The news came on a Sunday in March. With COVID-19 on the rise, Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered all Illinois bars and restaurants closed to dine-in customers at the end of the next business day. “You could stay open through grab-and-go and curbside, but the state was not going to be adding any new licensed facilities,” explains Cody Scogin, founder and head baker at Ardor Breads and Provisions. The eatery’s final health inspection, scheduled for just two days later, was cancelled. “The place was finished; the utilities were up; we had occupancy. But we couldn’t do anything.”
Without a license, Ardor did not qualify for a PPP loan or small business grant; while Scogin, categorized as self-employed, could not receive unemployment in the early weeks of the pandemic. “It was really frustrating,” he concedes. “I had to get this place open.” Fast-forward a month and a half, and Ardor’s final inspection was approved at last. Within 36 hours, Peoria’s newest riverfront establishment was ready to welcome its first customers—albeit without the hoopla of a pre-COVID grand opening. “I didn’t have high expectations… I was just hoping somebody would show up.”
They certainly did. On the third of May, a line wrapped around the corner of Water and Liberty streets as anxious Peorians waited patiently, six feet apart. It was a beautiful morning to escape quarantine and check out the buzz for themselves. “I think people were ready for something,” suggests Scogin, who had to limit the amount of pastries they could buy as the day went on. “We were so not prepared for that.”
The early days of any new business are difficult—restaurants doubly so—and that’s without the added uncertainties of the pandemic. “To be honest, we were in the weeds the first three weeks,” Scogin admits. “We were way understaffed… It was just very, very bumpy. But we’re here; we made it through. And I think we get better every day.”
Growing up in Mackinaw, Scogin has fond memories of fishing and fish fries, frog gigging in ponds, and foraging for wild mushrooms—“a very central Illinois, Midwestern tradition,” he summarizes. After college, he got his start in the food industry at a local hospital, quickly working his way up to director of food nutrition services. But it was a book, Vegetables by 40 Great French Chefs, which really kickstarted his culinary career. “Just looking at the pictures and reading about the craft of cooking, the sourcing, the ingredients… I was obsessed,” he recalls. “It really sparked my creativity for cooking—for what food could become.”
Barely into his early twenties, Scogin started pouring his money into cookbooks and traveling for unique fine dining experiences. “I was going out as a single diner to a five-course tasting at a James Beard-nominated restaurant in Atlanta,” he chuckles. “Nobody else in my age group even knew what I was talking about! But I was like, ‘I know this [chef]… I want to eat his food. I want to learn.’”
His appetite for learning was insatiable, as Scogin sought every opportunity to pursue his passion. “I wanted to become the best chef that I could become.” After taking a culinary class at ICC, he started apprenticing at restaurants in Chicago and St. Louis—staging, as it’s called in the industry. “Usually they have you do the bottom-of-the-barrel work,” he explains. “But if you go in with the right attitude and just watch… the way people’s hands are moving, the attention to detail, how they’re cooking this or that dish… you can learn a lot.”
After a brief stint managing a resort in Australia, he returned to central Illinois and landed at June, the nationally acclaimed restaurant that introduced the farm-to-table concept to Peoria in 2009. “I just walked in, talked to [Chef] Josh Adams and gave him my resume,” Scogin recalls. His persistence was obvious, his passion palpable, and soon he was promoted to sous chef. He spent two years in the kitchen at June, cutting his teeth on cooking techniques from classic to modern, and cultivating his obsession for pickling and fermentation.
His next stop was California, where he worked with Chef Jeremy Fox at Rustic Canyon—“one of the best vegetable-driven restaurants in the country,” Scogin notes. There, he learned “that great food didn’t have to be intimidating and fancy and expensive. It just had to be good. That’s really all that matters.”
As Scogin was forging his own culinary signature, a special event at Rustic Canyon showed him the wonderful complexities that exist within the humblest of foods. At a dinner for the release of a collectible whole-grain cookbook, Richard Hart of Tartine Bakery came down from San Francisco. “He took local wheat and turned it into one of the best loaves of bread I’ve ever tasted,” Scogin recalls. “He added no yeast; he just used time and natural bacteria.” After acquiring some starter from Hart, he took it home and “started going to town with bread.” The formative concepts that would eventually become Ardor were beginning to take shape.
From Cottage to Ardor
When Scogin came back from Los Angeles in 2016, he had no grand plans to start his own business. He simply followed his muse. He was baking and pickling at home, so he decided to obtain his cottage food license, which allows food entrepreneurs to sell what they produce in their home kitchens. On his first day at the Peoria RiverFront Market, Scogin brought with him several dozen loaves of bread, some cookies and rolls, and “a little piece of painted barn wood” bearing the name of his business: Cottage Baker Bread Co. He sold out of product before he could even finish setting up his tent.
As word spread of his delectable baked goods, Scrogin purchased a steam-injection bread oven to expand his capacity at home. The following year, his operation was known as Ardor Breads and Provisions. “Instead of 35 or 40 loaves… I was showing up with 150 loaves,” he explains. “We were rolling out brioche pastries, new varieties of cookies and hand-rolled croissants, and almost every week we sold out. I knew I was sticking with it at that point.”
