Chicago’s South Loop is a patchwork quilt of landmark buildings and modern skyscrapers, a place where museums and universities cozy up to parks and recreational fields. It’s where artists, musicians and students stand in line next to young professionals at Whole Foods and South Loop Market; it’s where friends and business partners grab a coffee at The Spoke & Bird, or elbow up to the bar for a pint at Kroll’s South Loop. It’s a neighborhood that is somehow managing to hold tight to its significant history while still embracing redevelopment projects and a changing landscape. The South Loop is a metaphor for urban development done right. And tucked neatly inside the frame of this community is an optical shop that speaks to everything the South Loop is—and was.
In some ways, the story starts at the turn of the last century, when Henry Ford selected a promising new location to expand his automotive business into the Chicago market. Though Ford wasn’t the first to settle on what became known as Motor Row, he was the reason why so many other dealers put rubber to the road behind expansive glass-fronted showrooms on newly paved streets. Though the car companies and showrooms that originally settled in the South Loop are long gone—most fell victim to the Great Depression and changes in the American economy following World War II—in 2001, the city designated Motor Row (including 55 buildings) a historic district. One of those buildings, the original Ford Showroom at 1444 S. Michigan Avenue, was “discovered” a few years later by an optometrist out for a walk. Robert Steinmetz, OD, noticed the building undergoing a brick by brick renovation and in a handshake deal with the developer, negotiated the lease for what would become SoLo Eye Care & Eyewear Gallery.
Founded in 2005, SoLo Eye Care & Eyewear Gallery blends the art and science of eyewear. In a boutique setting that pays homage to the building’s historical significance, Steinmetz and his staff have created the chic feel of an art gallery that very nearly masks the co-existence of a full-service optometry practice. “We offer everything from laser vision correction to vision therapy to specialty contact lenses for those who are hard to fit,” says Michael Bullard, certified optician and lens manufacturing specialist. Additionally, the practice is currently involved in multiple national research studies to examine the ocular effects of concussion and to develop treatments for those with post-concussion syndrome. “It’s all part of going the extra mile,” he adds.
Square footage: 1,517 square feet
Approximate average sale, without insurance: $1,000
Percentage of sales, single vision: 41%
Percentage of sales, progressives: 59%
Percentage of sales, sunwear: 14%
Full-time employees: 7
Part-time employees: 4
Doctors on staff: 6
Bullard joined the practice in 2011, when gentrification had a firm hold on the area, but remembers a time when the community was not so inviting. “In the beginning, there was nothing here. It was a rough neighborhood. The business was robbed twice during the first week the doors were open, but then things started to change. Now there are skyscrapers going up all around us. It’s pretty cool.”
And on the wave of that change, the practice prospered. Today, SoLo Eye Care is home to an inventory of 600 to 700 frames from a growing array of high-end luxury and independent brands, including ic! berlin, SALT. Optics, Lafont, Bevel, State Optical and Theia. Customers are often surprised to hear that the on-site lab can have their glasses ready in about an hour. “Our goal is for instant gratification whenever possible,” says Bullard. Tucked into the modest 1,517-square-foot space (which has since been purchased from the original developer) are three doctor lanes, a pre-test room, the finishing lab and an optical shop.
The practice boasts a loyal following, which Bullard credits to the work ethic and quality of care set by Steinmetz. “He’s a phenomenal boss. He cares deeply about our clients, and he has a loyal following. People call specifically for him and while we get some walk-ins, most of our business is generated through referrals and recommendations.”
Social media is used judiciously with targeted posts that help promote special events, and drive traffic and revenue. “We focus on the quality of our posts rather than the frequency,” says Bullard. “And we’ve recently invested in audio/video equipment that will enable us to generate high-end content and unique views.”
With all its charm and historical reference points, operating a high-end dispensary with limited space in a growing practice has been challenging. “SoLo has grown exponentially in the last five years by offering specialized medical and contact lens care to a demanding patient base,” explains Bullard. “As that base has expanded, we have taken great care to also expand our optical offerings to meet the needs of high income empty nesters, as well as young professionals and their children.”
Inventory is purposeful and complimentary. And while there are elements within each collection that are unique, the store—and the eyewear on display—has a definitive look. “We purposely don’t carry brands just to carry them,” says Bullard. “As a frame buyer, I try to keep things on the shelf that our competitors won’t have. I call it board bait. I want clients to feel like they are getting what they expect, but I also want to give them other options. It’s like a little challenge. There will always be those who want the basics, but sometimes if I can get someone to try a bolder color or a shape that is a little more individual, it can open their eyes.”
Bullard also relishes the stories behind the brands. “I love educating clients about the brands they’ve never heard of, especially when there is a unique story to tell.” State, for example, is one such story. With frames crafted locally and named after Chicago streets, there’s an element of hometown pride that SoLo’s clients are happy to embrace. “There’s something kind of cool about the fact that we share a city; that it’s all happening right here. People love that.”
And while great care is taken to seamlessly blend the medical aspects of the business with the fashion and art of eyewear, Bullard clearly sees the obstacles that lie ahead. “Remaining profitable in an increasingly commercialized industry dominated by third-party insurance is a challenge,” he says. To meet that challenge head on, SoLo will continue to focus on premium peer reviewed products and advanced technology in a landmark setting, fine-tuning what works, and paying homage to history and innovation along the way—much like the Ford Motor Company did, at the same address, all those years ago.
THE INSIDE STORY: 12 THINGS YOU PROBABLY DIDN’T KNOW
- The building at 1444 S. Michigan Avenue dates back to 1905.
- The interior brickwork is original to the building, and the font used on the exterior signage is the same one that was used by the Ford Motor Company.
- The nickname “The Loop” refers to the area encircled by the elevated (“L”) train tracks.
- SoLo Eye Care, which has 185 five-star reviews on Yelp, takes its name directly from the ‘hood.
- SoLo staff opticians have over 50 years of combined experience.
- SoLo founder, Dr. Robert Steinmetz—or Dr. Bob, as he likes to be called—was named the 2006 Illinois Young Optometrist of the Year and the 2015 Illinois Optometrist of the Year.
- Dr. Bob puts his expertise to use as a frequent consultant and stylist for celebrity photo shoots in Chicago.
- Dr. Bob is co-owner of the now infamous Bearsmobile, a revamped classic Cadillac hearse devoted to supporting the Chicago Bears. Yes, he’s an avid sports fan.
- But he’s also really into paleontology. He and a team of paleontologists unearthed a large bone bed of sauropod dinosaurs including several previously unknown species in Southeastern China during the winter of 1998/1999.
- Dr. Bob is not the only one with a hobby. Michael Bullard is an accomplished musician and photographer (he took all the photos for this story).
- The frame that sells more than any other: Barton Perreira Cassidy in Ox Blood. “I’m a sucker for red,” says Bullard.
- Bullard’s first child—Juniper Joy—was born just a few days after we interviewed him for this story.
This article originally appeared in 20/20 Magazine. Read the article here.