PEORIA MAGAZINE June 2022

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M A G A Z I N E

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G E T O U T D O O R S ! L O C A L O P A L I S S H O W I N G T H E W A Y

What’s your why?

I W A N T T O T A K E C A R E O F T H E O N E S I L O V E .

Everyone’s “why” is different. And we want to hear all about yours, because the answer gets to the heart of everything that’s important in life. Asking why can lead you to your ultimate purpose, the reason for working so hard, for protecting what’s valuable, and for passing on what you’ve achieved. We’ll work with you on the how. You just tell us, what’s your why?

Let’s talk about your why. Call Tammy Waterworth, Senior Relationship Strategist, at 309-655-5371 or visit pnc.com/privatebank

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TRUST AND ESTATE ADMINISTRATION | WEALTH PLANNING | INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT | CREDIT AND CASH MANAGEMENT

JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE 1

COVER STORY 42 The Antidote To What Ails Us: Get Outside By Mike Bailey

SPOTLIGHTS 14 An Oasis In the Desert By Phil Luciano 20 A Friend and Florist for Every Occasion By Mike Bailey 32 Pickleball ‘Craze’ Invades Central Illinois By Steve Tarter 36 A Grand Slam for Central Illinois By Kirk Wessler 52 From the Hub of the Universe, the Curse Of the Bambino By Phil Luciano 56 Pro Soccer Arrives in River City By Nick Vlahos 74 Take a Chance on Chillicothe By Laurie Pillman 76 A Riverboat Captain Reminisces By Steve Tarter

ON THE COVER: Hiking through Forest Park Nature Preserve. Photo by Ron Johnson May 2022

2 JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE

FEATURES 10 Seed and Soil:

34 20-Something:

70 WordCount:

Please Share the Road Safely With Farmers By Rob Sharkey

A Love Letter to Central Illinois By CeCe Hill

Interview with the author, Ray Long, ‘The House That Madigan Built’ By Mike Bailey

48 Peoria Retro:

16 Mom and Pop:

‘The Most Tragic Night’ of East Peoria’s Existence By Mike Bailey

78 EconCorner:

Iconic Irish Bar Reaches its Ruby Anniversary By Phil Luciano Feeding People, Building Relationships By Mike Bailey

An Interview With Dr. David Cleeton 84 People, Places & Parties

60 Playing in Peoria:

24 Dish and Drink:

The Courtyard Concert Series: The Backstory By Rob Mathisen

62 Playing in Peoria:

26 Dish and Drink:

A Festival by Any Other Name By Scott Fishel

Cocktail Class: Go Figure By Dustin Crawford

28 Dish and Drink:

Trivoli Gets its Nightlife Back By Phil Luciano

JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE 3

COMMENTARY 65 Peoria Proud By Roxy Baker 81 The Great Reassessment By Dee Brown 83 Defeat Disappointment By Choosing Joy By Amy Burkett 89 An Old/New Way to Make

Your Giving Count: By Craig J. Ruffolo

91 Toon Town:

By Daniel Ackley 98 One More Thing:

Where genius resides By Phil Luciano

AND MORE 7 Letter from the Editor 68 ArtsPartners Calendar 73 Peoria Historical Society Tours 73 Peoria Public Library Summer Events 91 Classifieds 92 Sterling Merit Scholars 97 In Brief 100 Thank You, Advertisers

in this issue

June 2022 contributors: Daniel Ackley, Roxy Baker, Dee Brown, Amy Burkett, David Cleeton, Dustin Crawford, Scott Fishel, CeCe Hill, Ray Long, Phil Luciano, Rob Mathisen, Laurie Pillman, Craig J. Ruffolo, Rob Sharkey, Steve Tarter, Nick Vlahos, Kirk Wessler FOLLOW@PEORIAMAGAZINES: To subscribe or renew, visit peoriamagazines.com/subscribe.

4 JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE

MONTHLY ISSUE 062022 ISSN: 947

JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE 5

E D I T O R I A L EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Mike Bailey mbailey@peoriamagazines.com PUBLISHER Lesley Matuszak lesley.matuszak@wtvp.org SENIOR COMMUNICATIONS EXECUTIVE Phil Luciano phil.luciano@wtvp.org WTVP DIRECTOR OF MARKETING AND COMMUNITY RELATIONS Julie Sanders julie.sanders@wtvp.org A D V E R T I S I N G PRESIDENT AND CEO OF WTVP Lesley Matuszak lesley.matuszak@wtvp.org SENIOR CORPORATE SUPPORT MANAGER Angie Spears sales@peoriamagazines.com CORPORATE SUPPORT MANAGER Kristina Gamez sales@peoriamagazines.com DIRECTOR OF PHILANTHROPY Tom Zimmerman sales@peoriamagazines.com C R E A T I V E STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Ron Johnson

