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After losing their mother, family members continue her legacy: the Cookie Shack

Brenda Ware hard at work on baking the sugary treats that made the Cookie Shack a Peoria staple.
Andre Ware
Brenda Ware is seen hard at work on baking the sugary treats that have made the Cookie Shack a Peoria staple.

A sugary Peoria institution for more than two decades is sticking around after the loss of the woman who started it. For decades, Brenda Ware and the entire Ware family made the Cookie Shack a fixture for sweet-tooths in Peoria.

As far back as Brenda’s son Andre Ware can remember, his mother was baking — even before she made it her career.

“So, it’s my earliest memories, selling cookies at the church and stuff. We would do bake sales,” said Andre. “It wasn’t until mom got laid off from her job that she had in the corporate world that her and dad talked about it and they ended up deciding to go ahead and open up the Cookie Shack in 2001.”

The brick and mortar Wisconsin Avenue location of the Brenda Ware's Cookie Shack, in operation for around 12 years starting in 2001.
Andre Ware
The brick and mortar Wisconsin Avenue location of the Brenda Ware's Cookie Shack, in operation for around 12 years starting in 2001.

Along with her husband Lee and four children, Gareth, Courteney, Andre and Everette, Brenda operated the Cookie Shack location on North Wisconsin Avenue for around 12 years. Andre said moving to a brick-and-mortar location was a big step and they also got involved with a booth at Peoria's Riverfront Market in 2003.

“We did that market and have continued to do that market. We actually are one of the oldest vendors,” said Andre. “It’s been great.”

Through all of Brenda's years of baking, even after location and staff changes, one thing remained consistent: the cookies. Andre said his mother loved making them, crafting and refining recipes for chocolate chip, peanut butter, monster cookies, cookie cakes and more.

Of course, the Cookie Shack sells other sweets, but the heart of the business is the namesake.

“Cookies are always just a fan favorite. To me, I consider them one of the easiest desserts to eat and to make,” said Andre. “You start getting into fancy stuff like torts and all that different kind of stuff, but we’ve always tied our cookies in with the cakes that mom does. Then, we do cinnamon rolls and brownies and different things like that.”

On Jan 17, Brenda Ware passed away. Andre said he and his family are still processing the loss.

“It was a thing to where, we’re still trying to get through it and that,” he said. “But what helps is knowing where she is. That’s what gives us our comfort. To know she loved the Lord and we know she’s with him.”

Even as the family grieves, there's also the future of the Cookie Shack to consider. With an established presence at the Riverside Market, Andre is taking over the operation. He said his mom spent time teaching him and his siblings every facet of the shack.

“She trained us in so many different avenues of the business,” he said. “It’s crazy because doing a bakery like the way we did it, we made our stuff from scratch. So it wasn’t a thing where we would get a frozen product and bake it or whatever, we did the full everything.”

From sifting flour to working with sugar and icing cookies, Andre and his siblings got the crash course in bakery operation. Andre has some additional experience with small business — in 2018 he opened In And Out, a place where local vendors could sell their products.

“I was in transition mode anyway. I was figuring out do I want to do my store again or do I want to do the cookies,” he said. “But I know she would want me to continue on the legacy of the cookies. It’s crazy because I’m glad she taught me how to do it, you know? And that I was actually open to learning how to do it.”

Andre even said some new things are on the way for the Cookie Shack, the biggest being a food truck. He said a plan is underway and the truck is ordered.

Of course, the store will remain a fixture of the Riverfront Market, where manager Sharon Gramm said Brenda and her cookies became a part of a "market family" over the years.

Brenda Ware (back, left) hosts a baking class for local children and teens. Her son Andre says she wanted to give kids opportunities to learn she didn't have growing up.
Andre Ware
Brenda Ware (back, left) hosts a baking class for local children and teens. Her son Andre says she wanted to give kids opportunities to learn she didn't have growing up.

“My two daughters really love their cookies,” she said. “Over the years, we’ve purchased a lot of them, they’re always outstanding cookies. And Lee and Brenda have been a great part of the market.”

On a Facebook post on the Riverfront Market page sharing the sad news, multiple commenters shared memories of Brenda giving them their first job at the Cookie Shack.

Andre said this was just a part of who his mother was.

“I believe it was because she realized that the kind of opportunities and stuff like that, she didn’t have when she was growing up,” he said. “So, she wanted to create opportunities for young people to be able to learn a trade, for one thing, and to be able to give back to the community.”

While creating those opportunities, Andre said she was creating something else all along the way: a legacy.

“She knew that she was creating something, I believe she wanted it to be a legacy for my family, for my brothers and I,” he said. “As we go forward, it’s always something that we can always fall back on. Is knowing, hey, we know how to make some cookies and they actually taste good.”

Andre Ware (left) and his mother Brenda Ware (right).
Andre Ware
Andre Ware (left) and his mother Brenda Ware (right).

Now, Andre is taking the hard work, the baking lessons, the leadership examples and his memories with him to continue Brenda’s legacy. He'll also need one other thing: Brenda's love for what she did.

“She just loved baking cookies for everyone. And she loved seeing people enjoy eating the cookies,” Andre said. “I think it was, like, tied together. Because she loved the customers and she loved baking. So it was just, the cookies and everything she made, the love that she had for baking and for people, was in the cookies. And that’s why people love them.”

You can find Andre and his family at the Cookie Shack when the Riverfront Market starts up again this summer. Personally, Andre recommends the classic chocolate chip, or flour-less monster cookie if you're satisfying your sweet tooth there for the first time.

You can keep up with the Riverfront Market schedule on their Facebook page here and with the Cookie Shack here.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.