A Visit to Buena Vista Optical

Walking into Buena Vista Optical was like coming home. It’s nestled on the corner of Kedzie and 65thstreet in the Chicago Lawn/West Lawn area, close to Midway. Bright dots line the exterior awning and the interior is just as colorful, in a chic and uplifting way.

This isn’t the traditional eye doctor’s office you’re used to. Most offices are plain, almost sterile – set up to get you in and get you out. At Buena Vista, they want you to make yourself feel at home. Spanish salsa music plays overhead, the décor is bright and welcoming and there are areas set up for the little ones. Organized in key areas throughout the office, you can find a variety of skillfully merchandised eyewear from a variety of designers, but I stopped in to learn about La Vida EyewearA collection designed for the Latinx and diverse communities by the co-owner of Buena Vista Optical: Diana Canto-Sims – the “eyeball doctor turned eyewear designer”. 

Family eyesight issues, as well as having to get corrective lenses early on after realizing she had eyesight issues during elementary school led Diana to a calling as an Optometrist. As early as she could remember, she loved the concept of being able to help others see and also offer them stylish optical options. Diana grew up in Chicago with parents who were small business owners, running a bakery in Pilsen during their time in the city. Early in her life they moved back to Puerto Rico and she continued her studies on the island where she eventually went to University to complete her Doctorate in Optometry to pursue a career as an Optometrist. It was also during this time, as fate would have it, that she would meet her husband: Todd Sims who was working on his degree to become an Optometrist as well.

Diana and Todd eventually made their way back stateside to Chicago and Todd ended up completing his residency in the city and they built up their life on the Southside of Chicago. After years of working at corporate optical offices, the couple decided that it made more sense for the direction they wanted to take their own life in, to open their own practice.  They found the perfect site for an office and it was in the neighborhood that was a part of their community. Diana mentions that it has always been important to her to invest in the people and communities around her. While she was building her and her family up, she also thought about how she could positively impact the community around her. Essentially eye doctors in a Latino community that spoke Spanish and catered to the minority community was a need. What better way to fill that need than through her and her husband’s skillset? Yet, it was not an easy task to get the business up and running. Funding is always a major obstacle to overcome when starting a new business. With barely any collateral, banks and even small business organizations were not interested in offering any type of loan to Diana and her husband.  

Yet, a very common trait I see in Latinos is their tenacity and perseverance. Not willing to take no for an answer, Diana and her husband went all in and put up their home for sale and used the proceeds to invest in themselves to open their eye clinic and optical shop. While it was a risky move to make, in entrepreneurship it’s important to take calculated risks. Diana explains that the family ate rice and beans and lived above their office for quite a few years with their young children, but that their calculated risk eventually paid off. They’ve steadily become an iconic office and award winning business in the community. Creating jobs, not only for themselves, but for their community as well and also helping that very community see better. I sat down with Diana to ask her more about her experiences building up the Buena Vista Optical office and what it was like launching their first eye wear collection: La Vida Eyewear

Being a working mother is hard, adding running your own family business alongside your life partner makes it a tad bit more complicated. Diana explains while maintaining balance is more about making it work and picking your battles than it is about things always working out perfectly. As someone who is self-employed she manages to find ways to still be present in the life of her growing children, while still hustling hard to build her optical empire. While there are some days she may work handling accounts, calls and emails till 11, there are also days she can take off to bring the kids to a doctor’s appointment or volunteer at their school. Yet, she makes it a point to always make sure that she has the opportunity to cook dinner with the family every evening. Diana is a powerhouse. Managing conference calls between her time with me, connecting with her team and coordinating with her husband, she’s in her flow during office hours. Check out a little behind the scenes action in our latest YouTube video below!

