PEORIA MAGAZINE March 2023
A PUBLICATION OF WT VP
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MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE 1
COVER STORIES 28 Reviving Downtown By Mike Bailey
SPOTLIGHTS 40 Breathing New Life into Peoria’s Downtown By Amy Talcott 42 Saving Old Buildings Is ‘In His Blood’ By Lisa Coon 46 Building Downtown’s Future One Building and Block At a Time By Steve Tarter 52 The Captains Behind the Curtain By Linda Smith Brown 56 Devotion to Downtown By Laurie Pillman
60 Commerce and Compassion, Finding a Balance By Phil Luciano 64 ‘They Paved Paradise, and Put Up a Parking Lot’ By Linda Smith Brown 66 The Sounds of Silence In Downtown Peoria By Steve Stein 84 Once Upon a Time, America’s Leaders Worked Together By Chris Kaergard 92 Whatever Happened to
COVER ART:: “From Empty to Awesome,” original illustration by Missy Shepler ABOVE ART: “Finding a Pulse,” original illustration by Missy Shepler
Shanghai City? By Phil Luciano
2 MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE
FEATURES 8 Seed and Soil:
25 Dish and Drink: Cocktail Class -
74 Twenty Something:
Downtowns, Like People, Have Their Phases By Katie Faley
Bridging the Rural/ Urban Divide By Steve Tarter
Shanky's Power Flip By Dustin Crawford
2 6 Dish and Drink:
12 Seed and Soil:
Steve Raquel, Clinical Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Gies College of Business, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Cultivating a Coffee Experience By Laurie Pillman
Between a Rock and a Hard Place By Rob Sharkey
34 Peoria Retro:
16 Dish and Drink:
The Demetriou Plan By Mike Bailey
The Spice is Right By Lisa Coon
88 Playing in Peoria:
‘Pay the Cover,’ Let Your Mind Be Blown’’ By Roxy Baker
48 Mom and Pop:
2 0 Dish and Drink:
Success Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint By Steve Stein
Come For the ‘Damn Good Beer,’ Stay For the Conversation By Pam Tomka
The Golden Era of Peoria Hoops By Nick Vlahos
22 Dish and Drink:
The New Normal By Scott Fishel
What's Cookin' - Rosemary and Garlic Hasselback Potatoes By Mary DiSomma
MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE 3
COMMENTARY 78 In Downtown Peoria, Making ‘No Little Plans’ By Chris Setti 106 One Last Thing: Peoria Loses a Pizza Titan By Phil Luciano
7 Letter from the Editor 90 ArtsPartners Calendar 96 In Brief 102 Out & About 108 Thank You, Advertisers
in this issue
March 2023 contributors: Roxy Baker, Linda Smith Brown, Lisa Coon, Dustin Crawford, Mary DiSomma, Katie Faley, Scott Fishel, Chris Kaergard, Phil Luciano, Laurie Pillman, Steve Raquel, Chris Setti, Rob Sharkey, Missy Shepler, Scott Shepler, Steve Stein, Amy Talcott, Steve Tarter, Pam Tomka, Nick Vlahos FOLLOW @PEORIAMAGAZINES: To subscribe or renew, visit peoriamagazines.com/subscribe.
4 MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE
MONTHLY ISSUE 032023 ISSN: 947
MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE 5
E D I T O R I A L EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Mike Bailey email@example.com PUBLISHER Lesley Matuszak firstname.lastname@example.org
C R E A T I V E SENIOR COMMUNICATIONS EXECUTIVE Phil Luciano email@example.com EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF CONTENT AND MARKETING Julie Sanders
firstname.lastname@example.org STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Ron Johnson GRAPHIC DESIGN Debbie Cody
ADVERTISING PRESIDENT AND CEO OF WTVP Lesley Matuszak email@example.com SENIOR CORPORATE SUPPORT MANAGER Angie Spears firstname.lastname@example.org CORPORATE SUPPORT MANAGER Kristina Gamez email@example.com DIRECTOR OF PHILANTHROPY Tom Zimmerman firstname.lastname@example.org
6 MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE
LETTER FROM THE EDITOR MISSION POSSIBLE: DOWNTOWN, FROM EMPTY TO AWESOME
W elcome to Peoria Magazine’s March edition, dedicated to the subject of reviving Peoria’s Downtown. I come at this issue from the per spective of the young, raw newspaper reporter who moved to Peoria in Janu ary 1985, when it was the embodiment of America’s Rust Belt. Unemployment was double-digit. Local bumper stick ers posed the question: “Will the last person leaving Peoria please turn out the lights?” Yet Downtown was hoppin’. We’d work the circuit from Sully’s Pub — bless its soul — to Spirits at the Pere to Rumors at the Ramada, if memory serves, partaking in drink and dance along the way. Live music rocked the block on Main Street and elsewhere Downtown until 4 a.m.; I must confess to ringing a few of those closing bells. The Madison was still open then and about to serve up some serious prime time comedy. Riverfront development hadn’t happened yet but the late, great River Station offered “destination dining” before the term was coined. We’d walk from place to place in the wee hours and never feared for our safety. I wasn’t yet sure I’d made the right move, professionally speaking, but I thought, “At least I’ve landed in a fun place.” If there’s one thing Peoria has proved over the decades, it’s a gift for reinven tion. The economy recovered and new bumper stickers were printed: “Leave the lights on – I’m staying.” I was one who did, married, made this my home, and here I am still, 38 years later. Today I see pockets of progress
My intent is not to lionize or mythol ogize those previous leaders, but give them this: They knew what they wanted and they went after it. Moreover, they got many Peorians to row in the same direction, a critical component that too often has eluded us. Two other things: First, Angelos Demetriou's mantra was this: “Without beauty, a city has nothing to keep you.” Sweep a sidewalk, plant flowers, water and maintain them – small investments, big returns. Dress for success before you become one. If we don’t show pride in this place, why should anyone else? There’s no reason Peoria can’t brag the most beautiful downtown in downstate Illinois. Second, “we have a bit of an inferiority complex,” said elected official/attorney Stephen Morris. “Peoria has a lot to offer.” All of us can be better ambassadors for the place we call home. Start from an honest place, yes — Downtown has room for improvement — but move forward constructively from there Finally, we applied a team-reporting approach to this issue, interviewing dozens of Downtown stakeholders. I don’t think anyone has done a deeper dive. I am very proud of this staff. Enjoy.
