Experience Local

by Amanda Seaboch and Jonathan Wright

What started with a single restaurant in 1956 has grown into a many-layered shopping-and-dining experience.

It began in 1956 as Vonachen’s Junction, a restaurant founded by legendary Peoria businessman Harold “Pete” Vonachen and decorator Pauline Jacquin. Located at the corner of Knoxville and Prospect, Vonachen’s—or VOP’s, as it was later known—was adorned with relics of the old railroad days, a nod to the Kellar Station, the train depot across the street that once took passengers all the way up to Rock Island.

Construction on the shopping center got underway two years later, and Junction City—with its trademark red brick and railroad-themed boardwalk—began to take shape. Nearly half a century later, two of its original tenants—Biehl’s Cleaners and Junction City Barbers—remain there today, a testament to the center’s longstanding commitment to locally-owned businesses.

With its Main Street USA feel, Junction City thrived for decades as a family-friendly destination, but by the mid-2000s, it was in need of a makeover. In 2006, Alexis and Elizabeth Khazzam stepped in to purchase the center, kicking off a series of multi-million-dollar renovations, land acquisitions and growth that continues to this day. Through it all, the focus on local retail has remained ever present at its core.

A Place to Grow
Since joining Junction City in 2007, Brittany Michael, general manager and tenant coordinator, has experienced this upswing firsthand. There’s a palpable energy among the tenants, which have grown from about 30 shops when she started to nearly 45—each of them a piece of the center’s shopping-and-dining puzzle. Nearly all of its shops and restaurants are locally owned, and every tenant brings something special to the table, Michael explains, which is no accident.

“We like them to be mom-and-pop shops,” she says. “We’re very particular on what new types of businesses will be added. We look to see if their business will mix well with the businesses we currently have, and especially consider any unique offerings they can give us.”

At least nine new establishments have been welcomed to Junction City in the last year alone—and more are on the horizon. It’s made for an evolving, eclectic mix of eateries, shops and service companies, with a broad range of options for all ages and tastes.

  

Felicha Brown, for example, brings a homemade touch to her all-natural candle and gift shop, True Royalty Scents. The self-taught candlemaker started the business in her kitchen when tough times pushed her to pursue new opportunities. “In 2011, I lost my job and was going through some family struggles,” she explains. “I needed something to take my mind off things.”

After receiving a candle-making kit for her birthday, she turned her hobby into an entrepreneurial venture, opening a small studio in 2012. Three years later, her business was expanding, and Junction City offered the perfect place to grow. “I was born and raised in Peoria, and this is where I want to be,” Brown explains. “I like the fact that Junction City is focused on small business, and I have seen them grow. My husband used to work at Vonachen’s Junction when he was 17—which was another sign that I wanted to be here.”

Peoria natives Kristen Kern-Snider and Kelly Crusen are the co-owners of Pink Sugar, which found a new home at Junction City earlier this year. The boutique blends the two friends’ love for the latest fashion trends with one-of-a-kind accessories and handmade jewelry that can’t be found anywhere else. “We like to support other local businesses,” Kern-Snider explains. “We attend shows throughout the year, looking for local merchandise we can use in our store. We feel it’s our responsibility as store owners to bring something new to the Peoria area.”

Both agree that Junction City has been a great setting for their business expansion. “We get a great deal of foot traffic, which is something we really looked for,” says Crusen. “The new trail has helped—shoppers can bike here or walk and stop by. Even if they don’t have their wallets on them, they still come in the door and [often] come back… later in the day.”

Likewise, Karyn Short and Trisha Shoufe of Britches N Bloomers are happy to be back at Junction City, where their shop of specialty children’s apparel and gifts first got off the ground. “Everyone’s business grows because we feed off each other,” Short explains. “We need people to shop local, and Peoria does a good job supplying that. Junction City really helps out by incorporating only locally-owned shops… It’s a great fit for us.”

The Fresh Culinary Feel
In addition to a set of new retailers, a wealth of restaurant options has emerged at Junction City, joining longtime hometown favorites like Cyd's Gourmet Kitchen and Café. Last year, thirty-thirty Coffee Co. complemented its downtown site with a second location at the center, while the award-winning EDGE by Chef Dustin Allen continues to provide a farm-to-table experience unlike any other in town.

With the opening of their new, high-end sushi restaurant, husband-and-wife team Ken and Brooke Jack of NOVU Sushi have brought a “fresh feel” to Junction City. Brooke designed all elements of its décor and created the drink menu, while Ken worked to ensure customers would have the finest seafood selections—with fish from Alaska, Chile, Scotland, Hawaii and Japan flowing in every other day.