6 JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE

L E T T E R F R O M T H E E D I T O R

Letting the sun shine on another Peoria Magazine

W e l come t o Peor i a Magazine’s Outdoors and Recreation issue, devoted to all things sunshine and fresh air as spring turns into summer. The cover of this issue barks, “Get outdoors!” Granted, that feels less like a gentle suggestion than a direct order, but after the trials of the last two years, well, perhaps we could use a more forceful nudge. If a global pandemic has taught us anything, getting outside might just be a lifesaver. In 2020, COVID-19 had closed countless businesses, among them gyms and health clubs, deemed “non essential” by the powers that be. My go-towas Five PointsWashington, upon which I had come to depend for the daily exercise that left me in a much better place, physically and mentally. In 2018, following a career change, I committed to a lifestyle change, as well, prompted by a doctor’s visit and an unsettling blood test. Fundamentally, I needed to get inbetter shape –or at least a shapeother thanoval, a bit lessHumpty Dumpty—or else. After a year of forcing myself to eat healthier – way less sugar, if it wasn’t a food 100 years ago, walk on by – and to work up a sweat instead of succumbing to the temptations of a nap, I had lost more than 40 pounds. Then along came COVID with all its collateral damage, which threatened to undo all that hard-won progress. If hitting the gym was no longer an option, I would have to hit the trails. Though just 10 minutes from my home, I had always driven by Farmdale Reservoir between Washington and East Peoria, nearly 900 acres of some of the best hiking and biking trails around and the stunning scenery to match. I stumbled upon the Fon du Lac Park District’s Spring Creek Preserve one day, and fell in love. Black Partridge Park

in Metamora proved a very pleasant and attractive surprise. I had long known of Forest Park in Peoria Heights, though it sometimes slipped off the radar. Peoria’s Rocky Glen and Robinson Park sounded intriguing but I wasn’t precisely sure where they were; GPS got me there the first time and I didn’t need it the next times. In short order, they became part of my circuit. My arthritic knees weren’t always willing or grateful, but I was healthier and happier. The wild was a social media-free zone, which lowered the blood pressure. I didn’t go into the woods to get away, as I would always find company there. I can’t say I ever ran into anyone who wasn’t friendly. I noticed nature for the first time in forever. I planted eyes on pileated woodpeckers and even managed to sneak up on a mink in its natural habitat. These were explorations, adventures, and so they became something to look forward to. Because of the time away fromwork, at work I was more productive. And like Julie Robinson – teacher, founder of the outdoors website Local OPAL and the subject of this month’s cover story — I wondered to myself: “How have I never been here before?” Sensing that the antidote towhat ailed her students – poisoned by the toxic stew of obsessive social media use and the enforced isolation of COVID—was to spendmore time outdoors, Robinson set out to inventory and map virtually every publicly accessible recreational area in central Illinois. Many central Illinoisans may not think of themselves as rich, but what Robinson discovered is that we are wealthy beyondmeasure in things to do, and most of them are free. As a result, in this June issue of Peoria Magazine, we take you to those places that expose us to the sunshine – and to the mood-improving serotonin our brains produce when we’re in it – and

that compel us to get off the couch. We take you to kids playing ball at Peoria’s Louisville Slugger complex, introduce you to pickleball, put you at Peoria’s first professional soccer game, invite you to the Courtyard Summer Concert Series in Peoria Heights. Some readers may be familiar with the name Frederick Law Olmsted, who lived primarily in the 19th century and was considered America’s “father of landscape architecture.” He was the artist behind New York’s Central Park, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and White House, the Biltmore Estate in NorthCarolina, the ChicagoWorld’s Fair of 1893 and the University of Chicago, StanfordUniversity and toomany other masterpieces of green to mention. In short, he was the ultimate master of luring people outdoors with his creations. He also was a thinker and writer of social commentary who spoke of “the genius of a place,” who believed in the democratization of nature, who placed great faith in the healing powers of being outdoors. Central Illinois has its own unique genius. We flatlanders too often sell ourselves short. “We should be a mecca…We have it all,” insists Robinson. “It’s a great place to call home.” Please enjoy this issue of Peoria Magazine, and then get outside!

Mike Bailey mbailey@peoriamagazines.com

JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE 7

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JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE 9 12/9/2020 3:09:22 PM

S E E D A N D S O I L

PLEASE SHARE THE ROAD SAFELY WITH FARMERS Someone special is driving that tractor, with loved ones at home

BY ROB SHARKEY

10 JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE

SHE IS A WIFE AND MOM AND FARMER SHE JUST WANTED TO MAKE IT HOME SAFE TO HER FAMILY

A friend of mine who happens to farm near a busy city — Danielle Wainwright of New Jersey —had a lightbulbmoment last year dur ing plant ing season. She grabbed a sharpie and a piece of cardboard and created a handwritten sign that truly changed the way people viewed her. She hung this clever sign with bailing twine on the back of her tractor, where all the vehicles that rushed up behind her could read it. It read, with simplicity and gravity: “I’m a mom.” Why would she feel the need to do that, you ask? If you have never driven a tractor or large piece of equipment like a sprayer, you

the road. We get over as much as we can but things like mailboxes and signs force us into the opposite lane. There also are concerns with getting too far over in the ditch. Every year, there are multiple incidences in which a tractor or sprayer has overturned because of a steep ditch. Also, the farm implements that we are towing behind the tractors often restrict our field of vision. Even with cameras, it can be very difficult to see what’s directly behind us. Farmers are required to put a Slow-Moving Vehicle (SMV) emblemonbackof our equipment if we are using a public road. These are the florescent orange triangles that have been used for decades. If you see “SMV” on back of any farm equipment, you can assume that they are traveling between 10 and 20 miles per hour. Farmers get it. It’s frustrating to be caught behind us. And yes, some farmers don’ t practice common courtesy, which makes the rest of us look bad. However, I can confidently say that the vast majority of farmers do everything they can to avoid interrupting your commute. Again, every farmer you see on the road in a tractor is someone special. They have someone waiting at home.

