With breakfast, lunch and dinner options ranging from danishes and crepes to creamy garlic chicken and meatball sub sandwiches, Travis Mohlenbrink’s Cracked Pepper Catering and Bakery has it all. It isn’t just the great food that puts Cracked Pepper at the forefront of the central Illinois hospitality industry, but Mohlenbrink’s individualized approach to customer service.
“Like most people who have any success in this business,” Mohlenbrink said, “I’ve worked for three or four other companies…I kind of had a potpourri of experiences.” He started with St. Louis Bread Company, known in Peoria as Panera Bread, and from there moved on to Brinker International, owner of Chili’s and Maggiano’s, and then to Restaurants-America, where he was a district partner. “I’ve always wanted to be involved with food,” he said, “and I love taking care of customers. I love making people happy.”
The road to owning his own business wasn’t easy, but Mohlenbrink’s hard work has paid off. The personal attention he gives each customer sets Cracked Pepper apart from the pack. “I take every call for the catering company on my phone,” he said. “We have a lot of regular customers, and the best part of my day is getting to talk to them.”
If you want your food delivered, they deliver. If you want a customized menu, they will do that for you. They also have a portable grill that can be brought on-site, and everything they offer is made from scratch. “We don’t buy anything in bulk and doctor it up and call it our own,” noted Mohlenbrink. “[My executive chef] wouldn’t work here if that was the case. He’s very particular about making his own sauces and seasoned blends, and cooking things ourselves and not [using] pre-cooked products. That’s who we are.”
Cracked Pepper’s services drew the attention of the Coyote Creek Golf Club, Quail Meadows Golf Course and the Creve Coeur Club, and it is now the exclusive caterer to these organizations. “Essentially, there’s a need in the area for exclusive caterers,” explained Mohlenbrink. “You start the ball rolling early, whether it’s just putting the bug in someone’s ear to think of us in the future for catering needs…or just knowing somebody is in need of a caterer and contacting them,” he said. “I feel that, after meeting with someone, and at the end of that meeting they can taste our food, there’s not a contract in this area that we wouldn’t be in the running for.”
At the Creve Coeur Club, Cracked Pepper Catering provides lunch service every day. Members can also enjoy Cracked Pepper’s services for private lunches, parties and meetings. The golf courses also enlist their services for golf outings and special events.
For those who wish to try Cracked Pepper’s offerings but aren’t planning a special event, you’re in luck. Mohlenbrink recently opened a new storefront on NE Adams Street in Peoria, which he describes as a “from-scratch retail bakery.” Using only the freshest ingredients available, their menu changes seasonally. Every morning they sell baked goods like muffins and danishes. A lunch menu of paninis on homemade bread, soups and chili, Italian beef and pulled pork sandwiches is served from 11am to 2pm, Monday through Saturday. After lunch wraps up, they offer afternoon snacks like homemade brownies, éclairs, lemon squares and pecan bars.
The storefront has also helped Cracked Pepper’s flourishing catering business. “We were forced to advertise for the first time,” Mohlenbrink explained, “because in the bakery we need to rely on foot traffic. [Advertising] our bakery has increased the knowledge of Cracked Pepper Catering…We get a lot of people who come in for baked goods and then naturally inquire about our catering service.”
For Mohlenbrink, the food business isn’t just a job, and the customers aren’t just customers. “They’re friends,” he said. “You get to know them well, and that’s what I like doing. It’s nice. It’s not even like work.” iBi