Downtown, but none fully hitting their stride. Those can’t-miss nightspots are gone, along with several corporate headquarters. Pedestrian traffic can be non-existent. A Courthouse Plaza once alive with food carts and music has gone largely silent. Some prominent buildings have been vacant for decades. To be sure, COVID made a ghost town of many an American downtown. But even before then, it was as if someone had punctured Downtown’s balloon, letting the air out slowly. Friends may tell you I’m a realist. I like to think I’m an optimist, when warranted. I see the Warehouse District, RiverFront Farmers Market, places like Ardor Breads, RC Outfitters and OSF HealthCare’s new headquarters, and I’m hopeful. What gives me confidence are the nearby downtowns that have been restored to life. We profile Uptown Normal in this issue. Peoria Heights has its popular Restaurant Row. Both prove there’s more than one path to the Promised Land. In Normal it was a top-down, town-driven approach with significant taxpayer investment. In the Heights, it was a more organic, bottom-up metamorphosis. I’m partial to the latter, but in a downtown of Peoria’s size and substance, it likely will be a combination. Peoria has its own encouraging experience. Herein is a history lesson on the Demetriou Plan, launched in the 1970s. Downtown looks and feels the way it does today – with the Civic Center, RiverFront, Twin Towers, etc. — largely because of it. Unlike so many Peoria plans before and after, it actually was implemented.
MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE 7
SEED AND SOIL
BRIDGING THE RURAL/ URBAN DIVIDE For nearly 120 years, Kelly Seed in Downtown Peoria has met the planting needs of farmers and city dwellers alike
BY STEVE TARTER PHOTOS BY RON JOHNSON
W hen Doug Oberhelman pledged in 2015 that Caterpillar would build a new headquarters in Downtown Peoria, the first thing the CEO did was to reassure the enthusiastic crowd in attendance that Kelly Seed would stay put this time. Indeed, in one of those footnotes of Peoria history, Kelly Seed was displaced from its original Washington Street location back in 1964 by – guess who? – Caterpillar and its then-new headquarters.
(L to R) Matt Church, co-owner, Steve Church, president, and Nick Vespa, co-owner and manager of Kelly Seed
and Hardware Co., 202 Hamilton Blvd
8 MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE
NO CANDY BARS BY THE REGISTER
While Downtown Peoria has seen its ups and downs over the years, Kelly Seed has ridden that same roller coaster but endured. Today the business continues to flourish, dispensing bags of clover, lawn mixes, corn and just about anything associated with the cultivation of central Illinois’ incomparably rich soil — to farmers and amateur gardeners alike — from its location at the corner of Washington Street and Hamilton Boulevard. A SEED IS PLANTED, AND GROWS Kelly Seed’s roots date back to 1905 when W. G. Kelly opened a hardware operation in San Jose, a small town 25 miles south of Peoria. Kelly later opened what became his main store in Downtown Peoria. Harold Church, who worked at the store for 20 years — never missing a day, by the way — kept the Kelly name when he and wife Helen bought both business and inventory in 1956. It’s been a Church-run operation ever since. Stephen Church and Nancee Vespa, Harold and Helen’s son and daughter, have worked at the store all their lives, continuing a family tradition of unwavering pertinacity. When Harold Church died at age 94 in 2011, he had logged 75 years at the store, working side by side with his wife for 50 years. Helen died in 2007 at age 91. Today, Stephen Church oversees a business now in its 118th year. His son, Matthew Church, runs the store’s garden center while nephew Nick Vespa handles the farm side of the business. Both are already steeped in the seed trade; Nick started at the store in 1997, Matthew in 2000. “I’ve worked at the store since I graduated from Iowa State University in 1972,” said Stephen. There have been a few changes over the last 50 years. “You didn’t have all the box stores you have now,” he said. “Every building in Downtown Peoria had its own custodial staff, who bought what was needed from local hardware stores. Now you’ve got national services who don’t buy locally.
