Once a couple of sleepy little districts along the Fox River, East and West Dundee are roaring to new life with a variety of culinary delights. Stefanie Dell’Aringa met up with a few of the people whose investments are transforming these sister communities into a must-see destination.
It’s Sunday morning and the line at Craft Donuts + Coffee, 124 W. Main St., in West Dundee, is out the door. The freshly made, handcrafted specialty donuts include flavors like “Cookie Butter” and “Bacon, Jalapeno and Cream Cheese.” Complemented with roasted coffee, these donuts are drawing people every day of the week, not just on the weekends.
Where cynics said nobody would pay a premium price for a donut, owners John and Allison Reno are proving otherwise. Last spring, they invested retirement money to renovate a diamond-in-the-rough along Illinois Route 72 in downtown West Dundee.
“The first weekend, we had more business than we could handle,” says John, who has corporate roots in the Texas-based Whataburger chain. “We ran out of donuts.”
The Renos aren’t alone in their experience. Around the downtown business districts of East and West Dundee, business owners are breathing new life into this neighborhood along the Fox River. Once-vacant properties are gaining a new lease on life, and visitors are trickling in.
If We Build It, They’ll Come
Tim Scott walks Main Street regularly to check on the needs of new and existing businesses. Like a proud papa bragging on his children, West Dundee’s community and economic development director talks excitedly about changes he knows will attract new residents, shoppers, diners and “strollers” looking for a trendy, urban feel with small-town charm.
“We were given the gift of great bones,” Scott says of the late-1800s buildings along Main Street. “These are all wonderful opportunities for us, as a village, to work with these entrepreneurs and property owners and demonstrate a partnership with them through our facade improvement program and co-compliance program. We want to help them leverage their significant investment.”
Recent investments include a number of restaurants, from farm-to-table specialist Bleuroot and Bamboozels Pub and Fusion Bar to longtime anchor Emmett’s Pub and Brewery and up-and-comer Woodfire, a brick oven pizzeria and Italian restaurant scheduled to open in the fall. Then there’s RocHaus, a new live music venue. The long-standing and ever-popular Around the Corner candy store has moved into a new building.
“What underpins a lot of this is making our community a special place that has attributes, a source of pride and convenience where you can stroll public spaces,” Scott says. “We know you may live in a charming town, but we’d like you to come visit ours, too.”
On both sides of the river, newly renovated loft apartments are appearing above storefronts, as are Airbnb lofts. Four units are upstairs from Craft Donuts + Coffee. The building is owned by Andy Burns, a co-owner and founder of Emmett’s, located right next door. Burns was a pioneer for the neighborhood, restoring one of the village’s most storied properties – the Hunt Block – to open a microbrewery in 1998. Scott says village officials were elated to see Burns buy up the building next door to accommodate Craft Donuts’ energetic entrepreneurs and create opportunities for short-term lodging.
In renovating the space, the Renos received tax incentives and a low-interest loan from the Village. They’ve already started paying it back through sales tax revenues.
“The landlord received a grant because this facility needed all of the code upgrades,” John Reno adds. The couple added new electric and water service, too. “It’s great for small businesses, because it’s hard to get funding when you’re a start-up.”
With a degree in advertising and a marketing background, his wife, Allison, recognizes the value in the two villages’ efforts to help local businesses.
“I think they’re doing all the right things to make this a destination for people to come and visit,” Allison says. “Making it more pedestrian-friendly and adding some trees and park areas definitely helps to draw people here.”
Kevin Krak saw the potential when he executed an ambitious plan to restore and upgrade 92-96 W. Main St. and open RocHaus.
Tom Roeser, owner of Otto Engineering in Carpentersville, became a key investor three years ago when he started purchasing and renovating buildings, then finding occupants for them.
“Tom, Andy, Kevin and others are furthering the Village’s desire to ‘preserve, enhance and create place,’ which is first and foremost on our agenda,” Scott says.
Roeser considers himself a catalyst with a vision. Several years ago, he bought up vacant homes near Otto’s headquarters, located just upriver in Carpentersville. In renovating and selling those homes, Roeser’s goal wasn’t to flip buildings for profit. It was to take care of the community.
“Certainly, Tom activated the plan to ‘preserve, enhance and create place,’” Scott says.
In East and West Dundee, Roeser has invested $10 million to turn buildings into eye-catching, period-correct structures that are attractive to investors.
“I had resources, ability and a vision,” Roeser says. “And I could see the other side of it.”
In West Dundee, he purchased a vacant bowling alley, converting one side into a 4,500-square-foot office occupied by a law firm. The other side has 3,000 square feet occupied by Around the Corner Candy and Shine Salon and Spa, the latter of which is expected to open this fall. An expanded parking lot was created across the street after the village leveled a vacant Ace Hardware.
Roeser strategically considers what will work for the communities. “For restaurants to flourish, they need a lunch crowd, so some of the people I’ve tried to attract are not only restaurants, but people who will feed the restaurants,” Roeser explains.
He notes the law office, for example, is likely to feed the customer base, as staff will need a lunch break or a place to hold business lunches. “And now we’re going to get a beauty salon, which is again the concept of people coming from other areas.”
