In North Branch Works’ last newsletter, we talked about the challenges of pivoting in a pandemic. This month, let’s consider a different and equally daunting challenge: opening a new business in one.
Located on Rockwell just between Belmont and the Rockwell on the River//Metropolitan Brewing complex, Guild Row is a unique social enterprise founded by local residents Elyse Agnello (also the architect of the multi-building campus), Jim Lasko (civic artist and former Executive Director of Redmoon Theater) and Mike Healy (an award winning urbanist and neighborhood development professional).
These three partners began meeting around Lasko’s kitchen table on Tuesday nights back in 2015. Through many hours of conversation, one truth kept emerging: society and social media had “optimized” connections between people to such an extent as to make them almost meaningless. Similarly, the profligacy of smartphone functionality was becoming such that one could scarcely turn on a light or flush a toilet without the abstract disintermediation of a smartphone screen tuned to the right app.
This was a grain worth cutting against, Agnello, Lasko, and Healy decided. They set out to build a neighborhood-scale social club predicated on people making real-world connections, around physical things. Craft and artisanal booms had been the single greatest trend in consumer goods in the prior decade. Why not give people the chance to get their hands dirty trying their own talents and energy at homebrewing, at woodwork, at leathercraft, at bread baking? Why not give people the commodious environs in which to let neighbor-to-neighbor relationships flourish, especially after having gotten their hands dirty together?
The three pitched their concept to close-to-the-ground investors. They scoured Chicago for the right venue: the type of legacy manufacturing structures that had powered the city for generations, and had also formented long-lasting and meaningful relationships between the people who worked within. In late 2016, they connected with Hu-Friedy Mfg. Co., entering into contract to buy the dental manufacturer’s original home buildings on Rockwell St. just along the Chicago River.
The transfer of ownership was completed in early 2017. Financing was secured in 2018, and Guild Row was born.
A “social club for the artisanally curious,” Guild Row now boasts fixed learning, crafting and programming infrastructure: a teaching kitchen (“The Cooking Lab”), a wood/craft shop, dynamic programming space in which a bevy of Chicago artisans will teach their crafts to Guild Row’s members. Married to these hands-on spaces are the most time-tested of community commons: Guild Hall, a members lounge featuring cafe fare by day and libationary offerings by night; The Rockwell Garden, a marvelous outdoor space replete with fire pit, live flame grills, generous arborture and the like; The Belmont and Avondale Rooms, dynamic spaces for intimate gatherings, programming and more.
The membership community of Guild Row is already starting to flourish, with nearly 200 members as of this writing. Those interested in learning more can avail themselves of one of the club’s regular tours, offered on Fridays at 4 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m. To register for a tour, please visit app.guildrow.co.
This is a guest blog authored by Mike Healy, co-founder of Guild Row. Mike and his colleagues are invaluable members of NBW and the thriving Rockwell St./Belmont Ave. business community.