A husband-and-wife shop and catering business in the East Bluff brings “comfort food done well” to Peoria’s hungry lunch crowd.
Tucked around the corner from Glen Oak Park on McClure, the mom-and-pop shop may be humble and its owners modest, but the food is neither. The chef, Ian Hocker, and baker, wife Karen Hocker, along with friend and associate Brian “Bean” Lemon, call it “comfort food done well.” And the concept is simple, Ian explains.
“People are paying a lot of money these days for mediocre food. At our level of cooking, you should be able to make your own pickle or barbecue sauce. If you’re going to do it, do it right.” In taking their attention to detail even further—the trio bakes all their own bread for sandwiches, creates their sweets from scratch, makes their own pastrami and braises their own brisket—The Chef and The Baker has become synonymous with homemade high quality in Peoria.
When Stars Align
From a graduating high-school class of 32 in Alexis, Illinois, Ian Hocker eventually made his way to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York—one of the top three culinary institutes in the country—after serving two tours in Korea. Next, he headed to Italy to work as a private family chef, later bouncing between hostels and trattorias, perfecting his culinary craft. But after two decades “on the run,” he says he was ready to return home and rebuild relationships—landing in the “big city” of Peoria.
The chef met his baker while working at Embassy Suites in East Peoria. At the time, Ian was the executive sous chef, and Karen was interviewing for a pastry position, having recently graduated from the culinary program at Illinois Central College. As a graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, “It always seemed like the best thing I could do was cook,” she says. While attending the U of I, she put on a series of bake-sale fundraisers to raise money for various missions, and their success inspired her to pursue her hobby as a career. At ICC, she concentrated on both sweets and savories, then worked for a while in Chicago before returning to Peoria.
Since she landed that job at Embassy Suites, Karen and Ian have been inseparable. They worked side-by-side with restaurateur Travis Mohlenbrink to open Salt in Peoria Heights, and later, together at the Country Club of Peoria—each position a stepping stone in establishing their current network of catering clients.
Last summer, the couple was walking home from the zoo with then-infant son, Gabriel, when they saw the sign: a contract-for-deed sale on the small brick building at 1122 McClure—just blocks from their house in the East Bluff. As the former site of Hick’ry Stick, a barbecue joint now operating as a catering company, the building had it all: kitchen equipment, gas, tables and chairs, as well as a commercial property license. With the idea of opening his own place always in the periphery, Ian was floored.
“It was astronomically ridiculous. The stars were aligned. Things just lined up perfectly,” he explains. They signed the lease in June 2014.
Karen didn’t sleep for the first eight weeks, Ian laughs now. “We were terrified!” As first-time business owners, the couple faced a huge learning curve. But always the good student, Karen set out to learn fast. Reaching out to Ross Miller, director of the Illinois Small Business Development Center at Bradley University, the couple found a reassuring guiding hand. And he’s helped every step of the way, Karen says, speaking highly of Miller, the program and its resources for fledgling entrepreneurs.
With a focus on catering, the couple, with the help of longtime friend and coworker Lemon, began securing gigs through the relationships they had built in their culinary ventures around town. As word spread of their “box lunch” option—an easy, pre-packed meal of a sandwich, wrap or salad, with choice of homemade side and cupcake—they decided to try out the menu on foot traffic.
“We were banking more on catering than opening the doors to the public,” Ian says, “but we were making a lot of boxed lunches… so we [decided] to open the doors.” To their surprise, the shop’s nine seats filled quickly with a daily lunch crowd: police officers, construction crews and grandmas—Ian says—all looking for a “good, decent-priced lunch”—and a fast meal.
“Everything should be quick and easy,” he adds. “No one wants to spend more time going to lunch and waiting for it than eating it.” In addition, it was decided, the restaurant would serve only lunch.
The culinary life is not an easy one, notoriously defined by long hours on your feet, as the couple knew well from years of working together. After having their son, their priorities shifted, Ian explains.
“My dad was a workaholic, and I knew where the road was leading,” he says. “[Karen and I] wanted to be home by 6:00 to play Thomas the Engine and Legos, so we knew it had to be a lunch thing [only],” he says, considering the restaurant’s business plan. To stay true to their high-quality, homemade aesthetic, the couple knew they would also have to remain somewhat small—a tough feat when business is booming. In the one year it’s been open, The Chef and The Baker has gone from serving 20 to 30 people a day to upwards of 150.
“There are definitely challenging days,” Karen says, describing the lunch swells they get following a good print review or by word of mouth in the tight-knit community. As a small shop, she says the hardest part is dealing with the customers who don’t understand just how small they are—literally, an operation of three—and that usually, Karen is double-timing as both baker and mom, watching Gabriel in the shop. “It’s hard to get those upset customers,” she explains. “It really hurts our hearts; this is not a hobby… this is what we do. This is our job.”
In an effort to accommodate growth without losing their commitment to quality, Ian is contemplating the idea of expanding their current space. “Twenty chairs and no more,” he says. “I think that’s manageable.” Plans to hire a few like-minded culinary friends are also in the works, he adds, but their pledge for quality and vow to the neighborhood will remain staples of the business.
“Our goal is to stay in the East Bluff,” where they live and have become a part of the community, Ian says. In fact, Gabriel’s face is among those featured in the new mural on Wisconsin Avenue, he notes, smiling. “We’ve had a lot of support from the community—from the Neighborhood House to the police—it’s all been a part of our success. If we move out of the East Bluff, it would take away from what we’re doing as a small family business… This is where we have our grass roots. If we move, some of the magic is going to go.”
And that magic—like Gabriel’s high fives, the customary gesture upon each patron’s exit, paired with his two-year-old grin—is the small-town feel that regulars live for. A month ago, the little rascal’s smile, covered in blueberry juice, graced the shop’s Facebook page. Ian recalls his post: “For those of you who don’t get the proper number of blueberries in your cheesecake slice, here’s why.” The next day, customers came in looking for the “Blueberry Bandit,” he says.
“The regulars we have now—they’re like family,” Karen adds. “People bring Gabriel presents!” she exclaims, shaking her head in amazement. “We’re just super-thankful for how lucky we’ve been, and how everything’s taken off.” iBi
For more information, visit thechefandthebaker.com or call (309) 767-0220.