“Losing Sears was a loss,” added Stephen, in reference to the legendary department store that left Downtown Peoria in 1998. “Your Sears customer was also a Kelly customer.” BRINGING COUNTRY TO THE CITY But being in an urban downtown hasn’t hurt the store with a rural customer base. To the contrary, it has helped. “We are a destination place. When folks come in, they typically buy,” said Nick Vespa, adding that Kelly customers tend to be faithful, repeat visitors. “We draw from a 100-mile radius of Peoria and we’re conveniently located … one block off I-74.” Adjustments have been made over the years to remain competitive, said Stephen Church. In 1972, “we were probably 50 to 60 percent hardware. Today, hardware makes up only 10 to 15 percent of our business. We’re more of a garden center now,” he said, adding that had Kelly Seed not made that transition, it would be out of business today, the fate of so many other local hardware stores. Yet remnants of the past remain. Oak cabinets are still in service from the first store. Designs from old seed bags adorn the walls, a constant reminder of past harvests. Wandering through the aisles jammed with goods makes you feel as if you’re somewhere between an old five-and-dime and the corner hardware store. There’s still that sense of wonder that almost anything — from lawn ornaments to tools to vole repellent, you never know what you’ll find — is up for sale, sometimes exclusively here. And, of course, there’s seed, lots of it. “You can’t sell from an empty wagon,” said Stephen Church, recalling the credo of his predecessor. “When farmers come in, they need it now,” added Nick Vespa. The Kelly Seed warehouse doesn’t gather a lot of dust. “We sell a semi load (of seed) every couple of weeks,” said Vespa.
Farmers aren’t the only customers who expect Kelly to have what they need. Vespa notes that the store maintains a ready supply of 5,000 five pounds bags of residential grass seed. ‘THEY CARRY WHAT YOU NEED’ — Contractor Chuck Gabbert “My uncle was an engineer for Caterpillar. I worked on his house and yard while I was at school in the ‘60s. That's when I first discovered Kelly Seed,” said Pat Sullivan, a Peoria developer and bar owner. “Over the years I've used them for just about everything, from garden materials to stuff you can use to prevent birds from nesting.” Peoria construction contractor Chuck Gabbert also is a fan and loves the old school vibe. “I’ve used those guys forever,” he said. “The uses we've had include seeding a job site, putting in flowers and flowering trees in the downtown or using copper sulfate to treat ponds. They carry what you need. You don't see candy bars for sale by the register.” It’s a store for all seasons, said Vespa, who remembers first coming in as a 5-year-old with mom Nancee. “In winter, the worse the weather is, the better we do. When it gets really cold, we sell ice melter and bird seed,” he said. Yet spring fever has a special meaning at Kelly Seed, said Stephen Church. “We call the period between March and the middle of June our Christmas time,” he said. That’s when the store makes good use of the two parking lots it maintains, able to accommodate up to 74 vehicles. As for that mention by Oberhelman regarding the store, Stephen Church wasn’t surprised. “Doug’s a good customer of ours,” he said.
Steve Tarter is a Peoria Magazine contributor who was born in England, raised in Boston, moved to Peoria to attend Bradley University and decided to stay. He has spent a career in journalism and public relations
MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE 9
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MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE 11
SEED AND SOIL
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE It may be a farmer’s off-season, but there’s no shortage of work to be done
BY ROB SHARKEY
12 MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE
I t’s that time of year when we we’re all tired of winter. The longing for warmer weather and longer days is a constant thought in our minds. Seeing the year’s first robin land in a tree of fresh buds means one thing: Spring is almost here. For farmers, winter has been one long pre-game show. There have been months of machinery preparation, including acts as simple as greasing equipment, changing oil and hand checking thousands of bearings. We have to educate ourselves on the latest technology updates to help us decide what seed and herbicides to purchase. We have to plan what to plant and when to sell our crops. Every decision about next year’s crop is packed into our winter “break.” MY FAVORITE THEORY IS THAT THE DEVIL HIMSELF PUSHES THE ROCKS UP So, when the temperature finally warms and the ground dries, you won’t find a happier (or more nervous) person than a farmer. It takes me back to my childhood. As a kid, I loved watching the slumbering tractors come back to life. Hearing the engines roar, seeing the black smoke (back when tractors blew smoke), these were the things a farm kid lived for. Spring also meant more work, not that we minded. My first real farming job was picking up rocks. At first, I would ride on the fender of the tractor as one of my older siblings drove back and forth through the field. When we
saw a rock, we jumped down, picked it up, and threw it in the wagon we were pulling — a simple but necessary job. New rocks pop up every year. I’m not entirely sure how the science works. Some say the freezing and thawing of the ground heave rocks to the surface. Others say that tillage, or the act of driving the equipment over the ground, is the culprit. My favorite theory is that the devil himself pushes the rocks up in order to continue the use of curse words in agriculture. My farm is on a ridge, so the rain that falls on the east side ends up in the Illinois River. The rain that falls on the west side goes to the Mississippi. Although it does make for some great views, it also leads to the farm being very rocky. Rocks can take a costly toll on today’s farm equipment. A couple of years back, a rock the size of a baseball made it to the threshing rotor of my combine. I hit the “oh crap” button to emergency stop everything, only to hear the rock pound its way to the back of the machine. All in all, it was an $11,000 repair bill and two days of no harvest. Rocks can be expensive in other ways. One late night I was planting corn, and even though today’s equipment has fantastic lighting, there are still blind spots. The very last thing a corn planter does is fill the furrow (the slot it just opened and planted) with dirt. It does this with two angled wheels. That night, unbeknownst to me, a small rock had wedged itself in between those wheels. So not only did it not close the furrow, those wheels pushed the seeds on top of the ground. It definitely cost me yield.
Now, there are some tools that can eliminate the need to pick up the rocks by hand. West of Iowa, it is not uncommon for farmers to use land rollers, which are like giant versions of a lawn roller. Some of them are up to 120 feet wide. They simply push the rocks down to ground level. ROCKS EXACT A COST: REPAIR BILLS AND REDUCED YIELD I had a chance to use an 80-foot land roller one spring. It was a promotional deal. I really liked it and had virtually no problems with rocks that fall. But the rocks were ultimately still there … and the roller cost $100,000. There are several versions of rock pickers that are pulled behind a tractor. These are pretty slick because the tractor driver doesn’t have to leave his seat. However, these can go for up to $30,000. I’ve even seen some farmers mount a hydraulic claw to the front of their tractor. Bottom line, farmers don’t like rocks. I will say, though, as I drive through Peoria seeing these houses with beautiful landscaping that includes these same rocks, a thought comes to mind: Sharkey’s U-Pick Rock Farm.
