Laurene Lemanski reopens the family business
BY MELANIE JONGSMA
LANSING, Ill. (April 17, 2019) – “Are you in line?” asks the man approaching the Gayety’s parlor from the back entrance hallway.
“No, I’m the owner,” smiles Laurene Lemanski, stepping aside to let him in.
“Oh, thank you for re-opening!” the man says, explaining how disappointed he and his family were when the sweet shop closed last October. “We just love this place. We’re so glad you’re back!”
Lemanski says she has this kind of interaction every day. “It’s amazing. People are thanking me for being open! I’m thanking them for coming here, and they’re thanking me for being open!”
Her March 27 post on the Gayety’s Facebook page said, “The Lansing location will be reopening soon, as the same Gayety’s we all know, but under new management.” Within hours the post got hundreds of likes and hundreds of comments, and now the interactions are in the thousands.
Lemanski did a sort of “practice” opening on Wednesday, April 10. She flicked on the neon Open sign—and watched as a car drove past and then did a U-turn. People stepped into the front door cautiously, almost in disbelief, asking, “Are you really open?” When Lemanski assured them she was, they reached for their phones and began texting their friends. “I had to ask them to stop,” says Lemanski. “Because we weren’t officially open yet, and we weren’t quite ready for all that!”
But the next day, they were ready—and the line was out the door.
Lemanski is not planning to make huge changes. She knows that Gayety’s customers care about the ingredients in those 98-year-old recipes for ice cream and chocolate, and she won’t skimp on the quality. Not only is Gayety’s vanilla ice cream, for example, made with real vanilla beans (as evidenced by the black specks), but the genuine vanilla Lemanski uses costs $450 per gallon. So yes, customers who bemoan the high prices at Gayety’s are right—quality costs more. Hand-crafting costs more. And hiring people who care about the product and the experience costs more. But Lemanski believes the investment is worth it.
Early response indicates that discerning customers agree.
Those quality ingredients and quality interactions are foundational to the sense of community that Lemanski is reviving in her shop. Gayety’s is a place to sit down and socialize, whether you’ve chosen the South Chicago Strawberry-Banana Split, a Muddle® Sundae, or the Gayety Special. The socializing begins while people are waiting in line, and it continues with workers during the order-taking process at the counter, so that by the time you and your group are seated in the parlor or at an outdoor picnic table, the sense of community is as warm as the homemade hot fudge.
Lemanski’s love for Gayety’s is obvious. “I still have the same enthusiasm that I did 30 years ago!” she affirms. She was hired in 1988 at the age of 17 by Lee Flessor, nephew of the founder, James Papageorge. She remembers the fun and hard work that she and her co-workers enjoyed during those early days, and she wants to bring that back. In fact, many of those employees—now that their families are grown or other jobs have ended—are returning to the reopened Lansing shop.
Lemanski’s history with Gayety’s began as a customer. She and her parents and family frequented the 9207 S. Commercial location for decades. The company later opened a location on Torrence Avenue, and that’s where Lemanski was hired by Flessor. Even at 17 she was something of an “old soul,” and she loved hearing Flessor’s stories about his service in the Air Force during World War II. Shelves in the Torrence Avenue Gayety’s were filled with old photos of Flessor and his buddies from the 44th Bomb Squadron; Lemanski would carry them over to Flessor and his circle of friends, so they could share the stories with each other and with her.
She’d love to recreate that tradition by inviting today’s customers to come in and share their own stories of why they love Gayety’s.
The few changes she’s making to Gayety’s are all about enhancing community. She’s added a window to the candy-making room, for example, so customers can watch Muddles® and other candy creations while they are standing in line. (Lemanski explains that Turtles® were a popular chocolate-caramel-nut confection created and registered by another candy maker, so Flessor named his Muddles®— “because turtles play in the mud!”)
Sometimes after closing, when she’s alone in the shop, she walks around trying to see things through her customers’ eyes. “I sit at each booth,” she says. “I want to see what they see.” That perspective led her, for example, to move the giant photo of Papageorge from the hallway to a prominent position behind the candy counter where patrons in the parlor can see him. (She also thinks that he likes the view better.)
Lemanski’s career as a realtor (Briar Executive Realty), her hands-on experience flipping houses, and her degree in Clinical Psychology all seem to coalesce in equipping her for a Gayety’s comeback. She understands what people are looking for when they walk into a physical space, and she was able to give the Gayety’s building the love and updates it needed. Years of developing direct relationships with people have honed her natural sales and marketing skills, and her interactions convey passion rather than pushy-ness, helpfulness rather than hype. People understand that she is an authentic part of the Gayety’s story, and they are delighted that she wants them to be part of it too.
The time is right, she believes, for Gayety’s to be in Lansing. The opening of Fox Pointe gives her a premier venue for sharing her premier confections, and this summer’s concerts and programs will give her opportunities to share the Gayety’s story with out-of-towners as well as locals.
“Hopefully we’ll be around for another 100 years,” she says. And then the wheels start turning as she thinks of ways to make sure that happens.
Gayety’s Chocolates & Ice Cream is located at 3306 Ridge Road in Lansing, Illinois. Store hours are 12:00–8:00pm Sunday–Thursday and 12:00–9:00pm Friday–Saturday.