“We are the only restaurant in this area to have fresh fish delivered four times a week,” he declares. In addition, the couple sought out and hired Master Chef Kumiko Osamato—“the best sushi chef we could find”—who worked in Tokyo restaurants for many years before coming to the U.S.

Since opening for business in March, NOVU Sushi has been a big hit—upping the game for local sushi restaurants—and a great fit for Junction City. “The most important thing about this area is that it’s one big, happy family,” Ken explains. “We all support each other, and we’ve got a little of everything here.”

Around the corner, Childers Eatery brought its dining experience to Junction City in May, opening a second location in the new building on the center’s west side. Serving breakfast and lunch seven days a week, the popular bistro offers dependable classics while putting its creative spin on dishes like the crab-stuffed eggs benedict. Well known for its friendly wait staff, it bills itself as “the only restaurant in Peoria with a garden in our backyard,” referring to the 2,000 square feet of raised beds at its University Street location, which supplies fresh produce to the restaurants.

Meanwhile, Hacienda El Mirador is set to open its doors in the same building this month, bringing a high-end Mexican food experience—and a host of tequilas—to Junction City. Long in the works, the restaurant’s opening is highly anticipated, as it fills a high-demand culinary niche in the Peoria area.

  

Riding the Rock Island Trail
A prime factor in Junction City’s recent growth has been the completion of the Peoria Park District’s Rock Island Greenway. After years of planning and community debate, the conversion of a six-mile stretch of the old railroad line into a recreational trail—the missing link connecting the Rock Island Trail to the north with the Pimiteoui Trail to the south—was finished in 2014, with a pedestrian bridge over Knoxville Avenue just south of the center.

Brad Nauman, manager of Bushwhacker, has felt the positive impact of the trail as much as anyone. “The completion of the Rock Island Trail through Peoria has done wonders for the entire area,” he explains. “Every day, people meet at Junction City to start their ride or walk on the completed Greenway.”

Since expanding into the 15,000-square-foot building at Junction City in 2015, the region’s top outdoor equipment store has continued to see increased business. With the growing popularity of bicycling—and a slate of improvements to the city’s bicycling infrastructure—its location adjacent to the trail and bridge over Knoxville is now integral to the store’s identity. “Bushwhacker has always been a meeting place for those looking to explore the outdoors,” Nauman explains. “Being next to the trail did not happen by accident.”

Besides the bicyclists that flock there for service and gear, many Bushwhacker employees use the trail to get to work—and all the extra traffic required the installation of additional bike racks. Nauman says Bushwhacker is thrilled to support the city’s efforts to improve its bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure—which bring recreational synergies to the retail environment… and far beyond. “A healthier community with a focus on livability will draw more people back into Peoria,” he says, “which is good for all business owners.”

The Community Experience
“There are three things that make Junction City so beneficial: the location, the tenant mix and it being a well-managed center,” explains Jeff Stone, co-owner of Biehl’s Cleaners, one of those original tenants. “As Junction City grows, the more we grow. Being right out there on Knoxville has given us a lot of exposure.”

As for the well-curated tenant mix, Michael explains that every decision is made with the customer in mind. “We want to offer the types of stores the community wants to see,” she says. “We consider what they have to say, and some of their ideas are now here.”

Special events have also been critical to creating the community-minded experience to which Junction City aspires. From its weekly farmers’ market to a range of nonprofit fundraisers to Cyd’s Burgers on the Boardwalk, now in its sixth year, such events have gone a long way toward adding energy—and foot traffic—at Junction City.

Meanwhile, a new senior center will soon be constructed just south of the center at the site of the former American Pi building on Knoxville. With about 90 units, it’s scheduled for occupancy in 2018, offering a great view of Donovan Park across the street and easy access to the trail and to Junction City. With an influx of new residents on the way, Michael is working to bring additional businesses to cater to this population—complementing the likes of Natural Balance Wellness Center and Preckshot Pharmacy, a sprawling establishment that includes a pharmacy, compounding lab and auditorium for health-related presentations.

“We offer different services already—the nail salon, the spa, multiple hair salons,” Michael notes. “All of the services we have here will be very beneficial to making [Junction City] more into a community center.”

With all the recent expansion activity—and more announcements to come—Junction City continues to evolve, always working to satisfy its customers. “We provide an experience,” Michael notes. “It’s what we want to keep pushing and providing to our patrons.” Sixty years after Pete Vonachen’s restaurant first opened its doors for business, Junction City is still working toward the same goal, providing shoppers with a taste of Peoria that could only be local. iBi

Learn more about the shops at Junction City at newjunctioncity.com, or visit the center at 5901 North Prospect Road in Peoria.


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