Rob Sharkey , aka “The Shark Farmer,” tills the land at his fifth generation farm inthe 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
MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE 13
14 MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE
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MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE 15
Thyme Kitchen & Craft Beer
I f Travis Mohlenbrink had a dream job, it would be as a full-time restaurant cook. As the owner of Spice Hospitality with its six dining, catering and brewing establishments employing 200 people, Mohlenbrink, 47, gets some time in his kitchens, but not nearly enough to satisfy his passion for cooking. “Cooks … are some of the most important people in a restaurant,” he said. “I like completing tasks, which sometimes in my day is dif ficult to accomplish. As a cook, you start and finish dishes all day long.” Even more important to Mohlenbrink, “there is room for some creativity. “There’s just something very satisfying about ending a dinner service knowing that you just served hundreds of people and hopefully made some of them forget about everything in the world for a couple hours.”
DISH AND DRINK
THE SPICE IS RIGHT Saffron Social is next up for
Travis Mohlenbrink, one of central Illinois’ most imaginative restaurateurs
BY LISA COON PHOTOS BY RON JOHNSON
16 MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE
A NEW VENTURE Walking into a dining room at Sugar Wood-Fired Bistro, Cayenne, Thyme Kitchen & Craft Beer or Industry Brewing Co. and seeing people eating and smiling is a highlight of Mohlenbrink’s week. He also owns The Warehouse on State Street event center, which houses his Cracked Pepper Catering, now nearing the end of its first year as contract caterer at the Peoria Civic Center. A seventh establishment, Saffron Social, an upscale seafood and steak restaurant, is expected to open early this summer in the OSF HealthCare headquarters building in Peoria’s Downtown, fronting Washington Street. Each of Mohlenbrink’s restaurants has a specific food direction, bar program and decor. Saffron Social will be no different. “We’ll have USDA certified Angus beef sourced from the Midwest, fresh seafood and some pasta dishes with a twist,” he said. The bar program will be wine-focused while also offering local and regional craft spirits. It is being designed in a 1950s Art Deco style, and the restaurant will have a lunch menu with a sushi option. VIVE LA DIFFÉRENCE Mohlenbrink comes up with the look for all of his restaurants. “My inspirations come from travels. I love to see a concept work somewhere and dissect the operation on how it could work here at home,” he said. “I take ideas from places away from our area and put spins on the dishes to make them our own. I follow all the food trend magazines and websites for ideas on food and spaces as well. I am also very involved in the process of creating the menus.” The uniqueness of each location – the interior designs and menus – is important to Mohlenbrink. “For the same reasons I don’t open the same restaurant over and over, I don’t duplicate dishes,” he said. “The
creative part of being in this business is very important and for me vital to our success.” Ultimately, it’s all about building a memorable experience: “I want a place that guests crave a special dish or can’t wait to bring other family members or friends to enjoy the atmosphere, food and service.” HIGH PRAISE “Travis is a 100% success story,” said Ed LaHood, who has operated Food Service Equipment Corp. since 1969. “Travis came in one day and he was going into Cracked Pepper down on northeast Ad ams and needed equipment. Since that day, he’s … probably more successful than any other operator that stayed in one city. “He listens and has a great vision of what’s happening now or what’s going to happen in the restaurant business,” LaHood added. “And he has self-confidence and the ability to roll with the punches. He obviously has an incredible personality to endear himself in this business with people who like his product.”
Fellow restaurateur Matt White, owner of Dac’s Smokehouse in Morton and Peoria, has known Mohlenbrink for about 10 years. “He’s very innovative,” said White. “More quality goes into the kind of work he does. It’s always been that way with him.” Meanwhile, Mohlenbrink is “very supportive of other independent restaurants,” said White. “He’s a great person to bounce ideas off.” For J.D. Dalfonso, president and CEO of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Mohlenbrink and his popular restaurants have made his job marketing the region that much easier. “When we do the work we do and promote the Downtown, it’s with his restaurants really on the tip of the tongue,” said Dalfonso. “It’s a testament to the quality of food and … service and the overall experience you have at his establishments. We’re proud to have him.” CHANGED PLANS Becoming a restaurateur wasn’t Mohlenbrink’s original career goal. He
MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE 17
