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Mom rules the restaurant roost

by Nick Vlahos | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Julie Maag is owner and chef at Rhythm Kitchen Music Cafe.
Julie Maag is owner and chef at Rhythm Kitchen Music Cafe.

Rhythm Kitchen’s Julie Maag says motherhood prepared her well for the restaurant business.

From one woman to another, Rhythm Kitchen Music Café appears to be in good hands. Motherly hands, even.

That’s among the ways Rhythm Kitchen owner Julie Maag describes herself. She’s a mother of four, but she also might be a mother figure for the 10 or so employees of her New Orleans-influenced restaurant at 305 SW Water St. in Peoria.

‘She had her own vision of what she wanted the place to be… and she hit it.’—Jason Zeck

Some of those employees have worked for a decade or more at an eatery that opened in 1999. Maag once was their peer. In 2019 she purchased Rhythm Kitchen, where for the previous 13 years she was a server.

“Customers like to see the same faces when they come in. I try to take good care of them,” Maag said about her staff. “In the way that I’m a mom at home, I try to be a mom here.”

It’s appropriate, then, that the riverfront restaurant’s aroma might conjure a mom’s kitchen. Particularly if that mom is from the bayou.

Gumbo, crawfish etouffee and shrimp creole are among the creations Maag and longtime Rhythm Kitchen chef Jason Zeck produce. Meatloaf, salmon, salads and vegetarian fare also are on the menu.

Rhythm Kitchen’s Julie Maag

Much of it is no different from the base founding owner Shelley Lenzini created before she retired and sold her business to Maag. The interior, a blend of Bourbon Street baubles and avant-garde artwork, also resembles Lenzini’s era.

But the “Music Café” part of the restaurant’s name might now be a misnomer. Maag decided to no longer feature live entertainment, which had been a Rhythm Kitchen staple. Obvious costs and hidden ones, like music-licensing fees, were among the reasons, according to Maag.

There was another, more ambient reason.

“We have a higher percentage of calls asking if we have music, because they don’t want us to,” Maag said. “People want to sit together and talk. They want to visit with their friends, enjoy a meal and hear each other. I want people to sit down, dine and have conversations.

“Some customers are having a hard time understanding that. They just want live music. But for a small restaurant like this with a limited amount of seats, people will come in to see the live music early in the night and stay all night. I’m not turning tables, and I’m not selling food.”

Once the coronavirus pandemic surged in early 2020, Rhythm Kitchen couldn’t play host to live music. Selling food also became problematic. Indoor dining was banned, and Maag had almost no infrastructure to support carry-out orders and curbside delivery.

Maag pared payroll. Almost all the furloughed employees returned after COVID abated, she said. A website in need of an update received one, along with capability for online ordering. Overdue cosmetic changes, like a new floor, were undertaken.

“For as ugly as the shutdown was for everybody and their families, she made a lot of good come out of it,” Zeck said about his boss. “We didn’t sit and hem and haw and wallow, like ‘What are we going to do?’

“She had her own vision of what she wanted the place to be and needed to be, and she hit it. I give her a ton of credit for that.”

It seems to have worked. Post-shutdown business has more than rebounded, according to Maag.

“We’re breaking records right now,” she said. “I just have a great staff. I’m pretty scrappy, too.”

The scrappiness might relate to Maag’s relatively less common status in the restaurant business, at least in central Illinois—a female owner, as was Lenzini.

Maag suggested the major difference between male and female restaurateurs might lie in how they’re able to balance their personal and professional lives.

“I can handle the cooking here, plus paying the bills, plus making the calls. I wear a lot of hats, and I have always,” she said. “As a mother homeschooling her kids and keeping a house and keeping a job, I’ve always done that. And it translates well to this.”

Said Zeck: “She’s a mother, and she’s a good one, and she takes that mentality and adapts it to owning a restaurant. It speaks to her organization and her work ethic as an owner, as a mother—all of that gets wrapped up.”

There might be compromises.

Maag cited recent high school homecoming celebrations in which some of her children participated. Usually, they take place during prime time in the restaurant business.

“I want to be home helping my daughters with their hair, but I’m here,” Maag said. “But on the other side of that coin is they come here with their friends to eat dinner, so I get to be part of it in a different way, where most moms don’t.”

Most moms might not work with their children, either. But Julie and Brody Maag’s teenagers, Angus and Scarlett, pitch in at Rhythm Kitchen. It’s practical, but it might also be educational.

“I hope that when they work with me, they see what goes into running the business and they can appreciate that,” Julie Maag said. “That’s how I spend time with them.”

Maag also spends time assessing the small-business scene in Downtown Peoria and the Warehouse District. Rhythm Kitchen’s location straddles both.

The steady addition of new restaurants, bars and other enterprises in the area has prompted Maag to shelve the possibility of moving. Representatives from Peoria Heights, with its Restaurant Row along Prospect Road, have been persistent suitors.

“We’ve had some offers and talked about it, but only a momentary conversation, because I really think it’s important to be down here,” Maag said. “I just feel like we’ve been here so long, and if things are starting to grow, we should stay.”

Expect Maag to stay most days and nights at Rhythm Kitchen, too. Motherhood can be a 24/7 duty, after all.

“If I weren’t here, it would be like having someone to my house for dinner and not being there,” Maag said. “It’s like a home. It’s like a second home.”

Nick Vlahos

Nick Vlahos

is a longtime Peoria print journalist and a regular contributor to Peoria Magazine.
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