Smile Politely

CMT Ventures’ Tifani Moot talks about restaurants and her 52 week cookie challenge

Barrelhouse 34, Seven Saints, and Aroma Cafe are some of my favorite spots in town. These (and many more) are part of a local restaurant group owned by three individuals. I was able to talk with Tifani Moot, owner of these local restaurants and founder of her restaurant group, about her history in C-U, the restaurants she owns, and what the stay at home order means for her businesses. 

An old photograph with sepia tones features five individuals, one behind a cake. The interviewee, Tifani Moot, is pictured on the far right in red. Photo provided by Tifani Moot.

Tifani Moot (in red, right). Photo provided by Tifani Moot. 

Smile Politely: Hello! Can you please talk about who you are and what you do in C-U?

Tifani Moot: I am unsure if how I describe myself comports with how others see me or would describe me. The word “mother” comes to mind — probably because there isn’t one minute of the day when I cease to be one. I might also throw in words like friend, avid reader, podcast addict, music lover, cinema fanatic, and occasionally, when the situation calls for it, a design asshole. 

I also need to add that I am a business person. Most people who know me would know that I am one of three owners of a variety of bars and restaurants around town. Those who don’t know me might ask me how “Carlos’ businesses” are doing. It always stings just a little, even though I know the question was well-intended.

SP: Can you talk about the variety of bars and restaurants around town that you own? 

Moot: We own Jupiter’s downtown, Cowboy Monkey, Guido’s, Soma, Billy Barooz, Seven Saints, Aroma Cafe, and Barrelhouse 34. We also previously owned the Highdive and Uncle Jack’s. It would’ve been easier to open up a single concept multiple times, but we chose to stay local and offer a variety of concepts. With the exception of Billy Barooz and Aroma Cafe, we started each business ourselves from scratch.

A photo of the interior of Cowboy Monkey. The differently colored barstools are empty at the bar on the left, and booths are empty on the right. Photo from Cowboy Monkey's Facebook page.

Photo from Cowboy Monkey’s Facebook page.

SP: Can you talk a bit more about how you started becoming involved with bars and restaurants?

Moot: I convinced Carlos to explore the idea of starting a business together. We talked about renovating a house together. After the campus bar The Deluxe closed down, I asked him if he would want to open up a pool hall with me, and Carlos moved back from Seattle. While Carlos worked on negotiating a lease, I wrote the business plan. We hired an architect, but we needed more money and more help. We added Marco as a partner in 1997.

The three of us opened all of our businesses together, equally. Prior to opening, I had experience working as a bartender. Carlos had worked at a hot dog place on campus in the 1980s, and Marco had no hospitality experience. Over time, we figured out how to argue less and work on what came skillset came easiest to us, and let the other partner do what came naturally to them. 

SP: Which restaurant was the first one you opened?

Moot: Jupiter’s Pizzeria and Billiards opened in November 1997.

An interior of Jupiter's Downtown with four billiards tables and seating alongside the left side of the photo, bar on the right. Photo from Jupiter's Facebook page.

Photo from Jupiter’s Downtown Facebook page.

SP: How long have you lived in Champaign-Urbana? What brought you here?
Moot: I visited once in 1988 as a college freshman attending school elsewhere and absolutely fell in love with Champaign-Urbana. I decided to transfer as quickly as possible, and I have lived here since 1990. 

SP: What’s your favorite spot to grab dinner, when we’re not under a stay at home order?

Moot: I have to say that I am fortunate enough to have a partner who cooks like a boss and gets amazing ingredients. I can cook, but I say that like a six year old can read: the six year old just isn’t reading anything amazing. Similarly, I am not cooking anything amazing, so I very much love to eat whatever Carlos cooks. 

However there are so many great places to eat in town. I eat frequently at Cactus Grill and Broadway Food Hall. If it were slightly more convenient to do so, I’d eat at Sakanaya, Miga, Naya, and Timpone’s for any meal. Also, I could probably eat Indian food every day of the week! 

SP: Do you have a favorite drink? Coffee, tea, cocktail, beer, wine?