of them ... because they don’t know what they don’t know. Most of the time, their guess is based on what they see a farmer working with as they drive by a field. The enormous size and power of that tractor is often underestimated. As farmers and ranchers, why not be proactive with the people we share the road with and take some time to explain what we do and why? Back to the beginning: My friend Danielle wanted to let people know that she is a wife and mom and farmer, and that she just wanted to make it home safely to her family. Every farmer you see on the road in a tractor is someone special. They have someone waiting for them at home. Farmers need to take equipment on the road. Our farms are spread out and it isn’t possible to avoid the interaction of our slow-moving equipment with regular traffic. Most of the time, this equipment is wider than our side of

don’t know what you don’t know. Let’s face it, driving a big piece of equipment, well…well, that’s an opportunity that most city-dwelling people don’t get. On my TV show, SharkFarmer TV on RFD-TV, I have a segment called “Man on the Street.” I actually walk down the streets of a downtown Nashville, for example, and with my wife and camera guy in tow, ask people questions about agriculture, such as: Where does your food come from? What do you look for in the grocery store? Do you knowwhat farmers spray on their fields and why? Most importantly, I show people pictures of equipment that I use on a daily basis on my farm and ask them to guess what they are. Now, here’s the key: I first ask them what they do for a living and say, “Well, I don’t knowmuch about what you do for a living and the tools of your trade, but do you mind if I show you some of mine?” Let me be honest. The guesses can get pretty crazy. But I never make fun

Rob Sharkey , aka “The Shark Farmer,” tills the land at his fifth generation farm in the Bradford area, where he lives with wife Emily. He hosts “A Shot of Ag” on WTVP PBS and a podcast heard by millions, among other media endeavors

JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE 11

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JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE 13

S P O T L I G H T

AN OASIS IN THE DESERT Minister, his market, aim to resurrect Peoria’s South Side

BY PHIL LUCIANO

T he Rev. Chuck Brown plans to offer more than milk, bread and sandwiches at Harvest Supermarket & Grill. He also plans to serve respect. To him, the store’s bottom line involves not just dollars, but dignity. And he expects his employees to feel the same. “There’s going to be ‘How can I help you?’ and ‘Thank you,’” Brown said. “I want to embrace the community with the love it deserves.” His lofty ambitions go beyond aiming to end the food desert on Peoria’s

South Side. He hopes Harvest, which is to open by early summer, can spark other entrepreneurs to invest along and around Western Avenue, a main thoroughfare in the long-flagging area. Meantime, hewill earmark some profits toward programs to uplift single moms and build affordable housing. “To change the narrative of the area, we’ve got to step up,” he said. For more than half the 20th century, the neighborhood served as the thriving core of Peoria. But by the 1960s, with housing stock aging and no room to expand, South Peoria began to

deteriorate. New housing drew many residents north, especially after the city’s 1964 annexation of Richwoods Township. Crime on the South Side, including a crack cocaine explosion in the 1980s, also hurt the area, and many businesses moved or shuttered. The neighborhood, once dotted with mom-and-pop shops, saw grocery stores dwindle at the approach of the 21st century, and that has continued. In 2014, Aldi, a solid presence at 210 S. Western Ave. since its 1989 debut, pulled out. Two years later, Sav-A-Lot turned the lights back on but departed within a year.

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a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, while a short order grill will be open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. A coffee bar is tomirror Starbucks. Confections from the in-house bakery will include sweet potato pie, caramel cake and cheesecake. Food prep also will include Alice’s Famous Jerk Chicken, named for Brown’s wife, who died unexpectedly last year at age 50. The chicken, to be sold prepackaged or for meals on-site, was her specialty. Profits will go to programs supporting single moms – a nod to Alice Brown, who at Victory Christian ran the Women’s Ministry. “Her focus was helping single moms overcome barriers,” Chuck Brown said. In addition to employing about 20 workers, Harvest will assist the community in other ways. Inside the store, area vendors will be able to set up shop, such as for hair and beauty products. “We want to help small businesses grow,” said Brown Ultimately, he sees Harvest as the anchor for other commercial investment in the neighborhood. With no other investors, Harvest will have no pressure to turn a profit, which will help keep prices low. However, Brown said he hopes to make enough money to start a not-for-profit business to address the lack of new housing in South Peoria. “We plan to reinvest in the community,” Brown said. “We want to buy some of these homes, tear themdown and build affordable housing.” Right now, though, Brown will be happy just to see the registers busywith the soundof customers buying groceries. Sowill neighborhood residents, many of whomhave popped by the store to check on his progress, eager for a supermarket to call their own. “I thank God for that,” he said. “It’s a community store. It makes me feel special to be a part of it.” Phil Luciano is a senior writer/ columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP

Rev. Brown discusses plans for the Harvest Supermarket & Grill with his daughters

In 2018, Kroger closed its location at Madison Park Shopping Center, just west of South Peoria. The decision rendered the 61605 zip code as an official food desert. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a fooddesert by twomaincriteria: • The poverty rate is greater than or equal to 20 percent of the population, or the median household income does not exceed 80 percent of the statewide or metro rate. The 61605 zip code qualifies in both ways, according to the U.S. Census Bureau: Its poverty rate is 41 percent, while the median household income is $23,107, or about 33 percent of the statewide average of $68,428 and 40 percent of the Peoria wide average of $60,094. • At least 500 people, or 33 percent of an urban area, are more than a mile from the nearest supermarket or large grocery store. The closest such stores – Haddad’s West Peoria Market, the Bartonville Kroger and the East Peoria Walmart – are farther than a mile away from most South Side residents. Last summer, Brown decided to confront that situation, despite a résumé that didn’t exactly suggest the experience necessary to do so. Brown, 60, is the founder and senior pastor of Victory Christian Church, 603 W. Nebraska Ave., where he draws no salary. He owns a cleaning firm called Miracle Maids, while his Job Resources Fair business coordinates hiring events in the area.

His supermarket history? He worked a short stint as a cashier/clerk de cades ago. But his lack of know-how paled when compared to his ambition. He decided to provide the South Side not just with a supermarket, but one that would rival – inside and out – those in the area’s tonier spots. Standing inside Harvest, Brown said, “If you see a store open in Dunlap, it’ll look the same as here.” One of the first orders of the struc tural rehab was removing an old drop ceiling. Not only did that mean paint ing the re-exposed ceiling, but re working the wiring. All told, the transformation of the leased building, plus equipment, would run about $600,000. The effort involved no government help and just one grant: $28,600 from Ameren for energy efficient lighting. Plus, the Subway franchisee Dave Hanna, in moving from the Heights to Peoria, gave Brown $40,000worth of food-prep equipment. The grocery selection wi l l be streamlined to keep costs down for Harvest as well as his customers. “We’re going to have the essentials,” he said. “At other stores, you might have a choice of 25 ketchups. Here, we’ll have maybe two. “You get in, you get out, you save money.” Brown plans to open Harvest in late June or early July. The hours will be 9

JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE 15

M O M A N D P O P

ICONIC IRISH BAR REACHES ITS RUBY ANNIVERSARY It’s still all good and all green at family-run, family-friendly Jimmy’s

BY PHIL LUCIANO PHOTOS BY RON JOHNSON

W ho goes to Jimmy’s Bar? Owner Jimmy Spears could drop name after name from the legion of celebrities who have dropped by. He also could brag about international attention sparked intentionally (through a strong relationship with Peoria’s sister city in Ireland) and accidentally (via the bizarre kidnapping of a bar-top Elvis Presley bust). But if you ask Spears about the heart and success of Jimmy’s Bar – the 40th anniversary of which he celebrates this summer —he first and foremost gushes about familiar faces. “I can’t say enough about my family and friends,” says Spears, 67. “Without them, there’d be no Jimmy’s Bar.” He means that in two ways. One is practical: Over the years, his payroll has included scores of relatives manning the bar and kitchen. The other is convivial: While Jimmy’s hosts a boisterous Bradley University crowd come nightfall, the daytime clientele involves a dedicated and jocular core of longtime regulars. That’s been the thriving mix for four decades, a duration that is a rarity in

man, he’d also tended bar at the Lariat Club and elsewhere. In 1982, thinking his mixology expertise could pay off as a second career, he and a partner bought and overhauled the Loading Dock. “We gutted the place,” Spears recalls. “The floors were rotted. The walls had carboard in them.” With the new look came a new name, Jimmy’s Bar. He began to festoon every inch of the walls and ceiling with odds and ends, mostly from his father, Joe. Indeed, sports gear (a Marcus Pollard football jersey, a hurling stick) and mementoes (a Mike Ditka autographed 8-by-10, a 2013 Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup tapestry) make for much of the décor. But also fighting for space are beer signs (heavy on Guinness), Irish homage (including a neon shamrock) and music memorabilia (such as a Robertson Fieldhouse handbill touting a Jimmy Buffett show). The atmosphere is familiar, if evolving. Over the years, Spears—who bought out his partner in the 1990s —has extended the footprint of the pub to include an outdoor area, a patio deck and other seating. Plus, though the house beverage is decidedly the $5 Guinness draft – at times, the saloon has been the top seller of the Irish stout in downstate Illinois

the food-and-drink industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, almost one in three restaurants fail in their first year. Only 20 percent survive past five years, according to CNBC. Jimmy’s, at 2601 W. Farmington Road, has enjoyed a long roadhouse legacy. Spears believes the first business there appeared in the late 19th century as a two-story stagecoach stop, with food and drink available on the first floor and lodging upstairs. Afterward, the property changed hands among bar owners. The original structure burned down in the 1950s, leaving only the foundation. A new building arose, dubbed the Loading Dock, carrying that name among multiple owners into the early 1980s. That’s when Spears entered the picture. The Peoria native and Bradley business grad was employed in sales at Melton Electric in Bartonville, a job he’d hold for 40 years. But as a young