When the farmers’ markets closed in the autumn, Scogin picked up catering gigs, cooked at pop-up dinners and developed a seasonal bread share. He also consulted on the food menu at Zion Coffee Co. Though brick-and-mortar was not yet on his radar, a vacant space in a red-brick building on Water Street eventually caught his eye. Located right across the street from his original location at the RiverFront Market, the one-time meatpacking house would soon become home to Ardor.
The space is not large, so dining and production overlap by necessity. “There is no downstairs kitchen or prep room in the back,” Scogin nods. “You actually walk through our dry storage. The only thing that’s closed off to the public is our walk-in cooler, and it just stores our bread at night. I don’t even have an office. When you walk in this door and exit out that door, you’ve been through the whole place.”
The word ardor is defined as “enthusiasm or passion.” Provisions—“an amount or thing supplied or provided”—appends room for expansion to Scogin’s bread-centric vision. “I wanted a name that described my passion and drive for food, but that didn’t pigeonhole me to just bread,” he explains. “We are kind of a bakery, but we’re Ardor Breads and Provisions. We are passionate about what we’re serving. We’re passionate about bread. We’re passionate about local produce.”
At its core, Ardor is about humble but high-quality ingredients, prepared with care and craftsmanship. The menu changes daily, weekly and by the season. And nothing is taken for granted—even the humblest ingredient can become something bigger than itself, Scogin suggests. “A radish can be more than just a radish.” The fertile Midwest facilitates his ingredient-driven approach, and he is resolute about highlighting local producers: sourcing flours and grains from Janie’s Mill (Ashkum, IL), seasonal produce from Down River Farm (East Peoria, IL), and pork and dairy from Kilgus Farmstead (Fairbury, IL).
“I really want to showcase what the farmers are doing, what the artisans are doing, what the millers are doing,” Scogin explains. “Every Wednesday, Evan from Down River Farm comes by and I order in bulk whatever’s best at the time… We use that to create our menu for the week. Janie’s Mill is one of maybe six mills in the country of that caliber. Their quality is phenomenal; it makes our product better. Same thing with Kilgus—people don’t realize how spoiled they are to utilize Kilgus dairy.”
Other local partners include Zion and thirty-thirty Coffee Co., whose artisan brews are enhanced by Ardor’s house-made syrups and oat milk. In exchange, Ardor supplies them with breads and pastries. In addition to featuring local roasters, Ardor highlights a specialty roaster from out of town each month.
Ever the perfectionist, Scogin is unwavering about the quality of his creations. “With bread, we’re taking pretty forgettable ingredients—water, flour and salt—and trying to make something special,” he notes. “Think of the best wines; they’re made from a grape. But it’s what that grape goes through…”
Likewise, the finest breads, fermented and naturally leavened in-house at Ardor, take their time rising to glory. “Everything we do is a slow process,” Scogin explains, and to do it right requires patience. There are no timers in the kitchen, just the senses and intuition of the baker. Mornings kick off with the “All Day” menu, featuring breads, pastries, coffees and their signature Krispy Kouign egg-and-cheese sandwich; a wave of tartine sandwiches and breakfast toast follows at 9am; while a lineup of salads, baguettes and slabs (“a loose take on pizza”) arrives in time for lunch at 11am, rounding out the café experience.
For Scogin, the entrepreneurial journey is the culmination of many small steps, and it’s only just beginning. As he navigates the ongoing pandemic, his ability to adapt and go with the flow has been critical. “Everybody thought things would be back to normal by now, but they’re not,” he sighs. “This is the world we’re in—we need to deal with it.”
Despite COVID-related limitations, business has been steady enough to allow him to get on his feet. While the weekends are busy and bustling, weekdays are more difficult. “The main thing to me is that we put forward the best product we can, and move through what we bake,” Scogin notes. “That’s all I can hope for right now.” From the outside, it appears to be working. “We sell out of our product almost every day.”
And every day brings changes amidst Scogin’s endless pursuit of perfection. As he works diligently to enhance the menu and improve the customer experience, a partnership with Black Band Distillery—soon to open nearby at 1000 SW Adams—looms on the horizon. Scogin envisions a multi-faceted retail and restaurant experience at Ardor, and has no shortage of potential directions in which to expand. “Maybe there’s a wine bar or a pizza concept; maybe it’s more of a sit-down restaurant,” he affirms. “I hope that you come in the morning for pastries and coffee, return at night for dinner, and take a loaf home with you. As for the ‘provisions’ aspect, I really want to brand our pickles and jams and jellies for wholesale.”
While his future likely involves a return to fine dining, Scogin wanted to start with something “as humble as a loaf of bread,” he says of Ardor. “I didn’t want to start with some fine dining concept and then go humble. I want people to trust me. And then as I elevate the cuisine, I think people will follow.” PM
Ardor Breads and Provisions is open Wednesday through Sunday at 301 SW Water Street in downtown Peoria. For more information, visit ardorbp.com.