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home : news : business   January 25, 2015

7/29/2014 11:30:00 AM
Businesses thrive off demand for niche goods

NewsTribune photo/Chris YucusThe kitchen at DeMilio’s Italian Deli in Peru is truly a family affair. DeMilio’s employee Carmen Wilson puts some sliced green pepper on salads for a catering event. Small businesses such as this are thriving in the Illinois Valley where local shoppers have found big box retail outfits fail to provide the specialty goods they crave.
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NewsTribune photo/Chris Yucus
The kitchen at DeMilio’s Italian Deli in Peru is truly a family affair. DeMilio’s employee Carmen Wilson puts some sliced green pepper on salads for a catering event. Small businesses such as this are thriving in the Illinois Valley where local shoppers have found big box retail outfits fail to provide the specialty goods they crave.
Kevin Caufield
Staff Writer

DeMilio’s co-owner Amanda Luke used a meat slicer to finely cut a massive bundle of fresh, dark green lettuce. On the other side of the small kitchen, Carmen Wilson pulled freshly baked bread from an oven while Donna Fluara poured steaming hot red meat sauce over a pan of mostaccioli.
It’s a typical morning inside the Italian deli shop, where the trio prepares hundreds of servings of their generations-old Italian recipes for various catering requests throughout the Illinois Valley.
“Our catering has been really big for us so we have to focus a lot on that,” Amanda Luke says in between slices.
 No matter where you go in the Illinois Valley, small businesses seem to be thriving. From premium ice cream shops in Ottawa to wedding boutiques in La Salle, local entrepreneurs are finding ways to not only remain profitable, but even consider future expansion.
But it isn’t easy. 
DeMilio’s other co-owner Chris Luke said he and his wife, Amanda, had saved a lot of money for a couple years and discussed with family members their plans to share the family recipes with a deli shop in Peru.
It’s been five years since they opened and they couldn’t be happier for their success.
“Our family has been tremendous and we’ve had to work hard,” Luke said.
“You must be willing to put in a lot of hours and do some gut-grinding. We also prayed a lot.”
Big box companies
About 20 to 30 years ago, big box companies like Wal-Mart, Target, and Menards began building in small town America. Their creation, in combination with the town mall concept, caused many mom-and-pop stores on Main Street to close.
Now, the pendulum is swinging back the other way with a resurgence in small business development, says Bev Malooley, director for Illinois Small Business Development Center at Illinois Valley Community College.
People want
a unique specialty item
 Customers enjoyed the product savings offered by the big box businesses. But they now are realizing there isn’t any charm to those places either.
You can’t go there and find that specialty cupcake or unique kitchen knife.
“There’s a lot of dynamics to business and now we’re seeing a shift,” Malooley said. “There’s a gap, a need, a demand for niche businesses. People want that unique specialty item you can’t find in a big box store.”
Trial and error
The Lukes knew their food tasted good. So it was only a matter of time before locals spread the word that the little Italian deli on Shooting Park Road was making tasty dishes. Add in their catering offerings, and a customer base grew quickly. But prices were a concern.
Beef is at an all-time high. That usually means people add more chicken to their shopping carts. But basic economics shows when demand is high, prices rise, so chicken is costing more too in response to beef.
To keep their deli prices reasonable, Chris Luke said he’s had to monitor weekly his operational costs, particularly waste since all of their meat is cut daily.
Additionally, they’ve had to do a lot of comparison shopping to find the best prices for their meats and cheeses.
“It was a lot of trial and error in the beginning,” Chris said. “But you just have to keep an eye on things every week.”
Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Boyd Palmer said the city has seen a number of start-up businesses take off the ground recently, many of which have taken advantage of the chamber’s benefits.
“Our chamber staff is available to serve as a counselor or a sounding board,” Palmer said.
“We will also work with our members to help promote their business through sponsorships and email marketing. The best benefit of membership is direct referrals; we refer only members.”
Adaptability and
change key to success
Palmer said for many new small business owners the key to survival is adaptability and a willingness to change. “You have to be competitive, provide exemplary customer service, have a trained staff,” he said. “Must be adaptable and be willing to change way business has been done over the past years.”
Future growth
anticipated with dine-in deli
DeMilio’s Italian Deli won’t stay forever in the little carry-out shop in Peru.
Chris and Amanda have been looking at potential properties in Peru to move their business.
One day soon, the deli will have a dine-in area and possibly feature a meat shop where Chris and Amanda can continue meeting people throughout the community. “My father always said the key to his success as a deli owner in Chicago was being able to reach across the counter and shake his customers’ hands,” Chris said. “We’re going to expand. But we just don’t want to jump too soon.”Kevin Caufield can be reached at (815) 220-6932 or

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