16 JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE

Owner Jimmy Spears

– barkeeps are allowed to create new cocktails on a whim. Some of those coworkers have shared Spears’ genetics. Among the first kin to work there was his dad, Joe, always smiling behind the bar. Jimmy Spears cherishes that memory – “I got to work withmy dad,” he gushes – as a high point. Though Joe Spears died in 2005, Jimmy can’t help but grin and share an old joke: “The saying was that I couldn’t fire my dad because my mom wouldn’t letme. Shewanted himout of the house.” Such wisecracks are common among the Spears clan, who often share their tomfoolery with patrons while manning the taps. Indeed, all six of the owner’s brothers have worked there, as have his three daughters, plus 18 nieces and nephews. The Spears lineage seems certain to continue, as daughter Grace Spears has transitioned to manager. She hadn’t planned on taking up the family business. “But then I realized that I felt happier when driving to my job here than when driving to any other job,” the 27-year-old says with a dad-like grin. “It’s kind of like a family here.” Matt Rambke feels the same way. The 39-year-old Peorian has been coming to Jimmy’s since childhood, when his father would bring him along for lunch. “Everybody here is nice,” he says. “Everyone here is good to talk to.” The friendly vibe is why celebrities are known to pop in. When a local host wants a warm place to take a famous face – say, TV host Mike Rowe (“Dirty

Jobs,” etc.), Olympics silver medalist KatieMcLaughlin and National Baseball Hall of Famer Lee Smith – Jimmy’s is the go-to. The ebb and flowof customers tickles barkeep Tommy Eckstein, who first worked there part-time during college. Thoughnowasuccessful pharmaceutical salesman, the 50-year-old still pulls Saturday shifts, in part because he enjoys the intriguing chitchat. “One thing people often ask is, ‘Is Jimmy real?’” Eckstein says. Spears isn’t just the face of the bar. Though he pours a Guinness with the best of his barkeeps, before opening time he often can be found mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, watering plants and doing other jobs to keep the place humming. It’s not all drudgery. Spears has been the driving force behind the bar’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities and its wondrous Christmas display. JimDillon is grateful for all of Spears’ work. The longtimeWest Peoria mayor, known to occasionally wander into the pub for a beverage, lauds Jimmy’s not only as an economic anchor but also as a gatheringpoint forbirthdays, retirement parties and other celebrations. Plus, the business regularly hosts fundraisers for academic and social-service causes. “Jimmy’s Bar is a community focal point,” said Dillon. It’s also an international focal point. Jimmy’s has been key to Peoria’s sister city relationship with Clonmel, Ireland, withcontingents traveling there and also hosting visitors from the Emerald Isle.

Meanwhi le, the bar tr iggered headlines last year when an Elvis bust – a gag gift that became a bar-topmascot – vanished. After Jimmy’s Facebook page featured a post about the thievery, local headlines ensued. The Associated Press picked up the story, which eventually ran in the Washington Post and the United Kingdom, as did follow-ups when the bust reappeared. Apparently, the mystery thief was stricken with a guilty conscience. “Elvis made Jimmy’s go viral,” Dillon said with a chuckle. Even as a first-hand witness to the merriment and dedication at Jimmy’s, the mayor still marvels at the saloon’s staying power in a fickle industry. “Forty years?” Dillon says. “That doesn’t happen anymore.” Spears admits to a sense of wonder over the milestone. He isn’t sure what sort of celebration is appropriate, as every year he hosts a week of festivities – Customer AppreciationDay, Christmas in July and other novelty promotions – to mark the July 28 anniversary. But he realizes 40 years is something special. “It doesn’t seem like that long,” he says, grinning. “I should be retired.” He pauses to think. The smile grows wider. The motivation is clear. “It’s still fun.” Phil Luciano is a senior writer/ columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP

JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE 17

INVI TE YOU TO OUR 20TH ANNUAL JULY4TH FAMILY FEST Fun

On Monday, JULY 4TH 2022 , Le Tonte Park (across from the State Street post office in Peoria) and Water Street from State to Walnut Streets becomes an intimate festival area for our guests. Gates open at 5:00 pm and the festivities roll on through the evening’s fireworks display provided by the City of Peoria. Pre-purchased packets ($300.00) includes two parking passes for your cars at a nearby lot, eight admission tickets to a

reserved spot for a family to enjoy not only the fireworks, but music, children’s games and events plus an all-you-can-eat food court, soft drinks and water. Beer and wine sales are also available. BRING BLANKETS AND CHAIRS AND WE PROVIDE THE REST !

TICKET PURCHASE

Space is very limited for this event! No ticket purchases made the day of the event. Contact LISA FISHER at the Boys & Girls Clubs for availability, 309.685.6007, ext. 112. Visit our website, www.bgcpeoria.org for more event information.

