Evanston 1st Ward residents were told about some new businesses coming to town — and some old ones hanging on — during a ward meeting Thursday night.

Paul Zalmezak, the city’s economic development manager, and Annie Coakley, executive director of Downtown Evanston, talked about new businesses coming to the Church Street Plaza development — which had faced high vacancy levels before a new owner assumed control last year.

Zalmezak said Devil Dawgs, a small chain with four location in Chicago that features Chicago-style hot dogs, has signed a lease for a space near the AMC 12 movie theater.

He said the restaurant will have “cool murals” designed by Lea Pinsky and Dustin Harris of Art Encounter.

Other already announced restaurants also expected to open in the plaza come spring are Big Wig Tacos and Egg Harbor Cafe.

Zalmezak said the plaza is also working to land the national chain Crumbl Cookies as a tenant, but that deal isn’t fully baked yet.

With the Sky Zone trampoline park also planned for a location adjacent to the theaters, Zalmezak says plaza owner Mitch Goltz is looking to create a space that has wide appeal for middle school, high school and college students as well as younger families in Evanston.

John Pottinger, co-owner with his brother Bob of Al’s Deli at 914 Noyes St., that was opened by their father in 1949, thanked fans of the lunch spot for donating $17,000 in a recent GoFundMe campaign that has helped keep the long-time business open.

“COVID hurt us,” Pottinger said, “and as a couple of old guys, we feel we should still maintain a mask mandate, and we haven’t been doing indoor dining either.”

“And given that winter season is a slower time, we didn’t pay our November or December rent, so come the 27th of December, we realized there was no way we were going to make it, so we did the GoFundMe,” Pottinger said, “and response was really good, with over 280 people contributing in two weeks.”

He’s now paid the back rent to the landlord, who he says “is really a nice guy” who had reduce the rent substantially during the pandemic. And the deli has a cushion of about three months rent left in the GoFundMe account

The lunch spot features French-inspired cuisine, with sandwiches and a lot of soups, plus what Pottinger says is “our most well-known thing” — butter cookies with butter cream frosting.

Another long-time business aided by a recent GoFundMe campaign is Bookends & Beginnings.

Owner Nina Barrett said her campaign raised $102,000 to help outfit a new storefront shop scheduled to open in the 1600 block of Orrington Avenue around Feb. 9, after the current store in Bookman’s Alley closes on Jan. 28.

Overall, Zalmezak said, despite the pandemic-related challenges, Evanston “is doing OK.”

He said a lot of private investment is in the works, and while Smylie Brothers Brewing Co. recently closed, “I think we will see Smylie Brothers back.”

Zalmezak said a city consultant will be making some recommendations about business district improvements to City Council in March and Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) said the city is developing a Legacy Business Program to help promote long-time businesses in town.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. Doing ok is not good enough. Downtown looks like a ghost town half the time. Vacant storefronts are embarrassing. With the new plans for Old Orchard, we are in trouble. The city council focus on all the stupid ideas like bag taxes and gas stoves. Next they will probably raise parking rates. If you think a chef would cook on an electric stove, we just do not have the correct people leading our community.

    1. I hear what you’re saying JP—-many issues pertaining to city are frustrating and also maddening—-certain members of the city council plus others are creating problems as opposed to solving them—-complaints as stated are noted and understandable, but we’re very fortunate to have Paul Zalmezak as the city’s economic development manager—-yes, I know Paul but I’d stand up for him under any circumstances—-Paul’s a great guy who brings both expertise and passion to his job—-in post pandemic environment plus troubling inflationary times, Paul Zalmezak is an excellent asset towards Evanston’s economic recovery

  2. Downtown Evanston is a travesty. Give small and independent business owners incentives to open up shop here. Create an independent spirit fitting of a town such as Evanston. As it stands now, downtown is big-money chains – the only ones who afford the ridiculous rent – creating a very sterile environment, or a graveyard of smaller businesses.

    Evanston could use so many things. A bowling alley, a climbing wall, a real deli,
    a real Mexican restaurant, just to name a few. I mean, is there anywhere for a homer to get a drink in Evanston that isn’t cheesier than a fondue bar in Sheboygan?

    For Pete’s sake. Where is the spirit of this town!?

    1. I so agree with this. Sterile is exactly right. I’m sure Target, Starbucks, and CVS are doing great. There’s nothing to DO here for non-NU affiliated adults who want to go out and make friends. A climbing wall would get my money in a hot second. We take the train to 1st Ascent Uptown when we want to climb.

      There are Mexican restaurants (La Cocinita, Frida’s sort of, Taco Diablo sort of), but I know what you mean. Nothing feels that welcoming, and it’s not because of the restaurants, but the lack of social scene. I’m dying to meet new people, but there don’t seem to be many opportunities here for younger, non-NU adults.

    2. 100% agree. Bar and restaurant scene is not nearly where it should be. You can barely find a place to catch a drink after 10pm on a weeknight and the downtown is Iess and less appealing to the younger crowd every year. Have you been to Andersonville? It is bursting with interesting independent restaurants and shops. What can we attract? Egg harbor? A Chicago hot dog place? Give me a break. this is an affluent college town, figure it out. Why not try to lure some more interesting places here instead of propping up legacy business with tax payer money? Let new entrepreneurs have a shot instead of trying to pick winners and losers.

  3. A lot of similar articles have comments that also compare downtown Evanston to Andersonville which I find interesting a bit misplaced. Is Andersonville great, yeah it is, but lets look why and how it differs from downtown Evanston. First, Andersonville is really a single corridor of business and commercial uses on the east and west side of Clark Street where downtown Evanston is much larger and includes many north, south, east, and west corridors. Second, the single Clark Street corridor in Andersonville is surrounded by much denser residential development between Ravenswood Ave to the west and Wayne Avenue to the east. This creates a higher critical mass of pedestrian traffic that supports a smaller business district as compared to downtown Evanston that has a larger business district or business center with less dense pedestrian support. Third, Andersonville retained and preserved its traditional, human-scaled character along Clark Street creating more adaptable retail spaces with lower rent structures that attract more unique and small businesses. These types of structures and uses are also more attractive and comfortable for people. Compare this to downtown Evanston which has lost a lot of its traditional human-scaled fabric. Finally, Andersonville is walkable and human-centered while downtown Evanston has based many of its land use decisions around the automobile and a desire to compete with surrounding suburban shopping centers. The car is king in downtown Evanston while thats not true of Andersonville. To close, comparing the two as they exist now is not really fair. Comparing 1930s downtown Evanston to Andersonville may be, but many decisions were made between then and now with divergent priorities that have led to one location having vibrancy and character while the other lacks in these areas. Downtown Evanston is fixable, but it takes vision and a change in land use priorities from auto-centered to human-centered.

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