Running a business isn’t easy, but she makes it seem effortless. Although, She has run into her fair share of obstacles during her time, as many business owners do. It’s the reality of the business.  Diana explains that one thing she always tells people who are looking to pursue opening their own business is, “to allow yourself to fail.” It’s through these failures that we often learn the most important lessons. The vital thing is to always get back up and keep forging ahead. One obstacle that she faced early on was a tough pill to swallow, but it opened her eyes to the importance of having set procedures to protect her business and employees. A growing business can be a blessing, but it can also cause growing pains. This is especially so when you have to hire a lot of people fast. Hiring people takes a certain kind of intuition and safeguarding when you are an entrepreneur.  Early in the business, Diana made the mistake of hiring someone and entrusting them with her company without the proper safeguards in place. Long story short, theft of product and money occurred that could have hurt the business. Thankfully, it worked out and while not completely unscathed, Diana came out of the experience more knowledgeable. She and Todd worked to get all the proper training and protections in place to ensure that something like this would not happen again. Although the experience was difficult and painful, it allowed Diana to grow as a business owner. 

During my time with Diana, I was interested in learning more about her experience launching her eyewear line: La Vida Eyewear. She explained that during all of her years in her career, she noticed an issue with the fit and styles offered to her diverse clients. Specifically, she explained that, “Latinos, people of color and other diverse backgrounds seemed to have fit issues with off the rack the glasses that we offered clients.” Her clients would often have higher cheekbones, wider nose bridges and the like that would cause glasses to fit improperly or uncomfortably. She also highlighted that many of her clients were looking for unique styles and more color option. They didn’t want the mundane plain black, boring glasses that are so common. Motivated by this, she began her journey. At first, she attended trade shows, reached out to designer brands and well-known manufacturers. She asked them if they would be willing to modify their designs to fit this market? She was told no countless times. The brands didn’t see a need to modify their product and would tell her that no one would buy that kind of product. Yet, Diana saw there was unlimited potential within the ethnically diverse market that her practice catered to. 

One evening after a trade show filled with no’s, feeling defeated, she exclaimed to Todd, “I just don’t get it!? I don’t understand why we can’t just find nice glasses that fit right.”  She explains he looked her square in the eye and lovingly told her to stop complaining, to figure it out and do something about it. Todd is not only Diana’s business partner; he’s her husband and partner in life. If anyone knew what Diana was capable of, it was he who would know best. You could say the rest is history. 

Diana dove head first into research. She eventually found a manufacturer and began working on prototypes for her first collection of eyeglasses. She explained that her creation process often worked itself and the designs out in her head. Sometimes she might draw an idea, but often she would come up with a concept in her mind, write out the details in an email and work with the manufacturer to bring it to life. Just like many of her prior first time experiences, the process wasn’t without its bumps. One of the major issues she found she experienced was with communication. If she was working with a vendor overseas, time differences made an impact and language barriers could cause hiccups. One of the funnier stories she recounted was when she wanted to have the temples (the parts of the glasses that rest on your temple and go behind your ears) of the glasses carved in the shape of a heart.  She was utilizing Google translate at the time to translate her email from English into the required language. As amazing as the translator is, it is not perfect. Diana couldn’t understand why the factory said they couldn’t make this design work. She soon learned from the real life translator she would talk with at the factory from time to time that she essentially asked them to “carve their hearts out and take it to the temple”. She giggles as she recounts this story, but it’s a fantastic example of the importance of proper translation and communication within the manufacturing process. 

Diana also explained that throughout this process, she lived by her motto of pick your battles. She experienced delay after delay during the initial launch. In one instance she even received a completely different style than was originally approved and paid for. While these may have seemed like massive issues, she took them in stride. The incorrect style was a blessing in disguise and is now one of the best selling items of the collection. The delays she experienced, just taught her to always factor in buffer time. Often, factories will overpromise and under deliver. What they said would take 3 months, ended up taking 9, but the first time in product development will always be a time to learn and grow. She’s learned so much throughout this process and she found the answer to her initial problem of major brands and manufacturers not being willing to modify designs. She was her own solution. 