806 E Kansas Street Ph 309.685.6007 ext. 112 www.bgcpeoria.org

Boys & Girls Clubs is proud to be a United Way Agency

18 JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE

Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s isn’t easy. Reaching us is.

If you care for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss or dementia, you are not alone. We’re here day or night —whenever you need us — offering reliable information and support.

Free 24/7 Helpline: 800.272.3900 Alzheimer’s and Dementia Caregiver Center: alz.org/care

JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE 19

S P O T L I G H T

A FRIEND AND FLORIST FOR EVERY OCCASION After 44 years at Gregg Florist, Dan Callahan is moving on, but not away

BY MIKE BAILEY

B usiness was brisk at Gregg Florist in Peoria Heights on Mother’s Day Eve as owner Dan Callahan scurried about the shop, preparing arrangements, taking payments and last-minute orders, working the room. Many customers greeted him by name, and not uncommonly, he responded with theirs. “This is kind of like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows everybody,” he says. Post-COVID, just about any business owner will confess that busy is infinitely better than not, but it was also a bittersweet moment for the 68-year oldCallahan. This pastMother’s Daywas Callahan’s last at his Gregg Florist pulpit, from which he’s dispensed no end of compassion and counsel over the years.

On May 31, he closed on the sale of the property he’s owned at 1015 E. War Memorial Drive for the last 44 years, to make way for a gas station and a convenience store. The business itself remains on the market, the doors may remain open until everything is gone, but as for Callahan, he’s looking forward to his next chapter and will soon start on that journey. “Forty-four years, it’s a good run,” Callahan says. “There’s never been a dull moment.” It was 1978, disco was still a thing, and a 24-year-old Dan Callahan was not long out of the University of Illinois with an architecture degree when an opportunity came along to buy a little flower shop in Peoria Heights. “One visit to the bank, that’s all it took,”

he recalls of the loan he took out to buy the business for $50,000. It was a different era. Things were simpler then. They were about to get a bit more complex when Pabst announced that it would be closing its iconic brewery in Peoria Heights. That was 1981, and suddenly the futurewasn’t quite coming up roses. “This was a neighborhood business, at that point. There weren’t as many people coming from across the river,” said Callahan. “That was just devastating.” Callahan persevered – really, what other choice was there? – calling on a character trait he describes as more “eternal optimist” than entrepreneurial. Some might have downsized. He expanded.

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He seemed to instinctively know that “people will go to a place they trust” and that they “want authentic,” whichmade the Heights and its mom-and-pop vibe the perfect place for him to be. It also didn’t hurt that in terms of drive-by traffic, it was hard to beat his corner spot at War Memorial and Faber. Still, arguably that little flower shop could have been plopped down anywhere, and customers still would have sought it out for that personal touch. Indeed, what’s the perfect f lower arrangement for the Feast of the Annunciation at a local Catholic church? You’re unlikely to run across anyonewho has a clue about that at the nearest big box store — but at Gregg, Callahan and crewwere able towhip something up in a jiffy. Lilies and roses, at your service In fact, Callahan has gotten to know his customers sowell over the years that many just trust him to “do your thing,” whatever the occasion – weddings, funerals, proms, graduations, you name it. Indeed, unlike just about everything else these days, expressing yourself with flowers is a politically neutral way to convey just the right emotion for the moment, “joy, sorrow ... the things that are just part of everyday life. “It’s not just another commodity,” he said. “It’s what you do with it” that makes the difference, in a way that “just masses of blooms” cannot. There would be other challenges, of course. In the late 1980s and ‘90s, businesses that once wined and dined clients and showed their appreciation to employees for their work and career milestones began to cut back. Then, in 2020 came the granddaddy of them all – COVID-19. It stung personally to not be considered an “essential business,” but locking the doors for four months didn’t boost the bottom line, either, even for a business that had been doing “contactless delivery” for decades. “We got over that bridge, too,” said Callahan. Over the years, technology changed everything. Online orders have reduced

it upon themselves to make it happen. As is typical of Callahan, he gives credit to others for the “miracle” they pulled off “with style and sustainabil ity,” but he lent a significant hand, as well, and continues to. All in all, his “retirement,” if you can call it that, is “less traumatic than I thought it would be. “I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Forty-four years of having a small business, there’s not been much breathing room.” So Callahan can exhale now and truly smell the flowers. For many sad customers, it’s the end of an era. What made it special? Longtime customer, friend, neighbor and Peoria City Councilwoman Beth Jensen doesn’t hesitate. “I’d say it’s Dan himself,” she said. “He’s a genuine people person who cares ... who listens…who remembers” every personal tale and darn near every arrangement he’s sold to that person and for what occasion. Meanwhile, he’s a constant presence and leader and peacemaker in theMoss neighborhood, the bridge between its past and present, a worker who inspires by example with the kind of energy and action “that keep the neighborhood strong,” said Jensen. “If it weren’t for him, I don’t think the Greenway would still be there. He’s so dedicated.” Peoria has had its ups and downs, Callahan has witnessed many of them, but he’s proud of this place and wants to continue to be a part of making it better in ways that “lift the spirits” and allow its residents to say, “’I’m going to stick it out. Hold on. Things will get better.’ “I went away. I had a choice of where to go,” he reminisces. But this community’s manageable size and the opportunities it presented tomake a personal difference were “theheart ofwhat keptme inPeoria. “Peoria is real.” And Callahan is among those real deals who have helped make it so.

