By Colleen Lehmann
It takes a lot of guts, in this day and age, to become a small business owner. Following your passion, stepping away from the steady paycheck and saner hours for the uncertainty of being your own boss is not for the faint of heart.
But while the risks and sweat equity are undeniable, the rewards can be so very sweet, as at least two downtown Tuscola businesses have found, and they are each about to mark milestones in their respective journeys. It’s been a decade since Flesor’s Candy Kitchen put a new twist on their family’s historic business at the corner of Main and Sale, and just down the block off Main Street The Vault Arts Collective will be celebrating the one-year mark since it brought all things artistic to a former bank building.
•10 years and counting for Flesor’s Candy Kitchen
It all started with a sign and a bottle of wine. A little more than a decade ago, Ann Flesor Beck noticed the building formerly housing the Flesor family’s candymaking operations was for sale, and brought a bottle of wine to younger sister Devon Flesor Story to talk over the possibility of re-establishing the family business that first began with their grandfather Gus, a Greek immigrant.
The story is an irresistible one … replete with nostalgia, family drama, good old-fashioned hard work, and of course, chocolate. And that allure is evidenced by the wide variety of media attention over the years … stories in Candy Industry Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and American Profile magazine among others; as well as segments on local and national news, including the CBS Evening News.
“But the really amazing thing is, even though we have watched our kids and the kids who’ve come here and worked for us grow up, we haven’t aged a bit ourselves,” says Devon, who counts having a sense of humor as a key ingredient to the staying power of the business.
“That and we don’t know the definition of ‘quit.’ We are bull-headed, determined people, sometimes beyond sanity,” she confessed. “And of course, without our wonderful bankers, and our loyal customers, and our fabulous employees it would also not be possible. Ann and I are so very appreciative of all of them. We love being ‘that place’ that brings people back to Tuscola to reminisce, a place for far-flung friends to meet up year after year.”
The sisters, who recall long days working in the business when their parents were the proprietors, get tickled by youngsters who now come in and are thrilled with the power of sitting at the soda fountain concocting their own soda flavors.
But while much is the same—candy recipes, dipping techniques, even much of the original fixtures in the shop—just as much has changed this time around.
“Ingredients and groceries are so expensive now. We employ more people so we have a higher payroll. One thing that is different that you might not think about—when my grandfather and father were doing this, air conditioning wasn’t the norm, so you didn’t make and sell candy in the summer, because it would melt. Now, of course, we do so year-round. Another difference making an impact is technology—with the advancement of smartphones and the Internet, folks can use those search engines to help find us.”
Stepping back into the candy-making business, a career choice for a number of Greek immigrants at the turn of the last century, proved to have rewards beyond the culinary for one of the sisters.
“Ann began to do research on the history of Greeks coming to America and becoming candymakers. She ultimately turned it into a dissertation topic for her Ph.D., which she earned this past spring. Now we have this historic tome connecting us to a larger piece of history,” said Devon.
“We have also become a repository for town memorabilia … and people’s extra veggies from their gardens. We welcome both in equal measure,” she added.
And a fourth generation of Flesors has dipped its fingers into the family business, something mom Devon says has been a good thing for them.
“I think my own kids, by coming in here and working alongside us, have learned skills they might not otherwise. It is nothing for them to easily talk to and interact with adults of any age. They’re proud of our family’s history. I don’t necessarily expect them to take over the store, but we certainly wanted them capable of doing so if, someday, they ever chose to.”
As for Devon and Ann, they plan to keep doing what they’ve been doing for the last 10 years, at least as long as they are able to, as the job is pretty physically demanding.
•Happy birthday The Vault Arts Collective
–Anniversary celebration taking place Sept. 6
John McDevitt says he was comfortable with, and confident about, his decision to relocate to Tuscola the arts collective studio he had established in his hometown of Sullivan. A year later, he remains regret-free.
“It feels comfortable here, like we’re really settled. Sometimes it’s like we’ve been around forever, and other times I feel like I blinked and here we are.”
“Here” is the former First Mid-Illinois Bank building at 100 North Main Street. McDevitt loved the space the minute he pulled up in front of it while on the hunt for a new home for his Yellow Dog woodworking studio and arts collective.
“It is kind of the complete opposite of what we had going in Sullivan, in the old Brown Shoe Factory building. There, it was all about the creation of art, with 90 percent of the spaces being utilized as working studios, and 10 percent as retail space. Here in Tuscola it’s flipped—90 percent retail display space and maybe 10 percent used as artist working space.”
And reality has exceeded expectations, says McDevitt. “We started with our original seven artists who made the move here, and now we have twice as many as at our peak in Sullivan. We have about 60 artists currently involved, and could probably accommodate about 10 more, depending on their medium.”
The Tuscola location appealed to McDevitt for two reasons—a more centralized location to take advantage of proximity to Decatur, Champaign-Urbana, and Mattoon-Charleston; and a more accessible location to encourage foot traffic.
“That proved to be the case right from the start. I was here the first day we were open, sitting at the counter, and I saw a young mother pushing a stroller go by. She stopped and looked in the door, saw we were open, turned around and came in. That couldn’t have happened in Sullivan with the building we were in and being on an upper floor.”
The first anniversary celebration will take place Saturday, Sept. 6 from 6 to 10 p.m. As with all the Vault’s gatherings, there will be food, drinks, music and (duh) art.
“Typically, many of our artists will be in attendance, and we will be featuring Karl Jendry, a speed painter who will be doing live demonstrations of his craft. We have a very talented guest artist coming in—Darin Doty, who is a Millikin grad and does a really wide and interesting variety of paintings. Our musical guests are Them Gringos, which includes some of the folks that were kind of our ‘house band’ from our Sullivan studios mixed in with some other musicians,” says McDevitt.
–Full story in The Tuscola Journal Aug. 27, 2014 edition