Spicing Up the New Normal
When one door closes, another door opens—such is the nature of opportunity amidst the cutthroat “creative destruction” of capitalism. The restaurant industry was among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and mandates for limited occupancy portend tough times for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the spring shutdown left many people with extra time on their hands, some needing to pivot quickly to find new work. Toss in the widespread desire to mix things up amidst quarantine, and all the ingredients for a flood of new, food-based businesses were in place—including a trio of enterprises in the Greater Peoria area.
“I realized at a young age that I loved food and how it brought people together,” recalls Emily Canterbury. Feeling unfulfilled on her career path for much of her early adulthood, she decided to look for work in the restaurant business, where she could learn the trade. “I took a job working with a talented local chef, Brian Jenkins, who taught me a lot. I worked at several restaurants in Peoria Heights over the next few years. From there, I accepted a job at Unum Fine Wine & Whiskey Lounge in Morton, where I was able to showcase my own creations.”
Then came the pandemic. As Canterbury watched area restaurants and bars close their doors, her future in the industry looked uncertain. That’s when a family invited her to make dinner for them a couple nights a week—“an answer to a prayer,” she notes. In true entrepreneurial fashion, she took the idea and ran with it. “When everything changed due to COVID-19, I saw an opportunity to provide my service in a safe, in-home setting. Starting Canterbury Creations was my motivation to find a way to incorporate my love of cooking into a unique experience outside of the restaurant.”
As an in-home private chef, Canterbury provides five-course dinners, grazing tables and healthy charcuterie arrangements for family meals, work gatherings and special events. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, she found that it offered a silver lining: a captive, stay-at-home audience. “People were receptive to what I was able to offer,” she explains. “With a few simple questions regarding allergens and dietary restrictions, I am able to create an individualized experience.”
She enjoys fulfilling special requests and finds that most clients are open to her creativity as well. “AMAZINGLY DELICIOUS!” proclaimed one person about her custom charcuterie tray. “Not only did it look like an art piece on the buffet, the flavor combinations were spot-on… On a side note, Emily put this tray together with less than 24 hours’ notice, and still had a smile on her face when I was 30 minutes late to pick it up.” Like other satisfied clients, she has since become a regular.
A stickler for quality, Canterbury’s current challenges include sourcing and gathering fresh, local ingredients for her recipes, beyond the well-known farmers’ markets. “I like to use seasonal ingredients when I can,” she adds. As her business gears up for the fall and winter months, she hopes to find a new production space that would allow her to expand her offerings. Having persevered through the earliest days of the pandemic, her heart is full of gratitude. “I am so thankful for all my clients,” she says, “and that I’m able to do what I love.” Find Canterbury Creations on Facebook @canterburycreations2020.
Up Beet Jams
Jam Rohr’s new business venture got started through a series of socially-distanced lunches with a friend, who eyed her healthy, plant-based lunches with envy. “One day she asked if I would be willing to make lunches for her for the week,” she explains. “About the same time, two tattoo artists at Freedom Ink, where my husband works, mentioned that they wanted to eat healthier lunches. I started to see a need in the community for affordable, nutritious and filling lunches.”
After suffering from an extended bout of unknown pain, Rohr moved to a vegan diet about a year ago. Lacking health insurance, she resorted to Google to find answers—and quickly discovered that a whole-food, plant-based diet not only reduced her pain, it cleared up several other ailments, improving her mental health and sleep patterns. “So many things changed just by adjusting my eating habits,” she recalls. But when extolling those benefits to others, she learned that most people have misconceptions about the vegan diet. “They think it’s expensive, or they don’t know how to cook, don’t have time to cook, or wouldn’t know what to eat… among other responses,” she explains. “I saw that I could check all of these boxes with Up Beet Jams.”
As a sculptor, owner of Black Dog Metal Arts and instructor at Illinois State University, Rohr’s schedule is typically packed. The pandemic gave her time to slow down—and experiment in the kitchen. “I was baking more, but challenging myself to figure out ways to bake goods that are actually healthy,” she explains. “Just because something is vegan does not mean it is healthy!” As she tested and adapted recipes, she began making simple desserts to accompany each meal, sharing her findings with friends and relatives. “I thought it would be helpful to show indulging in sweets can still be healthy and healing. It’s just a matter of knowing what to eat and how to keep it interesting.”
Now she has a growing meal preparation business, offering up to five lunches per week. “My goal is to provide affordable, nutritious and filling lunches to people who are interested in plant-based eating,” she explains. “Each meal is made with the versatility of the vegan diet in mind, resulting in a unique and creative lunch each day.” Because the meals are cooked ahead of time, it’s an easy and convenient way to help people make healthier choices.
As Rohr looks to the future, among her challenges is keeping up with growing demand. “I have help on various days from my husband, my mom and some friends every so often. I couldn’t do it without them.” She is currently working to offer allergen-friendly alternatives for people who can’t have common ingredients such as soy, cashews, peanuts or gluten, and is on the hunt for compostable containers to use for side sauces or desserts. “I am also hoping to be part of the local farmers’ markets next year!” she adds. “Another big goal is to figure out shipping… so people outside of the central Illinois region would be able to order as well.” To learn more about the process or place your order, visit upbeetjams.com.
It Plates in Peoria
As a full-time nurse, it wasn’t easy for JoCele Cassidy to launch a business. “But that’s something anyone who has a passion project faces,” she notes. “I’m putting in the work to make both successful.” Like many such ventures, her custom cheese and charcuterie board business grew out of a hobby. “I’ve always loved the process of picking out ingredients and constructing a board at home, playing with colors, shapes, textures and flavors. It really has become an outlet for me to express my creativity and play with my food!”
Soon after testing the concept with family members, Cassidy was assembling boards in a certified kitchen. Her mom came up with the name—It Plates in Peoria—and she sold her first board in May. Launching a business in the middle of a pandemic, however, came with a unique set of challenges. Not only did Cassidy face the same obstacles all new small business owners face, she had to figure out how to safely meet customers and deliver their orders, while finding substitutes for items she could no longer source at grocery stores. On the other hand, it provided an ideal environment for her to gain exposure. “With so many Peorians home quarantining and scrolling Instagram, I found my audience growing with each passing day,” she explains. “People were looking for ways to spice up their new normal.”
From elevating an ordinary weeknight dinner with a “Date Night Box,” to serving a “Happy Hour Board” at a socially-distanced backyard party, Cassidy found she could offer a practical solution to the closure of bars and restaurants. “My boxes and boards were allowing Peorians to have a glimpse back into their pre-pandemic lives,” she says. “It’s a simple pleasure, but trying new things and sharing a meal with those you love can really lift spirits, despite everything that’s going on in the world. I enjoyed helping bring some normalcy back into their lives.”
Cassidy is currently working on a gift certificate program and has partnered with Keller Station’s Drive-In Movie Series, providing an opportunity for moviegoers to add a “Date Night Box” to their ticket. She has plans to collaborate with other local businesses on “pop-up” pickup locations, and hopes the holiday season will prove fruitful for her business. “Other than that, I plan to keep experimenting with new seasonal ingredients, sourcing new products, and coming up with unique pairings for customers to enjoy.” For pricing and order information, visit itplatesinpeoria.com. PM