Banu Hatfield and her husband, Mike, opened Zion Coffee Bar this year as a personal passion project in addition to their jobs at Caterpillar Inc. Part of that passion, they realized, was using their café in creative ways to bring people together.
“If you asked our friends, they would say that we are gatherers of people,” Banu said. “We just truly enjoy being around people.”
They started a monthly supper club at the Warehouse District café six months ago, one of two such phenomena occurring at Peoria coffee shops along with Midnight Espresso, which began its Sunday Supper Series in June 2016.
It’s a concept that Midnight Espresso chef Ryan Smith thinks couldn’t succeed even five years ago. For $75 at Zion or $50 at Midnight Espresso, a person can participate in a unique dining experience — several courses of culinary whimsy from fresh, exotic and local ingredients all while sitting elbow-to-elbow with strangers.
“Nothing brings people together better than food,” said Cody Scogin, the Zion chef. “A lot of these courses are passed around and shared. You’re forcing strangers to create communication and conversation.”
Zion Supper Club
The Hatfields hosted a version of a supper club at their home before Zion opened, and it was the success and joy of the night that spurred them to the dream of it being a staple for the café. One table, 12 people, several food courses. An intimate setting filled with laughter and conversation.
A thrill of the supper clubs is the mystery of what food will be served, and chefs that are emboldened to push their diners into exploratory realms.
Scogin’s Zion Supper Club menus reflect the seasons. Fall finds him contemplating ways to incorporate squash and sweet potatoes and cabbages. When he presents his dishes at the supper club, he will usually provide an instruction about the particulars of the food he chose.
“I like to use these as an educational experience for people,” Scogin said.
Scogin takes what’s available from the local farms and then conceptualizes what he wants to do. He has his own booth at the Peoria Riverfront Market, where he sells his homemade bread. Once all of his bread has been sold, Scogin goes from farmer to farmer seeking produce.
At last month’s dinner, Scogin prepared one dish with buckwheat dumpling and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms that he foraged for himself.
“Are they poisonous?” one of the diners jokingly asked.
“They’re not,” Scogin answered. “But they can be expensive if you can’t forage for them yourself.”
Later, Scogin brought out the main course — beef tongue tacos. He likes to cook with off cuts of protein and counts beef tongue among his favorite cuts of meat.
“I think it’s a more sustainable way to eat,” Scogin explained. “If we’re going to take the animal’s life, then I’d like to use the whole animal rather than just the steak and the chuck and the typical cuts.”
Hatfield envisions the monthly dinner having practical purposes in the future, like bringing together certain groups that might be mutually beneficial. She also hopes it acts as a showcase for Scogin that might lead to him having his own restaurant one day.
“The type of food I’m trying to create, I want it to be on par with anything you could get in a major city,” Scogin said. “Our price point on these supper clubs is kind of steep, so I want to deliver a Michelin-star experience.”
Sunday Supper Series at Midnight Espresso
Smith offered a similar origin story for the Sunday Supper Series at Midnight Espresso. The cozy shop near the intersection of War Memorial Drive and University Street has hosted all manner of events, including concerts, and had been expanding its food service in 2016.
While chatting one day with his friend Savannah Hattan, a local blogger on all things cocktails, spirits and bartending, they concocted the idea to pair Smith’s cuisine with Hattan’s cocktails in an informal supper setting. Four cocktails and three food courses, all under a different theme each month.
Each month brings a new theme to Midnight Espresso’s supper menu and can channel Smith’s rollicking style. September’s revolved around corn-themed dishes: a flank steak and charred cream corn with chimichurri and pickled fried shallots. Hattan whipped up a cocktail of grilled corn, hibiscus, lime and tequila. Another involved fresh corn syrup and whiskey.
“It kind of tasted like nutty corn flakes,” Hattan said.
Another theme one month was Waffle House-inspired, which meant stylistically elevated versions of waffle dishes. And every fourth month sees an entirely vegan menu.
“We can be a little playful,” Smith said.
The event crams 32 people into Midnight Espresso, bringing the temperature in the room to sweltering levels. Smith doesn’t mind, though, as it reduces the formality of the supper for those that attend.
“It’s almost like you’re at your broke friend’s house and the AC unit doesn’t work but you’re still having a dinner party,” Smith said.
Midnight Espresso’s reservations backed up so much that Smith stopped taking requests in June when the rest of the year was already booked. He’s going to reboot it next year on a first-come, first-serve basis until space runs out that month and then start over with registrations for the next month.
But the enthusiastic creativity will remain each month at the Sunday Supper Series. Smith said Midnight Espresso is foremost a coffee shop, but he relishes trying new things inside the space to entertain people in the area.
“We get to do whatever the hell we want,” Smith said.
Thomas Bruch can be reached at 686-3262 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.
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