Local Business

Businesses prepare for warm-weather customers

CRYSTAL LAKE – With spring off to a wet and cold start, seasonal business owners are busy preparing for a rush of customers this summer.

This week Dianna O'Connor prepared signs, ordered supplies, and started stocking the kitchen at The Freeze, an ice cream shop on Route 14 in Crystal Lake that will be packed with families on hot days this summer.

O'Connor, with help from family and employees, scrubbed and spruced to get the seasonal business ready to open Sunday.

"It's a four- to five-week process to clean up, sanitize, and get the place looking nice after winter," said O'Connor, 50, who has owned The Freeze for the last 17 years.

In addition to other preparations, O'Connor and others come up with a signature sundae for each summer. This season's creation hadn't yet been named as of early last week.

Recipes for The Freeze's famous cheese fries and Coney dogs won't change. O'Connor said expensive, high-quality cheese sets her cheese fries apart and the Coney dogs are made according to a secret family recipe.

O'Connor, who spent summer days at The Freeze as a child, has many loyal customers. The first few weeks of the season often feel like a family reunion, as longtime customers stop by to pick up their favorite treats.

"They're like our family," she said.

Elsewhere in McHenry County, garden centers, construction companies, marinas, landscaping companies, some restaurants, and many other businesses are getting ready for their busiest time of year.

Before the McHenry Outdoor Theater opens for the season May 3, owner Scott Dehn has a lot to do. He'll be organizing an effort to repaint the theater's seven-story tall screen, setting up concession operations, and grooming the grounds of the drive-in.

He's also laying out plans to save the much-loved theater as studios phase out 35mm movie prints.

In 2012, Dehn launched an campaign with online crowd-funding site Kickstarter to raise $130,000 to convert the theater to a digital movie format instead of its current 35mm set-up. Because the Kickstarter effort fell nearly $100,000 short of its goal, no money was invested, Dehn said.

This season, he's launching another drive to keep theater in business with a similar crowd-funding site called Indiegogo, which allows investment even if the ultimate goal isn't reached. Dehn, the 37-year-old owner of Golden Age Cinemas LLC, said he hopes to raise the full $130,000. At minimum, he would need to raise $60,000 to $70,000 through Indiegogo to secure funding from a bank to cover the cost of the digital upgrade.

Investors will get free tickets and other perks, including the opportunity to watch drive-in movies from the back of the 1963 Dodge pickup truck used in the new Superman film "Man of Steel."

"This is the big year," he said. "We're trying to save the theater."

It's also an important year for McHenry entrepreneur Michael Fitch, who is preparing for what he hopes will be a busy season sealcoating driveways and parking lots.

Fitch, 29, started Sealcoat Pros Inc. in 2012 after having worked in the industry for several years. In recent weeks he's been ordering supplies and upgrading his equipment.

Last year, he managed to get about 150 projects, in part, by knocking on doors.

Although the small business owner has several projects already booked for this summer, the wet weather has slowed the start of the sealcoating season, Fitch said.

Like most other businesses, there's not much of an off-season for the owners of many small, seasonal businesses.

At the end of the sealcoating season, Fitch returns to commercial truck driving.

"I'm small, so I have to right now," he said.

When the McHenry Outdoor Theater closes in the first week of October, Dehn focuses on his movie theaters in downtown Libertyville, which operate year round.

And after O'Connor closes up The Freeze at the end of the season, she goes back to being a full-time mother of seven. Two of her children, Patrick and Matthew, both play hockey in the winter, which means "there's never a long break" between seasons.

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