Local business celebrates first year of business during a pandemic, owner offers advice for others

CJ's Juicery recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. The shop is located on Ridge Street in Alton, Illinois. 

CJ’s Juicery, named for owner Courtney Jean McLaughlin,  opened right before the world was turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After setbacks in 2019, McLaughlin said she could finally open up her dream business on Jan. 15, 2020 — a local juicery with a built-in mini thrift shop. It was off to a great start, she said. But, the pandemic changed her expectations.

“I just think … with me not even knowing how my first year would have went is just really sad. I don’t know what it would have been like, what it could have been,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t like to get really lost in that. But … I’ll never have that.”

McLaughlin said at first she was really busy as people began staying home, but it didn’t last. As the weeks and months went by and COVID-19 got worse, people stopped showing up and she had to rethink everything.

“I was trying to do curbside and just keep everything very minimal, but … not a lot of people were coming in either. I really had to take that into consideration because I just wasn’t really busy,” McLaughlin said. “But I was busy enough to still be here.”

Greg Caffey, director of Planning and Development for the City of Alton, Illinois, said it has been challenging for small businesses and commends business owners that have been able to hang on.

“I think it’s been very hard for, you know, all business owners, obviously, just given the fluctuations in terms of, you know, the mitigation tiers that we were placed under by the state of Illinois,” Caffey said. “So whether we were under Tier 1 Mitigation or Tier 2 or Phase 4, or you know, just with a varying seating capacity or business hours that they operate under made it very difficult for all businesses.”

McLaughlin said she is grateful to still be in business.

“Everything I do is from my heart. And I truly mean it. I was saying the other day I wouldn’t be in business if I had some McDonald’s franchise, I’m in business because it’s juice, and it heals people,” McLaughlin said. “I truly, truly believe in that.”

She said she took to Facebook and Instagram to keep her customers aware of her hours, slimmed her menu and took pre-orders because in the end, it was all about providing a healthy alternative to other options.

“McDonald’s is still open, and other places that actually aren’t beneficial to your health and that won’t boost your immune system … the juice will help you through these times. They will boost your immunity,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said the pandemic made it even more important that she continue on.  She said the juice she provides is made of healthy fruits and vegetables, helps boost the immune system and can help even if someone is just feeling down and out.

“I’m never [going to shut down] unless someone comes in here and [says] ‘No, you have to stop what you’re doing,’” McLaughlin said. “Like I said, McDonald’s hasn’t shut down, right?”

McLaughlin says it’s important that people understand why juicing is healthy and believes that people don’t have faith in their immune system.

“It’s not about staying inside and taking whatever they tell you to take. It’s about eating the fruits and vegetables, drinking the juice, taking vitamins, getting sunlight when we can and breathing fresh air when you can,“ McLaughlin said. “It is definitely just remembering that you have an immune system and that it’s there for a reason, so we should try and take care of it.”

CJ’s serves cold-pressed juices that can only be stored for two to three days before they spoil, McLaughlin said. So all of her juice is prepared fresh, and nothing goes to waste. She said everything that might be discarded instead goes into smoothies.

“Smoothies have the fiber. Like with the juice, it’s more straight, like nutrients, it’ll go into the bloodstream, but with the smoothie, it’s more of a filling fiber,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said she avoids using processed proteins in her smoothies because eating healthy should taste good.

“I want it to be real. I want you to know it is about being healthy when you come in here, and it’s about picking that choice that doesn’t taste bad. People think health has to be gross, and it doesn’t,” McLaughlin said. “I make everything … taste just as good as all the processed stuff, but it’s actually healthy.”

McLaughlin said she always adds chia, flax or hemp parts packed with protein because fruits don’t have a lot of protein.

Kathy Mora, registered dietitian and assistant professor of nutrition at SIUE, said she would like to see more college students learning to cook and shop for healthy foods without the false sense that they have to go to a juice place to get something healthy.

“As a dietician, we recommend eating a wide variety of foods, eating whole foods, like the least processed foods,” Mora said. “So [juicing] products can provide healthy nutrients, but for the cost [at a juicery], you could probably get a lot of fruits and vegetables.”

Mora said besides being a convenient option to fast food, one of the benefits to places like CJ’s is that the combination of produce that is being used might be more than what somebody would choose independently.

“[Students] might not eat that many carrots, or they might not eat carrots at all, or they might never eat kale, but they … like it in a green smoothie or green juice drink… it gives [students] an opportunity to introduce new, fresh produce … into their diet in a way that is more fun and palatable and enjoyable for them,“ Mora said. “If you drink something, it seems easy, versus ‘I have to get a bag of kale and figure out what to do with it.’”

McLaughlin said she celebrated her first year in business by holding a special and having live music.

“It was really kind of a walk-in-and-out type thing. You know, everybody was wearing masks. I had my … friend in the corner, he was playing some acoustic [music], but it was just very minimal,” McLaughlin said. “But say, if we didn’t have COVID, it probably would have been like, three times what it was.”

McLaughlin said while the pandemic has put off her plans of adding yoga and reiki sessions in-store, they are still on the table. In the meantime, she said she isn’t giving up and shared her advice for others.

“Don’t get stuck. Everything is temporary … [you’ve] got to get up, you have to do what you got to do and don’t let the anxieties of not having enough customers in one day bring you down the rest of the year,” McLaughlin said. “You know, just because there’s one bad day, bad week or bad month doesn’t mean it is going to be terrible forever.”

CJ’s offers juices, smoothies, protein bars, vegan peanut butter balls, soups, muffins and more. 

CJ’s Juicery is located at 415 Ridge St. in Alton, Illinois, just six minutes from the SIU School of Dental Medicine campus. Pre-orders can be placed by calling 419-3684. Their website can be found here.



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