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Neighborhood Café Has Just the Right Touch

West Peoria’s Touch of Grey caters to kids, canines, grandmas

by Kirk Wessler | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Kirk Wessler

Every neighborhood can benefit from a splash of color.

Even if it’s simply a Touch of Grey.

That’s the music-inspired name of a tiny, music-themed café at 2420 W. Rohman in the heart West Peoria.

Since it opened in November 2020, Touch of Grey has been serving espressos and mimosas, donuts and paninis, beer and wine – and, of course, live acoustic music out back when the weather is nice. It all comes with the cool vibe that never evaporates, even when there’s snow on the ground. And now Touch of Grey serves ice cream, too!

Photo of a man singing into a microphone

“If you listen to people in your community, they’ll tell you what they want. So we added ice cream,” says café owner Jason Miles, 47, whose voice rumbles across gravel before spilling through a thick, reddish beard appropriately and naturally streaked by touches of grey.

Miles is a longtime central Illinois music promoter who saw an empty niche in the local business landscape and figured out a way to fill it.

“There aren’t a whole lot of places you can come and bring your kids and family and dogs and listen to live music,” he says.

Most live local music is performed at night. At hours later than many older adults want to go out. In bars, where children are not allowed. Indoors, where pets are not welcome.

At Touch of Grey, weekday music events end by 8 p.m., an hour before closing time, and most weekend shows run noon to 3 p.m. The stage opens to a converted parking lot behind the store, with a large shelter providing a sun screen for several tables. There’s plenty of room for people to bring their own chairs, too – and many do

There’s never a cover charge.

“I wanted to bring quality entertainment and make it bridge the generational gap,” Miles says. “Most of the music we do is acoustic, partly because we’re in a neighborhood. Most times we don’t have drums, because kick drums are loud. We try to book people that play to all ages.

“It’s really something to see my 90-year-old grandma tapping her foot while my 7-year-old nephew runs around dancing.”

Most acts are local, but Miles occasionally books touring artists and will expand the schedule to accommodate musicians on the road. Follow the café’s Facebook page to stay up to date with the music schedule. You can also look for the Touch of Grey mobile kitchen at area events throughout the summer.

Touch of Grey opens at 7 a.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Weekends bring the brunch shows. Tuesday is trivia night. Wednesday features Dog Days of Summer, a partnership with Stray Animals Midway Shelter out of Hanna City that includes games for the pooches and a doggie photo booth, serenaded by live music.

Then there are Grateful Dead Thursdays with Mr. Charlie — a.k.a. Rick Gutierrez — who covers the Dead and other popular artists.

“If you love music and want to sit outside, have a beer and a sandwich and some ice cream and be entertained before the sun goes down – those are all things people like,” Gutierrez says. “As a musician, you get a good response, with people looking at you and listening. It makes you want to play more for them.”

“I love playing at Touch of Grey,” said Alison Hanna, a powerhouse Peoria singer and songwriter who fronts the popular Alison Hanna Band.

She also has worked behind the counter in the narrow, three-booth café since it opened.

“Best place I ever worked,” Hanna says. “Every time I go in, I don’t feel like I’m working. Customers are laid back and chill, the environment is great, and Miles is the best boss you could ask for. It feels like family there.”

Which is exactly what Miles strives to accomplish, no matter how trying times might get. And they’ve been plenty tough.

Miles said people told him he was crazy to try to open a café during a pandemic. He did it anyway, but the day after Touch of Grey opened, the state of Illinois banned indoor dining. Miles adapted and made it through the winter filling carryout orders.

When the weather warmed in 2021, live music brought scores of people – in cars, on bicycles or simply walk-ins. An outdoor grill enabled expansion of the menu. Business stayed strong after weather forced the end of the live-music season, but screeched to a halt following a winter fire.

Band playing music

Over the next six weeks, Miles was buoyed by the community’s encouragement to reopen. There was never a question that would happen, but Miles wanted to make sure his staff remained intact. He continued employees’ weekly paychecks throughout the shutdown.

“I try to treat everybody like family, and they treat me like family,” Miles said. “It’s cool to see it work.”

Miles has one sister, Charissa, but comes from a large extended family. His father, Denny, is one of seven kids, his mother Barb one of four. Family holidays can bring together 30 or 40 relatives.

He also has an 18-year-old daughter, Cassidy, named after the Grateful Dead tune, and a 13-year-old son, Dylan, named for you know who.

Miles is driven by the power of music.

“Humans have heartbeats, and music is the heartbeat of the world,” he says. “It’s something that brings people together, makes you smile and makes you cry all at the same time. It’s the universal language everybody can understand.”

Miles jokes that “I don’t have the voice of an angel.” But he did play trumpet in the Washington High School band.

Not long after graduation, Miles took off to see the country. He followed the Grateful Dead on tour for a couple of years in the mid-1990s and continued to work odd jobs. After trying out California for a year and a half, Miles returned to Peoria in 2000 and started Miles & Miles Productions, booking concerts as an independent for 15 years until he partnered for a time with Jay Goldberg Events. A heart attack and open-heart surgery shut him down in 2019.

As he returned to health, Miles decided to open his own business. He and his girlfriend, Erica Balzell, moved to West Peoria and began to look for a spot for Touch of Grey. Miles ultimately would like more space so the live music could move indoors when the weather goes bad.

“We want to stay in West Peoria,” he said. “It’s such a great community.”

Kirk Wessler

Kirk Wessler

is a former newspaper sports editor who has turned his attention in semi-retirement to a new passion as a singer/songwriter.
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