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Local stores must find their niche

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Gary Krambeck

Butch Cueno, owner and operator of Ace Muffler in Rock Island works under the hood at the business that opened in 1955 by his father. Butch bought the business from his dad in the 1970s and expanded the business from just mufflers to all kinds of under-the-car care.

Shopping at the mall sure can be fun, but there's nothing like the satisfaction that comes from patronizing a locally owned, hometown store.

The Quad-Cities has its share of those.

There are too many to name them all, but a few that have been around a while include Hungry Hobo, Trevor True Value Hardware, Ace Muffler and Four Seasons and Leading Lady apparel stores.

Trevor True Value has been in Moline 110 years. It weathered the storm of The Great Depression and is continuing to fight a good fight against larger hardware retailers such as Menard's and Lowe's.

Butch Trevor, fourth generation owner and operator, said the trick to staying afloat is adaptability. Though the store is downsizing, it's not out of the game.

``Today, with all the stores on the John Deere Expressway, it's finding the right niches,'' he said during the store's October anniversary celebration.

Mr. Trevor said his customers like the personable service and varied selection. The store carries more than just tools and hardware. It's expanded into areas such as cake-decorating supplies and rental services.

``We try to offer a store that offers big selection in what people want,'' he said.

Big selection is also a key to the success of women's clothing retailers run by Geneseo-based GWK Enterprises, which just celebrated its 35th year in business. Owner George Kutsunis started the company in 1962, shortly after he graduated from Augustana College. He has four ``Four Seasons'' stores in Geneseo, Davenport, Princeton and Peoria. Another is set to open this July in the new Coral Ridge Mall in Iowa City. A fifth shop, ``Leading Lady,'' is also in Geneseo.

``I think the reason we've survived is we've been aggressive in our marketing and seeking out other markets to assist us in growth,'' Mr. Kutsunis said.

``We give a broader range of merchandise than other specialty chains do,'' he said. ``Plus, we staff our stores with more professional sales people and we give more service.''

Mr. Kutsunis' wife and daughter have followed him into the retail business. They own and operate two shops in Geneseo -- Pegasus Fine Gifts and Pegasus Too, which carries Christmas items.

More than 100 people work at the nine Hungry Hobo restaurants in the Quad-Cities. There are six other locations outside this area. Next year, the chain will celebrate its 30th year in business.

Co-founder and vice president Ray Pearson said he never dreamed the business would be this successful when he and Jim Gende opened the first store on 23rd Avenue in Moline in 1969.

Mr. Pearson said he hasn't been intimidated by the big-chain fast-food stores.

``We're so busy, we haven't even paid attention to that,'' he said.

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Chuck Thomas

Customers wait in line during the busy lunch rush at Hungry Hobo on 23rd Avenue in Moline.

Hungry Hobo's sandwiches are served on bread baked fresh every day in the company's Rock Island bakery, Mr. Pearson said. That's one of the ways the restaurants are set apart from the national franchises, he said.

``We started doing that after our first year in business, and that's how our business has grown,'' Mr. Pearson said, adding that a hefty advertising budget helped.

Butch Cueno, owner and operator of Ace Muffler in Rock Island, said thanks to word of mouth, he's been able to cut his $70,000 advertising budget in half.

Mr. Cueno said he relies on good reviews and a lot of repeat business to keep his under-car repair and service shop running after 43 years. His dad started the business in 1955. He bought it from his father in 1971, and it's still located at 15th Street and Fourth Avenue. Since it opened, Ace Muffler has expanded to offer more than just muffler service.

``We do just about everything except paint the cars,'' Mr. Cueno said, only half jokingly.

That kind of complete service is one reason he believes customers keep coming back. Honesty is another, which, in the car repair business, is nice to find.

``That's where we have built up people's trust, where they can send their kids in and their wives, and feel that they're having the job done right,'' Mr. Cueno said.

He's proud of the fact that the shop has nearly a zero turnover rate. The majority of his 12 employees have been working there for 10 years or more, he said.

Mr. Cueno's advice to others who want to open their own businesses?

``Be honest and fair with the customer,'' he said. ``Get the customer's trust.''

All four businessmen credit loyal customers for their continued success.

-- By Marcy Norton (February 9, 1998)

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