in-person visits. Still, the face-to-face interactions that remain are what makes Callahan and his dozen or so employees “so reluctant to give it up.” Nonetheless, he is accepting. First, he’s never regretted his decision to walk away from architecture, much as his appreciation for it remains. From “the joy of design without having someone’s life depend on it” to “dealing with people’s transitions and trying to talk them through all of that,” running Gregg Florist has been a privilege, he says. He’s also not exactly walking off into the sunset. “I’m going to be around…I don’t have to be at that counter for people to find me,” Callahan said. Indeed, he is active and then some in his Moss Avenue neighborhood. He’s become a one-man maintenance and beautification crew of his beloved Malvern Lane, upon which his Tudor Revival-style home is the only address. No one waxes more eloquently or romantically about that early 19th century, now-closed-to-vehicles, brick and-limestone connection between Peoria’s West Bluff and its South Side valley than Callahan, who can go on and on about everything that springs from its hillside, from the now-spent bluebells to the Dame’s Rocket to the false Solomon’s seal. Meanwhile, he tends to the gardens at Westminster Church. And, of course, there is simply no end to the weeds that need to be pulled and the monuments placed and the flowers to be planted on the Western Avenue Greenway that so distinguishes his neighborhood and the people who took

Mike Bailey is editor in chief of Peoria Magazine

JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE 21

You’re Invited

Join us for an exciting summer in the tent!

Join Us to Make Meaningful Outdoor Experiences Accessible to Everyone!

July 8, 2022 6:00 pm Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino East Peoria

More information about our entire year-round schedule of shows available at cornstocktheatre.com

$50 per Person $400 for a Table of 8

Presented by

In Partnership with the Pilot Club of Peoria

Join us for a fun evening featuring delicious Southern food, silent and live auctions, and boot stompin’ live entertainment that will have you kickin’ up your heels! Funds raised will benefit children and adults with disabilities in Central Illinois served by Camp Big Sky and the Pilot Club of Peoria.

Reserve tickets online: www.campbigsky.org by July 1

22 JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE

Cat Trials has taken social media by storm… and now we’re bringing the excitement to you! Come check out memorabilia, big and small, from all your favorites – including the one that started it all – the world record-setting JENGA ® game with blocks that weigh 600 pounds each!

Remember the hours you spent as a kid playing with Hot Wheels ® ? Whether it was all those adventures in the sandbox or all the time you spent creating the most challenging track setups you could imagine – we’re bringing those memories to life with our latest Cat Trial. We’ve created an epic playground with the Next Generation Cat ® Wheel Loaders and other Cat gear, incorporating

life-sized versions of the cars you grew up with. Check out the video by scanning the code, then come see the car at the Caterpillar Visitors Center! visit caterpillar .com

JUNE 2022 PEORIA MAGAZINE 23

D I S H A N D D R I N K

FEEDING PEOPLE, BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS Steve Shaw of Alexander’s, VOP’s, et al., steps back after 48 years

BY MIKE BAILEY PHOTOS BY RON JOHNSON

S teve Shaw, one of the deans of the central Illinois restaurant scene with nearly five decades behind him in local kitchens and dining rooms, is easing into “retirement.” Of course, you have to know Steve Shaw, because he may not share your definition of “retirement.” At 74, what “retirement” means to this Peoria native is that he’ll be cutting back to about 40 hours a week, or “half time.” At a recent reception celebrating his life’s work, speaker after speaker got up at the company’s flagship restaurant, Alexander’s Steakhouse in Peoria, to laud Shaw’s tireless work ethic – someone did the math and came up with nearly 175,000 hours he’d logged over the years — with customers and well-wishers covering two levels of a wing of the enormous building, which can seat 750. “It’s just inmy DNA, probably frommy dad,” Shaw said of his father, Hugh, who ran an insurance business in town. He was of a generation where it was “’Hey, get up on the roof. Fix the gutters. Cut

the grass. Paint the house’ … and the answer was yes. You didn’t say no,” Shaw recalled with a chuckle. A 1972 graduate of Bradley University withadegree inbusiness administration, Shaw initially was open to his father’s entreaties to join him in the insurance industry. But he was still searching for the right fit. He flirted with a desk job in Caterpillar’s part department, then tended bar at the Hitching Post on Farmington Road. Finally, he landed at the legendary Sea Merchant in East Peoria (now Jonah’s). “That got me hooked,” he said. And despite the ups and downs of the restaurant business and its demands, he’s not regretted it, not for a second. As president of Mercedes Restaurants, Inc., Shaw has overseen some of central Illinois’ most iconic eateries, from Vonachen’s Old Place at Junction City to the Grille on Fulton in Downtown Peoria to Alexander’s Steakhouse on Peoria’s industrial waterfront, still going strong today. Next year marks its 40th in business. Along the way, he and his partners became Famous Dave’s

