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Q&A: Chef Josh Lanning is hoping to overhaul Peoria's hospitality industry

Lanning is establishing part ownership of Slow Hand Craft BBQ in Peoria Heights.
Mike Rundle
Lanning is establishing part ownership of Slow Hand Craft BBQ in Peoria Heights.

Between consulting in New York City, running a pop-up burger restaurant with friends and former coworkers from SingleThread Farms in Sonoma County, California, and establishing part ownership of Slow Hand Craft BBQ in Peoria Heights, Chef Josh Lanning has been busy.

A Peoria native, Lanning initially made his return to the area for an executive role at Woolly Bugger, the restaurant at the now-shuttered Sankoty Lakes Resort; but, after about a year, he decided to leave their kitchen for other opportunities around the country—and it seems to have paid off.

This transcript has been edited for length and brevity.

Mike Rundle: So the last time we talked, everything was still up and running at Sankoty Lakes Resort. Tell me what you’ve been up to for the last year or so.

Josh Lanning: Yeah, it's been kind of a roller coaster honestly, in a fun way. I think when the project at Sankoty ended for me, essentially I decided that it was time for myself to take some risks, you know, so I kind of jumped off and just started really concentrating on activating the network that I've created across the country and even the world, which was kind of fun.

Collaborating with Evan [Barry] from Down River [Farm]. We did all the farm dinners last year, which was really a highlight. Each one was a highlight for me. Through it all, I met Robbie [Mathisen] and Nate [Monroe] who are the owners of Pour Bros. here in Peoria Heights and Slow Hand BBQ, and we just started dreaming of things as well and kind of came to this realization that we are very much in line with our values and how we view community and how we view treating people. So that was a huge kind of catalyst to what is to come. Last year was all about my time, how I wanted to spend it.

Rundle: Tell me more about BrightBird. Where did that idea come from, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of having the pop-up versus a full time restaurant?

Lanning: I knew I had something special with the chicken sandwiches I've been working on, and honestly I got to use Sankoty a little bit as a testing ground for that and there was a lot of fun feedback. Having created a couple things I thought that were exceptionally delicious that I actually created more for barbecue, and then it translated more into this chicken sandwich, I decided, “Well, I want people to taste this.” Brightbird originally was going to be more of a long term name for a more upscale style restaurant for me, and it just fit this.

As far as what is it like being a pop up—honestly, there's not really many negatives to it unless people aren't showing up, and we were very fortunate. Versus a brick and mortar, there's so much less pressure, you know. You’re collaborating with other people, you're helping their business out, and you don't have all of the other things to worry about like leases, and loans, and so on. It's a fun time, and it's a great way for [a] business to prove a concept.

Rundle: How about BrightSide Hospitality, what's the direction with that venture?

Lanning: The definition of hospitality is creating a place where people feel almost cured of their daily nuances of life. You take them out of all the worry and bring them into your space and let them forget for an hour or two while they enjoy something.

BrightSide kind of just came out of my mind not too long ago. I walked in a couple different places in Peoria—and this was a little shocking to me, to be honest with you—but a couple people were like, “You're the chicken guy, right?” I was like, “Wow, yeah, I guess I am. I am the chicken guy.” I'm proud to be the chicken guy, but I don't want to be known as the chicken guy.

There's so much more depth to the big picture of everything I'm doing than, you know, chicken sandwiches or anything. I truly believe that there's an element of hospitality I want to give to the community here. I want this to be what defines me and kind of be the umbrella of BrightBird.

Lanning's values as a chef include working with local farmers to source fresh ingredients for each meal.
Mike Rundle
Lanning's values as a chef include working with local farmers to source fresh ingredients for each meal.

Rundle: When we've talked, I always got the feeling that you're looking to create new experiences around food and the act of dining and what that means. Would you say that that's true and is that something that drives your creativity?

Lanning: The best restaurants in the world aren't the best restaurants in the world because of the food, to be frank. The best restaurants in the world are the best restaurants because they create an environment that is like I said, just removes you from the day to day pressure of life. You just forget for a couple hours. The people smile, and they care, and the experience is a special thing. We want to create lasting memories for people, and then we want them to come back and have those memories again.

I'm not afraid to say this, but the whole industry here needs to be shook up. People need to get a little uncomfortable. I mean, there's such really great places here, but I think overall, as a hospitality industry, my biggest goal is I want to bridge all the gaps between the people because everybody is so tight-chested and like, “This is mine, stay away.” People need to collaborate, people need to support each other in the industry. Somehow, I hope to be a catalyst to kind of break down a little bit of those walls so that people are creating more special experiences, and also the bar is being risen because sometimes I feel like the bar is pretty low.

I think people are really looking for new experiences, and not just new experiences, but the feeling that the industry is moving forward and in a way that the rest of the world is already moving forward, in a positive way with quality of food, with quality of service—it just needs to happen for this community to thrive.

Rundle: You've been all over the world in the name of food. Is it safe to say that you're going to stick around Peoria for a little bit?

Lanning: Peoria’s home. I feel like I can say I'm humble enough to know I can't do it on my own, and this is where I know that I've acquired a fantastic team, which is kind of the next story—you know, that is in Rob Mathisen and Nate Monroe who are the owners of Pour Bros. and Slow Hand. Those guys are entrepreneurs, and those guys have success stories, and when you team up with guys like this, the sky's the limit.

They love Peoria Heights, and I have history here in Peoria Heights and, [I’m] taking over part ownership of Slow Hand, so that's a huge step for me because barbecue is a huge part of my history and life. It feels like that's full circle, so this is just the first step. Second step is we'll see where BrightBird goes. All this is simply a foundation for something really, when in my mind, is fairly profound in the years to come, and that will be in Peoria. What form that comes in, I can't tell you right now, but I know it will be a restaurant and it will be something special.

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Mike Rundle is a correspondent at WCBU. He joined the station in 2020.