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Shaping a Healthy Workplace Culture

From adding social spaces to establishing seasonal events, Chicago's Music Box's senior operations manager Buck LePard discusses the evolution of the historic venue, and how they've built such a tight-knit workplace culture.

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Behind the Review host and Yelp's Small Business Expert, Emily Washcovick, shares a look at this week's episode of the podcast.

Local businesses often take on the character of the neighborhood. But for many moviegoers and residents who live near the Music Box Theatre—Chicago's oldest independent movie theater—the business sets the tone.

Music Box Theatre

"The Music Box is my favorite part of living on Southport [Avenue]," Yelp reviewer Carly S. wrote. "It gives the neighborhood such a classic and historic feel. It is so great to see the people flowing out again after a movie gets out once it reopened [later in the pandemic.]"

Since the theater first opened in 1929, Chicagoans have had the unique experience of watching a new release or classic film under a ceiling of twinkling stars and ornate plasterwork. Even just walking by the historic building gives Carly a sense of grandeur. "It's not your typical, modern-day movie theater," she said. "It has that old school feel. It has the spinning lights on the outside and it has a huge, really cool sign, so you can see it from a mile down the road."

The 750-seat venue has evolved to meet customers' needs through decades of change and expansion. Still, the original facade and Italian Villa-style interiors remain intact. "We never want to… [update] with too much disregard for the theater's history or changing the atmosphere of the theater," said Buck LePard, senior operations manager of the Music Box.

The movie theater is more than just a piece of Chicago history, however. Today, the business provides the kind of experiences that you can't get elsewhere—neither at a big box theater or streaming at home. Customers flock to the Music Box every year for its holiday showings of "It's a Wonderful Life" and "The Sound of Music." It's also a treasured home for foreign and cult films, documentaries, and seasonal film festivals.

Preserving the theater's history while providing new experiences for an audience of local film buffs requires a constant balance. "I like to say, if you look at our calendar, you're not going to like everything on it, but you will find something that you like," Buck said.

The staff plays a key role in shaping these offerings. According to Buck, management regularly turns to employees for ideas for special events and screenings. If there's a genre that one team member knows well, they will often help vet new offerings: "We'll go to them and say, "Hey, what do you think about this one? And what's the best way to reach this group of people?'"

Since the Music Box is such a Chicago institution, it makes sense that many in the local film community—including current employees—have a say in the business's future. "We'd like our staff to be really involved in shaping the culture of the Music Box," Buck said. "We obviously have a lot of people who are very passionate about movies, and because we do so many things, people are able to get their own imprint on it."

Even Carly—who left a review after her first visit to the theater—could sense this enthusiasm. "They were closed for a long time [for COVID-19], so you can tell that everyone's really excited to have moviegoers back in the business again," she said. "They tell you what's on the menu, tell you if there's things to know before, and then they're really excited for you to go see the movie as well."

That support goes both ways. In exchange for the interests and passion of their staff, the Music Box management has taken as many precautions as possible to protect their team and customers as they reopen. For example, the theater's popular 24-hour horror movie marathon, which draws huge crowds every October, became an outdoor drive-in event last year.

Buck said: "Our mantra this whole time has been: We want to err on the side of caution for both our staff and our audience. Even when restrictions have been lifted, we've been like, okay, well let's wait a couple of weeks before we implement anything new. Let's make sure that we have plenty of lead time in training our staff and informing our audience what they can expect when they come to the Music Box."

After nearly a century in business, the Music Box remains a neighborhood favorite because it's embraced the future while staying true to its strengths: a passionate audience, engaged team members, and a slate of one-of-a-kind offerings. For Buck, reviews—both positive and negative—are another tool to build upon this legacy. He loves forwarding praise to staff members, but he also digs into negative reviews for insights that might enhance the customer experience. "We do get negative reviews. Everybody does! And then just have to evaluate them and see, okay, what is useful here? What can we do to improve our business?...

"If you're going to look at the good reviews, you do have to look at the bad reviews," he said. "Some of it is stuff that maybe we didn't consider or maybe we didn't notice ... and sometimes it might just be a person's personal preference." But either way, he added: "We're gonna fix it. And we're also going to make a note to be more on top of it in the future."

These insights have helped the Music Box remain relevant over the decades:

  • Let your team's passion shine through. When employees are invested in your business, their engagement improves both company culture and operations.
  • Connect with customers on multiple channels. Even a historic business must experiment with an online presence, including newsletters and social media.
  • Err on the side of caution. In a crisis, taking the time to inform and train your staff can also help set expectations with customers.

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Buck and Carly, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

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