Candles by Sharon.
Over the past eight years, Harkless has not uncovered too many problems when it comes to working with her family. Her husband does various jobs around the store, and her daughter acts as the store manager. She takes comfort in having employees who are “totally trustworthy,” and is happy to be able to share the business with her daughter.
“I started the company wanting to keep it in the family, and I’m glad it’s staying in the family. And eventually, I’m going to teach [my daughter] how to pour the candles, because I’m the sole candle pourer right now,” jokes Harkless.
Abe’s Inc. opened its doors in Lincoln, Illinois, in 1983, and three years later, launched a second branch in Bloomington. The specialty gift retailer made the move to Peoria in 1992, and since then, the store has evolved to include kitchenware, gourmet foods and other novelty items.
The business was founded by Helen and Larry Rainforth, who continue to operate it today with their son, Lance. Lance was just in sixth grade when the first store opened, but he has been involved since the beginning. Like most small businesses, the family members wear many different hats, doing “everything from scrubbing the floors to the ordering to the accounting to the daily operations of running a business,” notes Lance.
Lance originally established and currently manages the store at Metro Centre, but it was not where he had originally intended to end up. While finishing up college, he had decided to place another store in Champaign-Urbana. He was just two days away from signing the lease when he decided to take a weekend trip to Peoria with his college roommate. He scouted several locations, “and within three hours, I had found an empty spot at the Metro Centre that used to be Bushwhackers, and I signed a contract,” he laughs.
After working side-by-side with his parents for over a quarter of a century, Lance offers few complaints. “You have your challenging days; you have your non-challenging days. If the business is running well, then the family runs well. If the business is struggling and there’s difficulty in the economy, then it stretches the family.” iBi