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Spice Rack: Seasoned by a sweet work ethic, Mohlenbrink’s business is cooking

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On a sub-zero Monday in late January, Travis Mohlenbrink hosted a wine dinner for 70 people at his Salt restaurant in Peoria Heights.

Winds were wailing. Travel was treacherous. Schools that would have been open were closed. Yet a restaurant that should have been closed was open, and not for business.

Mohlenbrink was holding a fundraiser for the St. Jude Midwest Affiliate. Patrons braved the weather to provide $4,400-plus; he kicked in to round off the total.

“One night, a few hours, $5,000 to St. Jude,” he mused the next morning. “That’s a successful night in my eyes.”

And that fits with his motto, “Do it the hard way.” In part, he means a unique twist on familiar foods, which make life a little easier for everyone else. (Think: Oreo doughnuts or gourmet macaroni and cheese.)

Coupled with a businessman’s eye for the creative possibilities to be found in a simple spice rack, that motto may underlie the more intriguing restaurants to open here in recent years.

Mohlenbrink is the owner/operator/general contractor for Cracked Pepper, Salt and the recently opened Sugar. He considers those seasoning-themed venues as appetizers, so to speak, for what could be termed the main course: Thyme, a still-evolving craft-beer and food-forward pub he hopes to open in the Warehouse District by year’s end.

“In my opinion, this will be the flagship operation,” he says. “I want their jaws to drop when they come in. And the food should speak for itself.”

Now 38, Mohlenbrink could be the older, more businesslike brother of actor James Wolk. A native of Donovan, Ill., near the Indiana border, he worked in the hotel/restaurant industries for a decade. Perhaps most notably, he served stints with Restaurants America in Chicago and St. Louis Bread Co., which is better known here as Panera. That big-time background has proven invaluable since he founded Cracked Pepper as a sideline in 2005.

Geared to “catering, corporate-style,” Mohlenbrink and a couple of helpers provided a steady stream of boxed lunches and snacks for clients such as pharmaceutical sales representatives. At that point, he wasn’t seeking huge events and major weddings. The original “hard way” meant fresh and unique foods for smaller groups, prepared without shortcuts — smoking and cutting the meats, baking pastries with real butter.

“I also didn’t want to dive into those events and not do them well,” he says.

Operating from a crusty older building near the McClugage Bridge, his limited budget meant buying food supplies daily. Selling his car and his loft, he plowed the proceeds into renovations and equipment. He did some of the construction work himself, often sacking out in a sleeping bag on the floor and using his GMC Jimmy to make deliveries.

This sounds daunting, but barely scratches the surface of life at that time. Mohlenbrink’s then-2-year-old son was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. Cracked Pepper’s small start-up staff filled in the gaps for a year’s worth of cancer treatments. The boy is now 9 and doing fine. But when the most critical period was past, staffers threatened to quit if Mohlenbrink Sr. considered working anywhere else full-time. Apparently, he agreed.

“It changes you,” he says of his son’s illness. Doubling down on “the hard way,” he found more older buildings and acted as his own general contractor to repurpose them. The Northeast Adams Street location expanded to Cracked Pepper Bakery and Cafe in 2007. A second Cracked Pepper took shape across from the Peoria County Courthouse on Main Street in 2009. The softly-lit, more elegant Salt opened on Prospect Road in 2011; a robust Sugar brought a wood-fired oven to Southwest Adams Street downtown last fall. The aim appears to be corporate efficiency with personal attention to detail.

“We don’t cut corners in any way or aspect,” Mohlenbrink says, crediting collaboration with his head chef. “We’ve had success. There’s no reason to change things at this point.”

In the slow season, he now employs 70 people full- or part-time. Weddings and big events are regular occurrences, so the busy season may require another 15 part-timers. That corporate background enables him to level with staffers: Winter hours may be short; summer hours will be long. Apparently, they agree.

“There’s no turnover rate here,” says general manager Marla Yeh, just the second person to hold that job with Mohlenbrink. “Nobody leaves.”

She likes to consider herself the right hand of a boss who remembers birthdays, actually listens to her opinions and then acts on them. Making money is not their goal, she says, but bringing “the next element of fun” to Peoria.

“The man doesn’t sleep,” says Yeh. “I only know this because he e-mails at all hours of the day and night.”

Actually, Mohlenbrink says, he sleeps five hours a night. So it has been no big deal to squeeze in the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce Community Leadership School recently. Just before finishing her stint as interim Chamber president, restaurateur Mary Ardapple said the school makes an “exceptional” platform for expansion.

“Travis has established each of his business outlets, Cracked Pepper, Salt and now Sugar with an individualized style,” Ardapple says via email. “These eclectic styles handsomely contribute to the uniqueness and personality of a community which resonates both to the local and visiting market.”

In fact, Ardapple says, the ensuing upbeat tempo in thriving neighborhoods is the root of community.

The sentiment seems to resonate with Mohlenbrink as he designs his next venture downtown. Although he never imagined owning and operating restaurants, and swears each will be the last, he says he’s caught the bug.

“Last night was the epitome of why I do this: Happy people having a happy time together,” he says of the St. Jude dinner. “Good food. Good wine. Raising money for a cause that’s near and dear to my heart.” So we’ll see if this Thyme is it.