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Making ‘tasty’ synonymous with ‘healthy’

by Phil Luciano | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Riley Greenwood prepares some cinnamon rolls in her Riley’s Vegan Sweets and Eats shop.
Riley Greenwood prepares some cinnamon rolls in her Riley’s Vegan Sweets and Eats shop.

Vegan isn’t just salad anymore, but cupcakes, pizza and even turkey at Riley’s Sweets & Eats.

Riley Greenwood keeps evolving, personally and professionally.

There’s a direct line that connects the dots between her teenage retail job, her later work in animal welfare and her current proprietorship of Riley’s Vegan Sweets & Eats. The shop is one of just two vegan outlets in Peoria, and the only business in town named to the Illinois Office of Tourism’s 2022 Illinois Made Holiday Gift Guide.

For her, the move to veganism makes sense, as a career as well as a lifestyle.   

“I’m happier now,” said Greenwood, 31. “I’m healthier now, my mental state is a lot more clear and I just can’t ever imagine going back to how things were.”

While attending Peoria High School, Greenwood worked part-time for two years at a shoe store, where she learned much of her retail acumen. Meantime, she also watched her mother, Rachael Parker, run the Sweet Cakes by Rachael bakery at 1233 W. Brons Ave.

After graduating high school, she took a job as kennel technician for Peoria County Animal Protection Services. There, she developed a love and respect for animals.

About a decade ago, she began baking for her mother, now the Peoria County clerk. With both in the kitchen, the bakery’s output exploded.

“Once we practically doubled business, we thought it would be fun to do something new beyond our little bakery,” Greenwood said.

In 2016, they opened Riley’s Cupcake and Coffee Lounge on Main Street in Downtown Peoria.

“We decided to go all cupcakes because cupcakes are fun, they’re universal, they’re a just-because kind of dessert, and they’re something you can utilize for a celebration,” she said.

The business lasted two years before Greenwood shut down and decided to regroup with a relaunched bakery in half of her mom’s shop. One day, a patron from the Downtown shop came in and inquired about vegan options, of which Greenwood had none. Days later, that same patron came in with a cookbook on vegan dishes, if Greenwood wanted to give it a whirl.

“I thought, why not always have an option for her when she comes in?” Greenwood said. “And I didn’t realize how many friends she had.”

They quickly bought up Greenwood’s initial forays into veganism. Soon, she began to expand such offerings, which mirrored the traditional sweets offered on her mom’s side of the building.

“It was really fun to just learn the substitutes, learn how to make things the same but different,” she said.

At the same time, her long-time love for animals was pushing her to adopt veganism for her own diet. So, she expanded her menu beyond baking to bread and cheese, making her ponder the possibilities of pizza.

“I said, ‘Let’s do this. Nobody’s got vegan pizza in this city.’”

Then came nachos, enchiladas and other fare.

“I just started recreating a lot of the foods I saw as a kid. And I wanted to make those things. A lot of people see vegan and they think… it’s nothing but salad. I wanted to change that narrative and bring the comfort food back into it — not so much the junk-food vegan but plates that you recognize, really plated in a way you’d say, ‘My mom made it just like this.’ But it’s vegan.”

For Greenwood, the key is to make sure “healthy” also means “tasty.”

“It’s bringing all the flavors that you know but leaving all of the animals out of it and letting them have their own time to just enjoy their life, and yet you’re enjoying your life simultaneously with them, and you’re not interfering with their life at all,” she said.

Among customers’ favorite dishes is Greenwood’s turkey dinner, of which she sold 65 pre-orders at Thanksgiving. Instead of poultry, she uses jackfruit — and the aroma is just like grandma’s turkey.

“Your brain tells you, ‘This is turkey,’ but it’s just the spice blend,” Greenwood said. “The jackfruit itself has a very turkey-like consistency and texture.”

Her vegan experiments landed the shop among just 38 businesses statewide named to the Illinois Office of Tourism’s Illinois Made Holiday Gift Guide, created to honor “small, diverse businesses around the state” that offer something different.

Greenwood thinks the designation will help boost orders from outside Peoria. Recent sales have gone to residents of Bloomington and Chicago, while former Peorians have called family and friends to ship orders out of state.

“They’re really supporting me, in and outside of Peoria,” she said.

‘I wanted… plates that you recognize. But it’s vegan.’— Riley Greenwood

Lately, Riley has been working solo — a lack of available help — so she hasn’t been offering walk-up sales. However, she does custom orders (the shop is easily reachable via Facebook) and sells sweets at two other spots: Radish Kitchen in Campustown and Hy-Vee in Sheridan Village.

That sales model isn’t what Greenwood had planned. But she feels as if she is progressing along a simple, organic path.

“It’s been a real blessing in disguise,” she said. “You kind of know when something chooses you before you choose it. And I knew when I was working at the animal shelter that something was choosing me. I just didn’t know it yet.

“And it just led me right where I am.”

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP.
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