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Boys “R” Us

Watch out, American girls. A trio of Chicago businessmen aim to create a hot toy venue for boys.

Watch out, American girls. A trio of Chicago businessmen aim to create a hot toy venue for boys.

Photograph: Chris Guillen

The driving forces behind Raceline Motorworks, from left; Blake Harper, Rocky Jones, and David Domm

In his dress shirt, pants, and blazer, Blake Harper looks the part of a buttoned-up professional. That is, until the toy cars come out. Then the 31-year-old reverts to adolescence. He crouches on the floor of his Loop office, grips a remote control, and, with a wide smile, sends a small dune buggy whizzing across the carpet at a surprising speed.

This transformation from workaholic to kid-at-play is what Harper and his two business partners, David Domm, 30, and Rocky Jones, 31, hope to see in customers when their retail venture, Raceline Motorworks, opens in July at Westfield Shoppingtown in Vernon Hills. The first-of-its-kind concept lets customers design and build a radio-controlled racecar, then test it at full speed around an in-store track before taking it home. “We all, at one point or another, as boys, loved cars,” says Harper. “Today’s boys do too.”

But the Northfield native and his partners are banking on more than merchandise to make their store a winner.

They are testing out a relatively new concept that, in business circles, is called “experiential retail.” The inspiration for all this was one of Chicago’s top tourist hot spots-American Girl Place. The Wisconsin-based outlet markets itself not just as a doll store, but as a destination for mothers and daughters, complete with a theatre and café. The three businessmen envision Raceline Motorworks the same way, only for fathers and sons, a retail category they think has been largely ignored. “We didn’t have to go through hours of hard research-we just had to look at stores like Build-A-Bear and American Girl and see that they have really succeeded,” says Harper.

Raceline’s 5,000-square-foot store will feature models priced on a scale from $35 to $100 and higher: parents won’t have to invest too much in a car when their kids are younger and in a “destructive” phase. Older boys can opt to build a more complex (read: faster and more expensive) model. For an added perk, “drivers” can go through DMV-like kiosks and get their own Raceline driver’s licenses. The first store’s suburban mall setting is a decided advantage, says Patrick Moriarty, a Chicago-based consultant for FranNet, an industry-leading franchise consulting firm. “These types of stores are destination locations, and malls everywhere are looking for that right now.”

That’s good news for these young businessmen, who believe that the Chicago ‘burbs offer a healthy-and familiar-test market. Jones and Harper met in typing class at New Trier High School; then each went off to college (Harper to Colgate University, Jones to San Diego State University). Years later, Harper, a consultant who developed Raceline’s concept for an MBA business plan competition at the University of Chicago, flew out to California and recruited his old friend for the venture. By then, Jones had experience launching bricks-and-mortar stores for Golfsmith and CompUSA. Ultimately, Harper brought in his college classmate Domm, who grew up in Deerfield and has a real-estate and finance background.

Harper admits that part of the fun is building a business that allows the trio to return to their old backyards. Only now, he says, there’s something worthwhile to play with.

 

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