franchisees; today Mercedes is among that popular BBQ joint’s longest-lasting affiliations. Mercedes was born in the early 1980s when several guys with roots in the old Boar’s Head restaurant got together, including Laurel Rainwater, who eventually matriculated to the West Coast, where he made a name for himself primarily in the San Diego area. Ultimately, the company would open some 17 restaurants, running up to 10 at any given time, mostly in Illinois, though there were ventures into Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and California. Not bad for a Shaw who grew up on Parkside Drive near Bradley Park, Peoria High Class of 1966, whose family didn’t go out to eat unless it was to Jumer’s for a special occasion or to Hunt’s Drive-In for a “Mr. Big” burger. “VOP’s was a fun place,” recalled Shaw. The restaurant introduced the area’s first wood-fired pizza oven. The train dining car drew families and nostalgists, and its incomparable happy hours, including its famous Button and

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Wormeater’s clubs, packed people in elbow to elbow. There were others of varying success – anyone remember the Hawaiian themed Tiger Pit in Pioneer Park, or Sonoma Cucina in Bloomington? — lasting from nine months to 40 years. You could say that Shaw and his team have learned a few things along the trial-and-error way. “Location, location, location” certainly matters, but some restaurants – like Mercedes’ most enduring, Alexander’s – prove that other factors matter more. Indeed, at first blush, the Averyville neighborhood restaurant – not fully visible from the Adams Street main drag, in an old, worn industrial area in a building of 16,000 square feet that previouslyhoused a papermanufacturer, a distillery, a castings manufacturer, the oldWharf restaurant -- seemingly would not have been the ideal site. The lesson is that if the food is good and the service friendly and efficient, customers will find you, even in the most out-of-the-way place. “Once they figure out where you’re at,” the next thing is “the quality of the product. The consistency is so important,” said Shaw. “We don’t sell tires. We’ve got to sell good steaks. Protein is not cheap right now, but … we don’t compromise on quality.” Beyond that, “as an independent, if you don’t do things to connect with your customer, you’re not going to survive. We don’t have new buildings. We don’t have national name recognition. What we have is good people. That makes the difference.” Indeed, walk into many a chain restaurant and “chances are you don’t know the manager,” he said. “Chances are he’s not going to come by the table and say hi.” Shaw and hismanagers are a constant and visible presence, working the room, asking diners about their experience, chatting up their kids – “young children make a dining decision more than you think. It’s the 11-year-old that will want to go to Alexanders because of some experience he’s had, and hemight bring 15 people.” No one has to guess who’s in charge.

Local, hands-on management is critical. “With a distant restaurant, it’s a challenge. You’ve got to have managers with skin in the game,” said Shaw. He repeatedly credited quality employees who have stuck with the company – “They’re the key” -- a few up to 30 years, others who had long runs, left, then returned. That doesn’t happen so often anymore. “Hir ing af ter COVID has been the biggest challenge,” admitted Shaw. Looking back over the last half century, the pandemic probably posed the biggest threat to survival. The Payroll Protection Program (PPP) “was a salvation for many restaurants,” including his own. Customers have had to get back in the habit of going out again. Their tastes have evolved, too. “COVID exaggerated that experience,” but it would have happened anyway, said Shaw. “People are so busy today … Two family incomes, kids are involved with three different sports …” Anyone who makes it in the modern restaurant industry must learn to roll with the changes. Technology has altered everything. Customers scan QR codes on their iPhones and the menu pops up on a screen. “Dashboard dining” and “fast casual” are today’s buzzwords. Restaurants aren’ t smoke-f i l led anymore. Two-martini lunches are a thing of the past. If big groups seeking a communal experience – bachelor parties, teamget-togethers, etc. – used to be attracted by Alexander’s grill your-own feature, now 95 percent of customers let somebody else do the cooking. Restaurants have squeezed their hours. What hasn’ t changed is the commitment of time to be successful. That and the personal touch that goes such a longway. Indeed, there’s no telling howmanyprospectivestudents/athletes Alexander’s helped the U of I, ISU and Bradley impress, the latter with the big “B” branded into their steak or Texas toast. The restaurant recently hosted a hockey team from Virginia, 25 players and coaches, all of whom pre-ordered 14-ounce top sirloins. Families still come

Steve’s retirement party (L to R): Patti Shaw, Steve Shaw and Ron Helms

for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, any milestone. In any case, this marks a transition for Mercedes. Long-time partner Ron Helms will become president, and Shaw will become chairman of the board and stay on as a “working consultant.” In short, he wouldn’t knowwhat to dowith himself if he just walked away, given that so much of his life has revolved around his restaurants. Wife Patti was an employee before she said “I do” and they had three sons together. They’ll celebrate 42 years and multiple grandchildren in September. “It’s a passion,” said Shaw. “You have to love what you do. If you enjoy your job, you’ll never work a day in your life. I really believe that.”

Mike Bailey is editor in chief of Peoria Magazine

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