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


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