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Groundbreaker, Baker, Businesswoman

by Amy Geier Edgar | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Sweet_Cakes_Rachel

Peoria County Clerk Rachael Parker brings a sweetness to everything she does.

Rachael Parker has made a name for herself in Peoria as a successful elected official and entrepreneur. She’s also a mother and grandmother committed to lifting others and bettering her community.

Parker was elected Peoria County clerk in 2020. She also is the talent behind SweetCakes by Rachael, a custom bakery on the city’s West Bluff.

Scholar-athlete

Parker is the youngest of six children, born and raised in Galesburg. Even as a child, she was driven to succeed. An avid runner since age 9, she was selected to participate in track-and-field competition overseas during her senior year of high school. She then attended Western Illinois University before accepting a track scholarship at Bradley University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree and was later inducted into its athletic hall of fame.

After graduation, Parker moved to Oklahoma City and took a job in banking. She returned to Peoria to be closer to family and soon went to work for the Small Business Administration as a loan program manager, followed by economic development positions with the cities of Peoria and Chillicothe.

Parker initially had no interest in politics. She was convinced to run for the Peoria District 150 School Board while leading the PTO at her kids’ school. After children Ryan and Riley graduated, Parker ran for Peoria County Board in 2010, won, and served for nine years before being appointed to fill the county clerk seat vacated by the death of Steve Sonnemaker. In 2020, she was elected to the job in her own right.

“I often say my life is like a puzzle, and all the pieces have fallen nicely together,” said Parker.

Peoria County’s ‘cupcake fairy’

All the while, baking continued to be more than a passing fancy for Parker. At first, she gave away her signature confections, asking only that customers purchase the ingredients. A co-worker suggested that Parker take her kitchen craftsmanship to the next level, and SweetCakes by Rachael was born. She began the business at home, then moved to a commercial location 16 years ago.

Following the COVID pandemic, the bakery now takes pre-orders only. Each dessert is made with care and attention to detail. Parker said her most challenging creation is a lemon blueberry cheesecake cake. “I have one customer that wants that every year for her birthday,” she said. “I don’t advertise it because it is a very special cake, not one I want to mass produce.” 

Her key lime cupcakes, meanwhile, finished third in Taste of Peoria competition in back-to-back years and are customer favorites.

“I do like making cupcakes because they just seem to put a smile on everyone’s face,” said Parker. “Sometimes … I turn into the cupcake fairy and leave a cupcake on someone’s desk here at the courthouse with a note on it that says, ‘You are doing a sweet job for Peoria County.’ It’s just something that brightens up someone’s day.”

Case in point is longtime customer Dorothea Gulley of Peoria, who recently trekked to SweetCakes for a couple dozen sugar cookies for her son’s 21st birthday.

“She’s so accommodating. I literally tell her what I’m thinking, she visualizes it, comes up with a plan and makes it happen,” said Gulley. “There’s not been a time I’ve been dissatisfied with her service or her quality.”

“I love the key lime cupcakes,” added Sherri Ernst, director of property taxes and operations at the clerk’s office, who finds that between the sugar cookies and her constant positivity, Parker “is one of the best bosses I’ve had.”

A family affair

Working with daughter Riley makes the bakery business even more worthwhile for Parker. Riley’s Vegan Sweets and Eats operates from the same Peoria storefront at 1233 W. Brons Ave. Riley turned her mother’s classic cake recipes into dairy-free options and added other items, from cinnamon rolls to donuts.

“I am very proud of what she has accomplished,” Parker said.

That family connection has been especially important during a painful and traumatic couple of years. One of Parker’s grandsons died at birth and her son Ryan was killed on June 3, 2020. 

“That was a very difficult time for me,” she said. “I was trying to run a campaign while having to make funeral arrangements for my son, on top of dealing with COVID restrictions. There were times when I did not know if I was going to be able to make it through.”

‘Icing on the cake’

Through it all, Parker has remained a trailblazer and community leader. She’s the first Black woman to serve as Peoria County clerk. She’s been a board member with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Central Illinois Black Expo, East Bluff Community Center, Salvation Army, and currently, the Minority Business Development Center.

“You don’t have to be a minority business to take advantage of all their services,” Parker said. “Like their advertisement says, their job is to keep business in the black because the only color they see is green!”

Meanwhile, Parker shares the knowledge she’s gleaned in local government and economic development with other small business owners looking to forge their own paths.

“I am always available to help anyone who asks,” she said. “It does no one any good to hold on to the knowledge they have if it can help someone else get to that next level.”

With her full-time work as clerk, her nights and weekends running her small business, and her commitment to church, neighborhood and family, Parker said it can be hard to find balance. However, doing work you enjoy doesn’t really feel like work, she said.

“If you can make money doing something that you love, that is just ‘icing on the cake,’ so to speak,” she said.

Amy Geier Edgar

Amy Geier Edgar

is the Youth Services librarian at the Dunlap Public Library District, following a career in journalism that included working for the Associated Press in Ohio, Connecticut and South Carolina.

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