JANESVILLE

A curtain of blue construction tarps could barely hide Rossana Dones’ excitement over 5 Star Tainos, a new Puerto Rican restaurant she is poised to open next week in Uptown Janesville’s food court. The space was previously occupied by a hot dog restaurant.

It’s likely few guests to the mall have eaten what Dones plans to dish out at 5 Star Tainos: an array of traditional, Puerto Rican cuisines such as mofongos, a mix of deep-fried plantains mashed with garlic; or alcapurrias de guineo, a banana fritter stuffed with spicy meat.

As mall food goes, Sbarro or Orange Julius it is not.

Yet, it’s the defunct Sbarros and Orange Juliuses of the world, and the growing number of empty store spaces left behind, that have given Dones and a growing crew of mom-and-pop entrepreneurs an opportunity to launch their own business dreams at Uptown Janesville, formerly known as the Janesville Mall.

Along the concourse at Uptown Janesville there seems to be more shops opening in the small and midsize storefronts left vacant by former chain retailers.

Dones didn’t mention the pandemic or the relative trickle of sluggish, early August foot traffic at the mall at 2500 Milton Ave. at lunchtime Tuesday. Or the conspicuous number of still vacant retail shop spaces and larger department stores that have begun to dominate the scene on the other end of the mall’s long concourse.

Instead, she was thinking of opportunity and her new business neighbors—a crew of fast friends who are at the same new frontier as she.

Like Dones, Paquita Purnell is launching her first standalone shop in the mall, whose management continues to explore new, alternative retail concepts to fill the Uptown Janesville.

Independent shops are replacing recently defunct former clothing retail shop spaces such as Christopher & Banks, where entrepreneur Purnell plans by September to launch Blessed Divine Creations. It’s a boutique and gift basket shop Purnell has run as a pop-up at farmers markets and flea markets for years.

Dones and Purcell met through Rock County Jumpstart, a local business incubator that focuses on black and minority startup entrepreneurs. Uptown Janesville manager Julie Cubbage and Rock County Jumpstart have worked in the last few months to host business expos at the mall for black startup business operators.

That has helped drive a wave of new business openings in the mall.

Dones and Purnell have already linked up. Dones is sharing some retail space at Purnell’s shop for “arts and crafts” products Dones makes.

That gives Dones, a part-time caterer and longtime graphic designer, two vested interests along the corridor that feeds Uptown Janesville’s more bustling end near the Kohl’s anchor store.

Her new neighbor on the concourse, Tennisha Loggins, will be offering up ribs, mac and cheese and other comfort foods at Snacks & Stuff, a new food kiosk that for years housed an Orange Julius. Loggins said another mom-and-pop retail food operator at the mall helped her find a point-of-sale system at a price that saved her almost $1,000.

That’s a big favor for a new vendor who relied on a crowd-funded loan to move her business out of a mobile food truck and launch a new shop at Uptown Janesville.

Like other new business owners at the mall, Dones is dreaming of major shopping traffic arriving in late 2021.

“We’ll be running just in time for back-to-school, then Halloween, then the holidays. It’s pretty exciting,” Dones said. “What the new businesses are doing now is trying to help each other make it. We’re all in the same situation, starting new in the same stretch at the mall. If we can help each other out in any way, we think we’ve got better chances of making it.”

Julie Cubbage said the mall and the new entrepreneurs such as Dones, Loggins and Purnell have worked hard to bring some new concepts and a new, independent, small-business spirit to the mall.

She said most malls that are seeing shop turnover and growing vacancies continue to suffer from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—an issue that has affected customer foot traffic.

Right now, Cubbage said some new store owners eager to open have had to wait days or weeks for materials and equipment to renovate store spaces, thanks to supply-chain bottlenecks that have put a squeeze on multiple industry sectors.

Meanwhile, Cubbage said, it’s been a challenge for small-business operators to book construction contractors who are short-staffed, backlogged with work, or facing their own delays getting materials.

But she said Uptown Janesville is now positioned for a third and fourth quarter with new retail options and unique foods to the mall.

The Puerto Rican eatery and a selfie photo studio that will include a giant model Velociraptor a few storefronts down impress Cubbage. The core concepts of these businesses are bold and unique, she said.

And like Purnell’s shop, they’re built and operated by families whose investment is meant to help pay their own mortgages or put their children through college.

“The whole family’s invested in the business,” Cubbage said. “The kids are part of it and so are husbands, wives, parents. I think once it becomes a family business, everybody’s invested in these spots and seeing success.”

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