A Publication of WTVP

The spice is right

by Lisa Coon | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Thyme Kitchen

Saffron Social is next up for Travis Mohlenbrink, one of central Illinois’ most imaginative restaurateurs

If Travis Mohlenbrink had a dream job, it would be as a full-time restaurant cook.

As the owner of Spice Hospitality with its six dining, catering and brewing establishments employing 200 people, Mohlenbrink, 47, gets some time in his kitchens, but not nearly enough to satisfy his passion for cooking.

“Cooks … are some of the most important people in a restaurant,” he said. “I like completing tasks, which sometimes in my day is difficult to accomplish. As a cook, you start and finish dishes all day long.”

Even more important to Mohlenbrink, “there is room for some creativity.

Travis Mohlenbrink
Travis Mohlenbrink

“There’s just something very satisfying about ending a dinner service knowing that you just served hundreds of people and hopefully made some of them forget about everything in the world for a couple hours.”

A new venture

Walking into a dining room at Sugar Wood-Fired Bistro, Cayenne, Thyme Kitchen & Craft Beer or Industry Brewing Co. and seeing people eating and smiling is a highlight of Mohlenbrink’s week. He also owns The Warehouse on State Street event center, which houses his Cracked Pepper Catering, now nearing the end of its first year as contract caterer at the Peoria Civic Center.

A seventh establishment, Saffron Social, an upscale seafood and steak restaurant, is expected to open early this summer in the OSF HealthCare headquarters building in Peoria’s Downtown, fronting Washington Street.

Thyme Kitchen
Thyme Kitchen

Each of Mohlenbrink’s restaurants has a specific food direction, bar program and decor. Saffron Social will be no different.

“We’ll have USDA certified Angus beef sourced from the Midwest, fresh seafood and some pasta dishes with a twist,” he said.

The bar program will be wine-focused while also offering local and regional craft spirits. It is being designed in a 1950s Art Deco style, and the restaurant will have a lunch menu with a sushi option.

Vive la différence

Mohlenbrink comes up with the look for all of his restaurants.

“My inspirations come from travels. I love to see a concept work somewhere and dissect the operation on how it could work here at home,” he said. “I take ideas from places away from our area and put spins on the dishes to make them our own. I follow all the food trend magazines and websites for ideas on food and spaces as well. I am also very involved in the process of creating the menus.”

The uniqueness of each location — the interior designs and menus — is important to Mohlenbrink.

“For the same reasons I don’t open the same restaurant over and over, I don’t duplicate dishes,” he said. “The creative part of being in this business is very important and for me vital to our success.”

Saffron Social under construction
Saffron Social, a new restaurant, is under construction in Downtown Peoria

Ultimately, it’s all about building a memorable experience: “I want a place that guests crave a special dish or can’t wait to bring other family members or friends to enjoy the atmosphere, food and service.”

High praise

“Travis is a 100% success story,” said Ed LaHood, who has operated Food Service Equipment Corp. since 1969. “Travis came in one day and he was going into Cracked Pepper down on northeast Adams and needed equipment. Since that day, he’s … probably more successful than any other operator that stayed in one city.

“He listens and has a great vision of what’s happening now or what’s going to happen in the restaurant business,” LaHood added. “And he has self-confidence and the ability to roll with the punches. He obviously has an incredible personality to endear himself in this business with people who like his product.”

Fellow restaurateur Matt White, owner of Dac’s Smokehouse in Morton and Peoria, has known Mohlenbrink for about 10 years.

“He’s very innovative,” said White. “More quality goes into the kind of work he does. It’s always been that way with him.”

Meanwhile, Mohlenbrink is “very supportive of other independent restaurants,” said White. “He’s a great person to bounce ideas off.”

For J.D. Dalfonso, president and CEO of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Mohlenbrink and his popular restaurants have made his job marketing the region that much easier.

“When we do the work we do and promote the Downtown, it’s with his restaurants really on the tip of the tongue,” said Dalfonso. “It’s a testament to the quality of food and … service and the overall experience you have at his establishments. We’re proud to have him.”

Changed plans

Becoming a restaurateur wasn’t Mohlenbrink’s original career goal. He went to college to study elementary education because he really wanted to be a baseball coach. Student teaching made him realize it wasn’t for him.

‘My biggest lesson … learn the palate and what people are ready to eat’— Travis Mohlenbrink

“I was working for a restaurant and I really liked it. I liked meeting new people every day and the energy and pace — and being a server and having cash in hand every day was nice,” he said with a laugh. 

He began working at Chili’s Grill & Bar in Normal and met the man who was opening the first Panera Bread franchise in the region.

“He had his hands full. Back then there wasn’t a manual that detailed on day 79 you need to be doing this, this and this, etc.,” recalled Mohlenbrink. “I said, ‘I’m game. I’ll help.’ I went on to manage that Panera for a couple years before opening five others in central Illinois.”

At that point, Mohlenbrink had a sense of what it took to open a restaurant.

In 2005, he opened Cracked Pepper Catering at 3406 NE Adams because it was easier to control costs with a catering operation. In 2008, he added a successful café. In 2017, he moved Cracked Pepper to Peoria’s Metro Centre. He was in year three of a five-year lease there when COVID-19 hit. Carry-out wasn’t cutting it, so he was forced to close and sublease to another business. A second Cracked Pepper location at 311 Main St. Downtown also was shuttered during the pandemic. Mohlenbrink is unsure if or when that location will reopen.

“I’m still hopeful there will be a day when more people return Downtown to work,” he said.

Learning lessons, looking forward

Mohlenbrink points to a time eight years ago when he had a pork belly appetizer on the menu at Salt, the predecessor of Cayenne in Peoria Heights.

“Almost everyone sent it back because it was too much fat. It just killed me,” he said. “We featured bone marrow on a special occasion and didn’t sell one order. My biggest lesson was to learn the palate and what people are ready to eat. It might be the hottest thing trending on the market, but if people aren’t ready for it, it won’t succeed.”

Today, iterations of both appear on the menu at Thyme and are very successful, he said.

There is no such thing as a “normal” week for Mohlenbrink.

“I’d like to be in my current restaurants more often but it’s now to the point where I’m doing a lot of legwork on preparing menus, decor, staff and sourcing all of the items needed to open Saffron Social,” he said. “Thankfully, for me, the management teams and staffs we have in place are amazing.”

While the pandemic impacted his bottom line, reduced hours and caused closures at some of his establishments, sales and staffing have returned to pre-pandemic levels, said Mohlenbrink. The pain points now are inflated food and labor costs, he said.

As of today, he’s not anticipating any new endeavors.

“It would take a perfect situation to make that happen. I hope my ideas are not fading, but I know my time opening new concepts in central Illinois is nearing the end,” he said.

“I plan to be around a long time making sure our community has places they can enjoy. I hope to keep menus exciting and fresh. I promise to do all I can to provide places our community can be proud to call their own, because at the end of the day, everything we do is for our guests.”

Lisa Coon

is a Peoria native who had a long career in the newspaper industry before moving into marketing and communications