went to college to study elementary education because he really wanted to be a baseball coach. Student teaching made him realize it wasn’t for him. ‘MY BIGGEST LESSON … LEARN THE PALATE AND WHAT PEOPLE ARE READY TO EAT’ ‑ Travis Mohlenbrink “I was working for a restaurant and I really liked it. I liked meeting new people every day and the energy and pace – and being a server and having cash in hand every day was nice,” he said with a laugh. He began working at Chili’s Grill & Bar in Normal and met the man who was opening the first Panera Bread franchise in the region. “He had his hands full. Back then there wasn’t a manual that detailed on day 79 you need to be doing this, this and this, etc.,” recalled Mohlenbrink. “I said, ‘I’m game. I’ll help.’ I went on to manage that Panera for a couple years before opening five others in central Illinois.” At that point, Mohlenbrink had a sense of what it took to open a restaurant. In 2005, he opened Cracked Pepper Catering at 3406 NE Adams because it was easier to control costs with a catering operation. In 2008, he added a successful café. In 2017, he moved Cracked Pepper to Peoria’s Metro Centre. He was in year three of a five
year lease there when COVID-19 hit. Carry-out wasn’t cutting it, so he was forced to close and sublease to another business. A second Cracked Pepper location at 311 Main St. Downtown also was shuttered during the pandemic. Mohlenbrink is unsure if or when that location will reopen. “I’m still hopeful there will be a day when more people return Downtown to work,” he said. Mohlenbrink points to a time eight years ago when he had a pork belly appetizer on the menu at Salt, the pre decessor of Cayenne in Peoria Heights. “Almost everyone sent it back because it was too much fat. It just killed me,” he said. “We featured bone marrow on a special occasion and didn’t sell one order. My biggest lesson was to learn the palate and what people are ready to eat. It might be the hottest thing trending on the market, but if people aren’t ready for it, it won’t succeed.” Today, iterations of both appear on the menu at Thyme and are very successful, he said. There is no such thing as a “normal” week for Mohlenbrink. “I’d like to be in my current restau rants more often but it’s now to the point where I’m doing a lot of legwork Saffron Social, a new restaurant, is under construction in Downtown Peoria LEARNING LESSONS, LOOKING FORWARD
on preparing menus, decor, staff and sourcing all of the items needed to open Saffron Social,” he said. “Thankfully, for me, the management teams and staffs we have in place are amazing.” While the pandemic impacted his bottom line, reduced hours and caused closures at some of his establishments, sales and staffing have returned to pre pandemic levels, said Mohlenbrink. The pain points now are inflated food and labor costs, he said. As of today, he’s not anticipating any new endeavors. “It would take a perfect situation to make that happen. I hope my ideas are not fading, but I know my time opening new concepts in central Illinois is nearing the end,” he said. “I plan to be around a long time making sure our community has places they can enjoy. I hope to keep menus exciting and fresh. I promise to do all I can to provide places our community can be proud to call their own, because at the end of the day, everything we do is for our guests.”
Lisa Coon is a Peoria native who had a long career in the newspaper industry before moving into marketing and communications
18 MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE
INNOVATION AND OPPORTUNITY COLLIDE
Bradley student venture competition
March 23, 2023
Turner School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation
Foster College of Business
MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE 19
DISH AND DRINK
COME FOR THE ‘DAMN GOOD BEER,’ STAY FOR THE CONVERSATION Mark Johnstone, the dean of Peoria-area brewmasters, is nearing his 25th anniversary at Rhodell’s
BY PAM TOMKA PHOTOS BY RON JOHNSON
O n Downtown Peoria’s riverfront, nestled into a building constructed in 1928, sits the oldest operating brewery in central Illinois. John S. Rhodell Brewery, 111 Walnut St., will soon celebrate 25 years of serving unique, tasty, handcrafted quality beers to its many customers. Rhodell’s was started by Mark Johnstone, in partnership with his wife Suzie (O’Dell) Johnstone and John Rhodes – along with a few others – and those three remain the sole owners of the business. Who is John S. Rhodell? That’s a conglomeration of the three partners’ names, and it has become synonymous with excellent beer in a welcoming atmosphere with an outstanding staff that is very knowledgeable about what’s on tap, capable of addressing “taste
studying abroad. They married in Edinburgh and eventually moved to her hometown of Peoria after having their first son, Callum, while still in Scotland. They have since added son Euan and daughter Fiona to the family. After looking at Bloomington and other places in Peoria, they decided on a location down Water Street from where they are now located to start their brewing business, ultimately spending 17 years there. When they went shopping for a larger space and more convenient parking, many of their customers followed. Evidently, it’s been a hit. “I find the atmosphere to be wonderful, with a variety of different people and families of all ages and backgrounds,” said Scott Umland, a longtime customer. “It is bright and airy and draws an eclectic crowd.”
