JT Walker's is arguably the driving force behind the steady growth of businesses in downtown Mahomet. The restaurant and sports bar will celebrate its 10th anniversary on July 28.
Over the last decade, owner Justin Taylor has expanded his business to include JT Walker's Brewery, the Barrel Room for private events and catering, a new restaurant (Project 47) and joint ownership with Brent Chester in the Chester's BBQ food truck.
Though he's created quite the empire of Main Street businesses over the years, Taylor can still remember the constant worries and struggles of starting a new restaurant.
"I was just trying to get through every shift," Taylor said. "I was trying to get through the lunch shift, the dinner shift, the late-night shift. Every day was just getting through that next shift because it was so chaotic and crazy and we were just trying to figure it out."
Taylor is a fourth-generation Mahomet native who graduated from Mahomet-Seymour High School in 1999. Before he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Missouri, Taylor attended San Diego State University, where he had his first taste of craft beer during the beginnings of the craft beer trend.
"I had never tried a lot of craft beer until I moved away," he said. "(Craft beer) just started to grow in the late 1990s, early 2000s."
The restaurant owner went on to earn his master's degree in broadcast journalism from Syracuse University. After graduation, Taylor moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for a local TV station.
"When a job I thought that I had there was going to turn into a promotion and a more full-time gig, somebody else ended up getting that spot," Taylor said. "I ended up moving back to Illinois."
Taylor didn't give up. He went back to the drawing board, sending out a variety of resumes.
"I was trying to figure out where my next spot was going to be."
He landed a position at The News-Gazette, where tried his hand in sports writing.
"Then I had a friend who put together a minor league basketball team in Peoria," Taylor said. "I always really wanted to do play-by-play, so they hired me on as the play-by-play announcer."
After a year of announcing, the team shut down. Taylor once again went back to the drawing board. This time he had a completely new idea.
"When that fell apart, I was in the midst of trying to figure out what I was going to do, and I'd talked about possibly opening a bar or a restaurant, something along those lines at some point. It was just something kind of in the back of my mind."
After tossing the idea back and forth between his family and friends, he finally decided to open a restaurant.
Since 11 a.m. on July 28, 2008, JT Walker's has been serving guests at its 401 E. Main St. location.
Ten years later, Taylor will kick off a celebration marking the milestone on a Saturday night.
In between, there will have been 3,650 days of tireless efforts, worries, joys and many more emotions felt by the restaurant owner.
Taylor purchased the building in late 2007. His tenured restaurant was previously home to the Old Town Gallery and Main Street Mercantile.
In 2008, Taylor told the Mahomet Citizen his original vision for the restaurant's name was "Orange 77," which is both a reference to his orange '77 Corvette and the year the Mahomet-Seymour High School football team won a championship.
Other ideas included the Dog Pound Sports Bar, when Taylor envisioned keeping the sports bar and restaurant separate.
"That didn't last long," Taylor joked. "People kind of said, 'Hey, I like one atmosphere better than the other, but I want the food. I want to sit in the sports bar, but I want to order the steak.'"
"I ended up scrapping that idea pretty early on and just melded it together for one menu for everybody," he added.
He listened to the advice of his mother, Renee Taylor, when it came to the name.
"Eventually, my mom said, 'Hey, your friends are going to call it JTs no matter what you name the bar,'" he said.
Renee suggested Walker as it is Justin's middle name.
"(She said,) 'Younger people who know you will call it JTs because they know you personally,'" Justin Taylor said. "'People that don't know you will call it Walker's.'"
JT Walker's isn't just a place where patrons gather for a dining experience or a way to unwind. It's also been a place many of Mahomet's young adults have called home.
"I've had so many people work here, and when I originally opened, it was all my friends and family and people that I knew from other places and me just begging them to work because I needed people to work," Taylor joked.
The new business venture was a learning experience for both he and his staff.
"It felt like everybody kind of grew together and everybody kind of took it as part of their own," he added.
"It's just really been crazy to see where all of those people have been. We've been through so many marriages and kids and things you never thought of back in 2008 where all of those people are today that still come back here and hang out that worked here for years," Taylor said. "I would think a lot of those people feel a sense of pride that they had a little something to do with it. They worked hard here, that we made it into something."
Among his faithful crew is general manager Cory Garcia, who has worked at the restaurant for five years.
"JT's is a family," she said. "We take care of each other."
Garcia, who originally moved to Mahomet from south Florida, said she remains at JT Walker's "because of the community."
Andy Hart started his career with JT Walker's approximately five years ago. He went from being a bar-back to the restaurant's marketing and brand director.
"(I) got my degree in graphic design, and Justin said, 'Hey, you want to do this?' And I'm like, 'Yes. Yes, I do.'"
Not only has the restaurant provided Hart a viable career opportunity, but he also sees Taylor's investment in downtown Mahomet as an asset to the entire community.
"It definitely means a whole lot," he said. "I grew up here and remember there was nothing to do here and actually downtown was pretty desolate, and JT Walker's came in and now downtown is more of a thriving business. More businesses wanting to pop up."
Assistant manager Chelsea Roch shared similar sentiments.
"I feel like JT's is the hub of the town," she said.
Four years ago, Roch began her career at JT Walker's as a server. She moved here for the school district but stayed for the small-town feel.
"This is my family," she said. "When I want to go have a drink, I still come here, even though I work here and I'm here up to 40 hours a week and I'm like yeah let's go. It just feels good. It feels like home. It feels like where I want to be."
Taylor has had his fair share of bumps along the road from brewers' license laws, learning the ropes of brewing craft beer and not to mention the loan process of operating businesses.
"When we were trying to do the brewery, we talked to a ton of banks and they just had no idea what we were trying to do," he said. "They didn't know about craft beer, and they didn't know about the boom that was coming.
"You go now and people are like, 'Oh yeah, we want to get in on a craft beer brewery. Yes, they're successful.' But back then they thought I was crazy."
Today Taylor hopes the restaurant is a "source of pride" for his fellow Mahomet natives. The veteran restaurant owner always looked at Mahomet as having "great people" and often asked why the former sleepy bedroom community lacked great businesses.
"I just love that there's a reason to come to downtown Mahomet — and not just us," he said. "All of the other buildings and businesses that people have put in and the time and effort and money that people have spent to revitalize this downtown area to fix up these areas that people could have easily spent and built a brand new building somewhere else for probably half the cost, but they felt the worth of it."
Taylor ultimately credits his parents, Nick and Renee Taylor, and his faithful customers for helping him remain in business for so long.
"Just a big thank-you," he said. "We would not be here without them. We can't stay open unless we have loyal customers who come back here and tell their friends about us."
For more information about the 10th anniversary celebration, visit JT Walkers' Facebook page.