Moot: I only started drinking alcohol about seven to ten years ago, so I can’t remember. But not because I’ve been so drunk that it’s been a blur. I probably only drink one or two glasses of wine per month. I’m trying to drink more, though!

I really only drink water. No juice or soda, no coffee, no milk. I’ll order a tea if I have a meeting with someone over coffee. It probably sounds boring, but I have such a love of sweets and chocolate that I don’t want to waste my calories on drinks. Bring on the cookies and candy bars!

SP: What kind of cookies and candy bars do you like?

Moot: Um, anything really. This year, the cookies that have been the biggest success with the family were all recipes that they were not looking forward to. I have four categories, and we cycle through one category after another in order: chocolate, fruit, veggie/nut, and miscellaneous. I have made salted Nutella sandwich cookies, lemon curd cookies, pumpkin snickerdoodles, ooey gooey black berry bars, pink lemonade cookies, carrot cookies with orange frosting, and more.

The exterior of Barrelhouse 34 is a brick building with a second floor for additional seating. Photo by Anna Longworth.

Photo by Anna Longworth. 

SP: Tell me about some of your favorite things about Champaign-Urbana.

Moot: I’ve always felt like our natural resource here is our amazing community of people. It sounds corny, but we don’t have mountains, lakes, or ocean views, but in a town this size, the diversity of amazing people is hard to beat: talented, smart, and friendly. The potential for this town is largely untapped, and I get very inspired thinking of the possibilities. 

SP: I heard that you do a lot of work for Academy High. Could you share a bit about that?

Moot: I was asked to join the Board of Directors at Academy High almost three years ago. I’ve primarily contributed to marketing and attempting to create some summer camp experiences for this year. I’m more than a little bummed to think it might not happen this year.

Academy High is actually a perfect endeavor for this town because of the potential it holds for our community. It is so different than any other high school experience — and that can be unattractive to some students. But for a person who wants deep knowledge, flexibility in their learning, customization of the classes and something really unique, Academy High is the only place that can offer it. 

SP: What do you enjoy doing during the Stay at Home order? Any new hobbies? New routines?

Moot: At the beginning of the year, I decided to do 52 weeks of new cookies, making one per week. I am still on course, so that is good! I am reading more and (sadly) exercising less. I had been working out at PerformEveryday with Joe Yager (shout out to Joe!) three times per week, and holy crap, does it feel terrible to lose that routine!

I definitely want to look back at this time and think that I didn’t waste the opportunity, so I’ve walked the dogs more. I’ve gone through all of the rooms in the house (excluding kids rooms and storage areas, but they won’t escape me!) and cleared out drawers, nooks, shelves, and gotten rid of lots of stuff. Weeding and planting in the yard could be a full time job, but I’m giving it a few extra hours each week. I actually thought I’d be watching a new movie every night with the kids, but they tapped out early on that plan. I’m trying not to take it personally.

The exterior of Aroma Cafe with lots of greenery. Photo by Anna Longworth.

Photo by Anna Longworth.

SP: How has the Governor’s Stay-at-Home order affected you and your CMT businesses?

Moot: Adversely, but safety first. The health and safety of our employees and patrons comes first. Seriously. 

I don’t really know how this will affect all of the hospitality-related businesses in town in the long run, but I know it is hitting the employees very hard. The government efforts to help employees and businesses so far have been largely unhelpful, difficult to access, or fraught with complexity and other issues. I will be sad if local businesses are unable to re-open. 

I am glad the Governor issued the stay-in-place order and hope that good judgement prevails for its extension and/or lifting. I don’t presume to know the right answer for walking the line between safeguards for our health and safeguards for the economy. 

SP: What can Champaign-Urbana do to help?

Moot: I would say that masks are a good idea. Other than that, donate to your local food bank. I donate to Eastern Illinois Foodbank. I know all food banks are stressed right now. 

SP: Is there anything you’d like to share with C-U?

Moot: I suppose the only thing that I would add is that I owe a debt of gratitude to all of the people in my life who have helped and continue to help me in life. Friends, family, mentors, random people who smile. I would like everyone to know that you’ve made a difference to me.

Top image from Jupiter’s Downtown Facebook page.

Food + Drink Editor

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