notes,” hop variety and ABV (alcohol by volume), among other topics. Mark, the brewmaster and a native of Scotland, met his wife there at the University of Stirling while she was Mark Johnstone is the proprietor of the John S. Rhodell Brewery
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For many years at the old and present locations, customers came to brew their own beers, which they would bottle and take home or store in an on-site walk-in cooler. Eventually, Rhodell’s switched up its business model from being a personal brewing site to a bar, due primarily to the cost of materials, though some limited personal brewing is still an option. Purchasing quality malt and hops from Germany, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and throughout the U.S. for small-batch brews allows Rhodell’s to create some of the most interesting and flavorful beers available, but it can be costly for an individual. BREWING IS AN ART. THE MALT IS THE CANVAS, HOPS AND YEAST THE COLORS Today, Rhodell’s typically has about 13 beers on tap, all of its own creation. Usually, beer must sit from four to six weeks to age before being served. Some, like the bourbon barrel beers, are aged for more than a year. Johnstone compares brewing to an art, saying that the malt is the canvas and the hops and yeast are the different colors. Like a true artist, the possibilities are endless, though he has to pay attention to what his customers enjoy. That said, new malts and hops are frequently available so he can experiment to appease a variety of palates. Oscar and Patty Gillespie have been coming to Rhodell’s “for the community and the variety of fresh beers” since it opened in 1998. They love the “IPA’s and cask beers Mark crafts.” “Mark is an incredibly knowledgeable and inventive brewmaster. The variety
of beers that he creates is outstanding,” added customers Danila and Mike McAsey, who likewise have been coming to Rhodell’s nearly since day one. “The mouth feel of his ales makes for a much richer taste experience.” All the partners say they are firm believers in reinvesting in their business to continue to provide the experiences their customers have come to expect. Each week introduces a new variety of beers with unique names and tastes such as “Wild Prairie Blond,” “Hopside of the Moon” and “MacBeth’s Revenge.” Both the names and the types of beer come from cultural and heritage influences and even customer suggestions, said Johnstone. Often his staff can help customers in making a choice based on what they are told you like. One change Rhodell’s has made in recent years is to offer a variety of drinks beyond beers, wine and mixed drinks, as not everyone is a beer drinker. That full watering hole experience has made Rhodell’s a place for people of all ages and interests to socialize. “I have grown friendships" through the brewery, said local attorney Jon Phil lips. Bonds with colleagues have been formed "over beer and giving Mark hell" at Rhodell's, "not at the Courthouse.” Customers have sometimes asked why Rhodell’s does not sell food. That would require a kitchen, more staff and a great deal of additional work, said Johnstone, who will cook up a frozen pizza for patrons, who also are free to bring their own. “The very nature of the brewery — i.e. little food, little frill, beer-focused, makes it clear that the beer must shine
because that is what it sells — just damn good beer,” said Phillips. ‘THE VERY NATURE OF THE BREWERY — LITTLE FRILL, LITTLE FOOD — MAKES IT CLEAR THAT THE BEER MUST SHINE’ — Jon Phillips Unlike some other gathering spots that were challenged to the point of going under during the pandemic, Johnstone was able to keep his business thriving with a carryout growler business. That aspect of his sales continues to be strong, although many customers prefer to come in and partake of some banter with their brew. Larry and Martha Campbell were among those who “disappeared” during the pandemic, but now they are back and happy to “have a conversation with groups with no loud music or blaring sports TV. “The experience of sharing quality ales with strangers that soon became friends” is one of the reasons they keep coming back, said Larry. The latter includes Johnstone, who often comes out to talk with customers in his Scottish brogue. He is proud of his heritage, and of the place he’s built for a loyal clientele that comes for the beer and stays for the conversation.
Pam Tomka is the retired director of the Washington District Library and a beekeeper whose homemade honey has gone into a Rhodell’s beer
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DISH AND DRINK
ROSEMARY AND GARLIC HASSELBACK POTATOES
T he Hasselback is one of the most impressive recipes you can make with a simple potato. It’s also one of the easiest. The name for the potato preparation is derived from its place of origin. It is believed that chef Leif Elisson developed the recipe in 1953 when he worked at the Hasselback Hotel and Restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden. The recipe requires just five ingredients (plus salt and pepper) and can be prepared with almost any kind of spud, though I prefer using creamy Yukon potatoes. The only unusual item needed to create these accordion style potatoes is a pair of chopsticks. Yes, chopsticks!
4. To give the potatoes extra flavor, tuck slivers of garlic and fresh rosemary between each slice. Using a pastry brush, coat the potatoes liberally with olive oil and melted butter. The potato slices will fan out during baking. Sprinkle the potatoes with salt and a few grinds of pepper. 5. Bake for 30 minutes, then brush the potatoes again with the butter olive oil mixture. Make sure to get some of the mixture in between the potato slices. Bake for an additional 25 minutes, making them extra crispy. Remove from oven and garnish with additional fresh sprigs of rosemary. Enjoy!
INGREDIENTS . • 6 Yukon gold or Russet potatoes • 4 tablespoons olive oil • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter • 6 whole garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thinly lengthwise • 6 to 8 sprigs of fresh rosemary • Salt and pepper to taste INSTRUCTIONS : 1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Remove needles from a few of the rosemary sprigs. Keep remaining sprigs intact. 2. Wash and dry the potatoes but keep the skin on. 3. Place two wooden chopsticks horizontally on a cutting board, about two inches apart. Set the potato horizontally between the chopsticks, each side resting on a stick. Using a chef’s knife, cut 1/8 inch slices into the potatoes. The blade will stop when it meets the chopstick, ensuring that the cut does not go all the way through. Genius!
Prep time : 25 minutes Bake time: 55 minutes
About our chef: Mary DiSomma lives in Oak Park and Cuba, Illinois. She is an author, publisher, philanthropist, podiatrist, entrepreneur, wife to Bill and mom to four adult children
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Over the last decade, the Doug Oberhelman Caterpillar Visitors Center has welcomed nearly half a million visitors from over 30 countries and all 50 states. Through beautiful storytelling, the history of Peoria’s industrial roots comes alive for guests of all ages. A hands-on playground of yellow iron lets you explore the present. And you can learn about sustainable solutions that will take our world well into the future. Come visit and help us celebrate this 10th Anniversary milestone! For all the latest, be sure to follow us on Facebook or at www.visitcaterpillar.com .
MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE 23
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DISH AND DRINK
COCKTAIL CLASS Welcome back to Mixology 101 SHANKY'S POWER FLIP
W elcome to March, when everyone finds their Irish roots and we start Spring off with a party on St. Patrick's Day. Today we move into the world of Flips, though this drink will not be doing the gymnastics that its namesake used to do. Flips were named for the frothing and boiling that happened when a hot poker was dipped into a cocktail to mix and warm the concoction. Typically served cold nowadays, the flipping is contained within the shaker tin as it is chilled and mixed. The one ingredient that polarizes consumers of this decadent and delicious drink is the introduction of an egg. In a similar fashion that egg white gives a cocktail a meringue-like foam and a velvety mouthfeel, a whole egg also adds body and richness to a cocktail made of spirits and sweetener. This month we will be taking two Irish spirits to heavenly heights with nuts and cookies on the palate and a warm blanket in front of the fireplace on the mind. The first is Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey, the first-ever bottled Irish whiskey. Paired with Powers is Shanky's Whip, a Black Irish Whiskey
liqueur that has vanilla and caramel flavors and, if you drink it straight, tastes like a cookie with a bite. In fact, this is one of our go-to choices when someone wants a shot at The 33 Room. As this cocktail contains raw egg, be aware that there is a rare chance that it can be contaminated with salmonella. This risk is greatly diminished by using fresh, clean eggs without cracks. First the TOOLS : For this cocktail you will need a measuring jigger, a cocktail shaker, a hawthorne strainer, a fine mesh strainer, a nut grater, and a whiskey snifter. Next, the INGREDIENTS : To the cocktail shaker add: • 1 whole egg • 1 dash black walnut bitters • 1 dash toasted almond bitters • .5 oz. rich demerara simple syrup • .75 oz. Shanky's Whip • 1.75 oz. Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey Now, the PROCESS : Chill your whiskey snifter with ice water or by leaving it in the freezer. This cocktail requires a dry-wet shake in order to
fully emulsify the egg into the drink. With no ice, firmly hold both ends of the shaker and shake hard for 10 seconds. The addition of energy from shaking will cause the air inside to expand, pushing the shaker apart, so be sure to hold it tightly together. Once done, add ice and shake hard for 10-15 seconds to dilute the cocktail and build a little foam. Double strain with your hawthorne and fine mesh strainer into your empty whiskey snifter. Grate nutmeg over the top. The late American newspaper journalist Jim Bishop famously wrote, in quoting his father, that "God invented whiskey so the Irish wouldn't rule the world." This drink gives insight into why. Sláinte!
About our mixologist: Dustin Crawford is co-owner – with partner Kip Rodier – of the 33 Room in Peoria Heights. Prior to that, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran traveled the world before returning home to work his magic behind the bar at various central Illinois establishments
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Savannah Hatten is owner of Zion Coffee Bar at 803 SW Adams
DISH AND DRINK
CULTIVATING A COFFEE EXPERIENCE Zion Coffee Bar was among the first businesses to take a chance on Downtown’s Warehouse District
BY LAURIE PILLMAN PHOTOS BY RON JOHNSON
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A sked to describe Zion Coffee Bar, employee Kaitlyn Lucas didn’t hesitate. “It’s a modern minimalist space with craft coffee, homemade syrup, and a really good simple toast menu,” she said. “Everything has a lot of love and intention put into it.” Coffee culture is a unique experience around the world, but America stands out as one of the few countries that prefers its coffee to go. However, Peoria's indie coffee houses are working to change minds on that score, one cup at a time. “It’s a different experience than grabbing your coffee through the drive-through,” said owner Savannah Hatten. "It's a chance to take a pause in the morning and just talk to the baristas about what's happening in their lives.” Nestled in the Warehouse District, across the street from Dozer Park, Zion doesn’t sport a drive-through. The shop blends old architecture with simple furniture to offer a modern but homey aesthetic. A red brick accent wall and dark-rimmed windows are a contrast to the white walls and pale wooden tables that surround a centralized coffee bar. Potted plants make the space comfortable for students, business people and downtown residents who make up the shop's usual clientele. Zion began three years before it even had a dedicated space to serve customers. Original owners Banu and Mike Hatfield were full-time Caterpillar employees when they started selling bags of coffee at pop-up shops and farmers' markets. They traveled to Guatemala and Nicaragua to connect with the farmers whose beans they sourced. In ‘WE PARTNER WITH SMALL COFFEE FARMS AND LOCAL FARMERS FOR A LOT’ — Savannah Hatten
2017, they opened the current location at 803 SW Adams as a natural extension of that original business. In 2021 the Hatfields wanted to go in a different life direction and approached former employees Savannah Hatten and Jared Jensen about purchasing Zion. Hatten recalls being hesitant at first. “I wasn’t out shopping for businesses. I think that combination of already having experience working here and being a manager here was huge. I cared for what they had built with Zion, and having the opportunity to carry out and further something that was already special to me made it feel right.” The Hatfields made another trip to Guatemala in 2018, this time with Hatten and Jensen in tow. “That was really powerful,” Hatten said. “Coffee is one of those things that doesn't grow here, so it feels so far removed. All we know is there are the beans. We grind them. We put them in a cup. To see the other side, the families working so hard … was really beautiful and really, really amazing to see.” Hatten and Jensen both have extensive experience in the hospitality industry, so they focus on creating experiences for customers and employees alike. That means letting employees showcase talents unrelated to coffee. Zion stickers and shirts are made by a former employee who is passionate about graphic design, and the plant displays are maintained by a barista who enjoys gardening. Recently, Lucas’s baking has been on display, supplementing the pastries Zion receives from Ardor Breads & Provisions. The ICC Culinary School graduate worked at a local farm before returning to coffee culture and said that experience fed her love for sourcing local ingredients and sharing seasonal flavors. All of Peoria's indie coffee shops are good at providing unique flavors from around the world, said Hatten. Each
delivers a different taste experience. Zion's offerings fit with the Warehouse District's energy and innovative environment, she said. “We partner with small coffee farms. That means something to us. We also partner with local farms for a lot of the ingredients for the toppings that you’ll see on our food menu or in our drink menu. Our black currant jam comes from the black currants at a local farm. We try to create unique flavors, things that are fun and fresh that people haven't seen in a coffee shop before.” The baristas are a crucial part of that experience. Coffee and tea terminology can be overwhelming, so Zion’s staff discusses coffee flavor notes in simple terms that any customer can understand. While they strive to get people to try something new, they know that customers want to avoid purchasing something they won't enjoy. Don’t like it? They’ll replace it with a favorite. The Warehouse District does bring challenges for small businesses. Parking is limited, and customer traffic patterns can be unpredictable depending on what else is happening Downtown. However, Hatten says the benefits of the commu nity far outweigh any difficulties. “It represents what Peoria is headed for. There are a lot of local business owners in this area that try to work together. Pretty much everything down here in this warehouse district and on the waterfront is locally owned, so there are a lot of unique businesses,” she said. “I feel lucky to be down here in this area of Peoria that's constantly moving and evolving. I'm excited to be here.”