In some cases, Roeser purchased buildings solely to fix the facades, as he did at 121 W. Main St., now occupied by Underground Retrocade, an arcade with 1980s pinball and Atari games.
“The building is not the right historical period, so I will change the look so it fits the downtown,” Roeser says. “This is kind of a unique little area here, so we need to take care of it.”
On the other side of the river, Roeser bought 11 buildings in East Dundee; the most noteworthy may be the Anvil Club, a members-only dining establishment he saved from closing after decades of service. He invested more than $1 million into refacing and revitalizing the business.
When building an office complex at 220 River St., on East Dundee’s depot square, Roeser gathered yellow bricks created by Haeger Potteries, a now-shuttered brick manufacturer that once operated a few blocks to the south.
Kim Srajer’s Around the Corner Candy operated for many years out of a quaint cottage across from West Dundee Village Hall. When the cottage proved to be beyond repair in 2015, she moved over to Roeser’s building at 99 Main St. Two years later, Roeser worked with the village to level nearby buildings and extend a new riverwalk from the north. Srajer moved into the new storefront while other parts of the building were being completed.
“It was a hard first year, occupying a building that was under construction, but our customers have been very supportive of us,” says Srajer, who opened her store in 1998.
In the new space, her store has grown to offer a variety of high-end chocolates like truffles, sea salt caramels and mint meltaways. Around the Corner is known for nostalgic candy, plush toys and fun novelties, and those are still part of the store.
Srajer says she’s excited to see the riverwalk completed, and she hopes it will increase foot traffic to stores like hers.
“We are also excited to see the variety downtown,” Srajer adds. “Great restaurants to choose from, the Underground Retrocade, donut shop, the new antique shop – J & S River Antiques – and RocHaus.”
The increasing variety downtown, she says, “makes it easy for everyone to support local. Supporting local businesses has always been important to me because it puts money back into our community and helps keep it viable.”
Bringing in the Crowds
Jennifer Johnsen, East Dundee’s village administrator, says the two villages historically have collaborated on local initiatives and shared the costs of local festivals like the summertime Heritage Fest and the Christmastime Dickens in Dundee. So, it’s natural that the villages are working in tandem to reinvent their downtowns.
“What we’re working toward now is recruiting more businesses on both sides of the river,” Johnsen says. “We definitely want to focus on our riverfront, too, and we’ve been talking internally about how we can bring more focus on recreation.”
Running past East Dundee’s Depot, in the square along River Street and Barrington Avenue, the Fox River bike path invites tourists and cyclists to stop for water and pick up tourism information. This area is increasingly becoming known as the village’s “Culinary District.” Discussions about the Culinary District began some time in 2013, says Johnsen, as businesses like Italian restaurant Aliano’s and specialty shop The Uncommon Palate started grabbing a diverse customer base.
Events like Wine Down Wednesday and Thirsty Thursday, both sponsored by the village and Depot neighbors like the Anvil Club, bring in locals and out-of-towners who wander into area businesses and return later on.
“We purchased a caboose, located it right off the bike path, and lease it out as a restaurant,” Johnsen says. “This year, we have a new operator, a local barbecue place called Dukes Blues N’ BBQ, which had a grand opening in May.”
Free concerts run throughout the summer in both towns. An ever-changing farmers market, held Saturdays from May through October in East Dundee, brings in a variety of new faces.
“We do a lot to recruit new business, retain existing business, and attract visitors, and we’re looking to revamp our marketing efforts to do even do more,” Johnsen says.
Keeping the Books
Spreading the word about East and West Dundee’s reawakening is a chief duty of the Destination Dundee Association. Few people know the numbers behind this movement like Terry Donati, of TurnKey Business Brokers, 212 Lincoln Ave., in West Dundee.
The membership director for Destination Dundee Association has maintained financials on new and existing businesses, and he meets regularly with movers and shakers like Roeser. Over the past two years, he says, close to $20 million has been invested in East and West Dundee.
Diamond Jim’s Bar and Grill, in East Dundee, has spent more than $300,000 on remodeling to attract new customers and retain established ones. Midwest Retro, just across the street, offers home decor and vintage items.
“I’ve got a book I’m working on to tell the story of what’s going on out here,” Donati says. “It’s utterly amazing.”
At 311 Barrington Ave., in East Dundee’s Culinary District, a group of investors including Donati’s wife has opened 10 loft apartments with exposed spiral ductwork, beams and granite countertops. Those units are fully occupied with a waiting list; two new restaurants are completing buildouts on the ground floor. “One is a nanobrewery and the other is an upscale white-tablecloth American bistro,” Donati says, adding that both are scheduled to open in the fall.
Mockingbird Cafe, in East Dundee, is planning its opening next door. Donati says that, since Roeser began renovating, he’s seen a lot of investors excited about what’s happening in the area.
Donati believes Roeser and investors like him have paved the way for others to join the party.
“People are stepping up and signing leases, existing businesses are sprucing up their outsides, and everybody wins,” Donati says. “The villages win because they collect more sales taxes, Tom wins, and we all win as taxpayers.”
The results of the combined efforts are starting to pay off.
“Now we have viable businesses paying sales tax and as business owners, they benefit,” he adds. “As landowners, you benefit because the tenant is paying the rent and you’re able to pay the mortgage. Property values are up 20 percent in the downtown area.”