She designed her collection catering to the Latino and diverse communities who are looking for a great fit and stylish options.  While her main account is in house, selling her collection to patrons who frequent their office, she’s already begun expanding. Landing some national East Coast accounts and international shops in Puerto Rico and Mexico.  Inspired by prominent Latinas, each design in the collection pulls aesthetics from major influencers. From J.Lo to Thalia to Celia Cruz, each design has a personality that is sure to fit a variety of styles for women and yes, the collection even offers select styles for men. What makes Diana’s product unique is not just the styles, but also Diana’s penchant focus on quality. She has not forayed into online sales with the line because she’s a firm believer in first hand customer service and the fact that buying glasses online is not for everyone. She wants to make sure that those who purchase her line have the opportunity to work with a professional office who understands fit and has certified specialists on hand. She wants to make sure there are optometrists and opticians on site to aid in the process of selecting the right pair for each customer. This ensures that the customers aren’t just getting sold on a style and fashion, but that they are getting a product that functions properly. This exact idea is the main reason behind Diana’s reluctance into the online retail space. While she understands why people choose to shop online, she believes that she can offer better service in person to customers. 

Customer service is definitely an important aspect of any visit to Buena Vista Optical. Clients are warmly welcomed as soon as they enter the shop and there is a well-trained representative walking them through each step of their visit. If you need an actual exam, there are doctors on staff to get that done and someone who can work with you to get your frames situated. All exams are by appointment. Although, they do accept walk-ins for those who only need a new pair of glasses and already have a prescription. The office even offers same day prescriptions for certain styles as they have an in-house lab technician that fits and shapes the glass to your frames on a high tech computer laser cutter. You can tell technology is an important aspect of the shop. Diana and Todd are on top of the latest options for their patients.  I had the opportunity to get fitted for a pair from the La Vida Eyewear collection and I was really surprised by the variety that was offered in the collection. Whether you enjoy cat eye, round, or larger shapes, there is a size and style for you. I loved the colors that were featured throughout the collection as well as the use of transparent colored frames that complemented my skin tone beautifully. The optician who worked with me pulled a variety of styles and was knowledgeable on the features of each design. She highlighted something that Diana had briefly mentioned early on in our interview  -- some of the glasses are designed to sit a bit further away from the eye to help ensure long lashes don’t brush up against the inside of the glasses. I don’t wear falsies, but my natural lashes are quite long when I wear mascara and I constantly find myself wiping my glasses due to mascara marks. This feature alone showcased to me that Diana really thinks about the details for her customers. Whether her client is a Latinx blessed with long lashes, someone on the gender spectrum who rocks falsies, or someone with a diverse background and needs a style that will suit their face shape, there is a style for them. 

After spending about a good 30 minutes trying on almost every pair, I finally found a fit. The staff was pleasant and didn’t rush me through the process. They offered insights and honest opinions on what worked for me and didn’t come off as pushy in any way. It was like bringing my girlfriends who I could trust with me to pick out lenses and offer me the “real-real” on what looked good. It was a fun day. I opted for the Lola style, a casually shaped cat eye rimmed with rhinestones in gold. They’re very different from the usual suspects I tend to wear – oversized geek chic frames in a faux tortoise shell, but they were fun and flirty and I had to give them a try. They gave off a retro vibe that was hard to beat and guess what, my mascara doesn’t smudge on them! I couldn’t be happier. 

When I picked them up a week later, they were reviewed with me, placed in a high quality case inside a reusable gift bag along with a new lens spray and wipe cloth and I was sent on my way with contact information if I needed anything. I don’t think I’ve had an experience at any eye doctor as I had at Buena Vista Optical. Diana and her husband have something special going on in that shop of theirs. It’s a breath of fresh air in an air tight and sometimes sterile industry. They make you feel like you are a part of la familia. They bring you within the community they have built, as soon as you walk in. 

When you walk out, you leave knowing you were taken care of. There’s no better business plan or customer service than that that. To learn more, visit Buena Vista Optical at: www.buenavistaoptical.com and you can view the La Vida Eyewear collection at: www.lavidaeyewear.com

Jen Veguilla-Lezan 

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