Laurie Pillman is an author and freelance writer/editor, based in Peoria
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We’ve done it before. Can we do it again? BY MIKE BAILEY PHOTOS BY RON JOHNSON COURTESY OF THE SPECIAL COLLECTIONS CENTER, BRADLEY UNIVERSITY LIBRARY, AND THE PEORIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
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While some chafed at the mention of Downtown being in need of any “rescue,” most acknowledged that the city center has seen livelier days. There was almost universal agreement that a visibly healthy, vibrant Downtown is critical not just to Peoria but to the region. Here’s what we found. FIRST, ‘DOWNTOWN’ DEFINED Downtown Peoria stretches over nearly 600 acres bounded by the Illinois River and five distinct neighborhoods: the Central Business District incorporating the Main Street corridor, the Riverfront District, the Medical District including the two hospitals, the Warehouse District south to MacArthur Highway, and the Growth Cell District covering parts of the East Bluff and Near North Side. Through many ups and downs over the years, Downtown still retains the region’s highest concentration of jobs (health care and manufacturing top the list), restaurants, bars, entertainment, sports and cultural venues from the Civic Center to Dozer Park to Peoria Riverfront Museum. It’s also a hub of banking, legal services, local government and the arts. ‘PEOPLE NEED TO RETURN TO THE OFFICE’ “Every time I drive Downtown, I fall in love with it,” said Jane Scott of Jane’s Sweet Addictions, located in the former Nut House space on Main Street. “But I need foot traffic.” In conversations with scores of stakeholders, that was a consistent lament. No recent count of how many people still go into work Downtown seems to exist, though local real estate brokers say a third or more of Downtown’s offices remain dark. If that’s so and the ratio holds to total employment, that would translate to thousands of workers missing in action Downtown. The mom-and-pop operators dependent on them believe their eyes and their cash registers.
D owntown was the center of everything … The streets were thronged … People window shopped along Main Street or lined up for the Saturday shows at the Madison, the Palace and the Rialto.” Those were the 1940s and ‘50s, Downtown Peoria’s heyday. But in seemingly the blink of an eye, “the vital downtown area began to grow old and change … No longer were there massive crowds downtown day and night. No longer did the changing of the lights at Fulton and Adams bring swarms of people surging between Block & Kuhl’s and Bergner’s. No longer were there massive downtown traffic jams. This became almost a ghost town, with empty and littered streets and crumbling pavement. It was threatened with a takeover by the kinds of peripheral businesses which thrive in areas at the point of collapse.” Alas, Peoria was lucky, with “the labors and enterprises of forward-looking men and women … at its center.” They would regroup and reinvest. “Downtown has refused to die.” So observed Jerry Klein, the longtime Peoria newspaper columnist and author of a definitive local history book, Peoria! He was writing from the perspective of 1985. Almost 40 years have passed, and Downtown is at another hinge in its history. TAKING A DEEP DIVE A lot of water has flowed under those Illinois River bridges in the ensuing decades. The 1950s and ‘60s saw construction of the Murray Baker Bridge and Caterpillar’s world head quarters Downtown. The 1970s and ‘80s witnessed the implementation of the Demetriou Plan, which envisioned ‘
the Civic Center and a renewed riv erfront. The 1990s and early 2000s brought riverfront redevelopment. And firmly into a new century, Downtown leaders have turned their attentions to the Warehouse District and other reinventions, such as OSF HealthCare’s transformation of the historic Block & Kuhl building into its headquarters. In short, Downtown has not suffered from insufficient investment. Add it all up and we dare say billions in public/ private dollars have been spent in the last three decades. Since 2014, building permits totaling $300 million in esti mated private investment have been issued in Downtown ZIP code 61602. Yet, something still seems to be missing. In fairness, COVID-19 emptied many a U.S. downtown, and office buildings have not returned to their previous occupancy levels in what might be a permanent shift in the American workplace. With Downtown hosting nearly 32,000 jobs pre-COVID – more than 40% of the city’s total workforce – the area had more to lose when remote work became a thing, though there has been perceptible bounce-back. Nonetheless, there were signs of Downtown decline – barren sidewalks, sparsely populated parking lots, shop closings, decades-long vacancies, pop-up homeless villages, light traffic especially on weeknights and weekends — prior to 2020. What sparks there were didn’t seem to stay lit. We explore why that is and what can be done about it in this issue of Peoria Magazine, with interviews of dozens of Downtown stakeholders – major employers, small business owners, residents, workers – who spoke to its advantages and disadvantages. We heard more optimism than despair.
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