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I got a message from Ina Pinkney of Ina's saying that she wanted to invite me to breakfast, because she'd heard the audio version of this interview with Mark and Liz Mendez of Vera. She was interested to hear another restaurateur talk about the nitty-gritty of the restaurant business—something that's on her mind as she approaches the last month of her 33 years running a restaurant and/or bakery, which is what December will be for her. She's certainly going out with a bang—the restaurant has been jam-packed every day since the announcement.
But Ina's given interviews before about herself and her bakery and her life; that day what she mainly wanted to talk about was her staff. How hard it is to keep people when you're closing. (She devised a bonus system to hang on to them to the last day, as well as having jobs lined up for them at other Randolph Street restaurants.) How much staffers move around now, and how dishwashers and other lower-level workers just don't show up one day—and occasionally turn up applying for work months or years later, not remembering that they used to work at her place. About a young cook who just left a chef who had been mentoring him for a year to take a job at another top chef's new restaurant that's about to open. And about a Mexican system of saving money called a tanda, which is common in Chicago's kitchens.
At the end of it we talked about her book, Taste Memories—"my only book," she says, containing every recipe she treasures from her years in business (yes, including her unbelievably light Heavenly Hots pancakes). She published it herself, and she's doing a brisk business at the only three places you can buy it—her restaurant, online, and at Women and Children First in Andersonville (where she'll appear Friday night). Stop by Ina's and she'll sign it no matter where it came from; you are herewith offered a holiday gift suggestion. The interview is below.
Michael Gebert: So how's closing? How was 33 years?
Ina Pinkney: Closing is remarkable in two ways. It's very emotional with the customers I've been feeding for a very long time, who'll come in with memories of times here that I didn't know about. We had one woman come in and get very teary telling us, 'I came in here with my granddaughter, who had just come from American Girl, and she would not let go of the doll. We wanted her to eat but she would not let go of the doll. And your server saw the whole dynamic and brought a high chair and picked her up and put in the chair so the little girl would eat.'
Now, I didn't know that happened, but that was the right thing. And to know that my service staff did something so sensitive and thoughtful was very moving for me. So I'm learning all kinds of things that I didn’t know.
One of the funniest and most touching things that I did know—I had announced in a newsletter around Valentine's Day that if you wanted to pop the question, just hand me the ring, give me the box with the ring, and I'd take care of it for the dessert course. A man came in, a lovely man of the Potter Palmer family, and he just turned his back and extended his hand behind him and handed the box to me. And we sat them, and I made a beautiful little heart-shaped chocolate mousse cake with a flower on top, and cut a little parchment heart to put the ring on. And I open the box and find a ten-karat diamond ring from the family jewels, literally, in there. And the thought that he just passed it off to me, because of the trust factor, was really dear. So I have lots of stories about things that have happened here.
How is the process of winding down?
The process of winding down is really the process of gearing up to take care of these people. I don't think I've ever worked this hard before. We are busy from opening to closing; we recommend reservations—without them there's a long wait. I've never seen crowds like this. It's quite wonderful, because every restaurateur should have the opportunity to go out debt neutral. I know some have closed leaving big bills behind. I know that restaurants have closed, employees show up to work and there's just a sign on the door and they never get their last paycheck because they have no idea who the owner is.
So we have seen, in our 33 years, all kinds of closings. This one, I can see, is the most elegant and the most integrity filled. We have given our customers four months to say good-bye. We have given our employees a chance to make a really big paycheck every week. So that's quite wonderful.
You mentioned that your employees have something called a tando?
Tanda. The tanda is a very interesting way that we kind of figured out that the recession was behind us. There is an underground system of people saving money, that the kitchen people have started. The way it works is, they get ten people who work here. And every week they agree that they will put in $50, or $100, whatever they decide the going rate is. Then they will make up a little piece of paper with weeks one to ten. And each person picks a week [from a hat]. And the administrator, whoever that is, goes around and collects $100 from each person, and they pass it off to the person whose week it is.
So I've always been part of it. With my luck I'm always week ten or week nine. But what it does is, it builds some camaraderie, it builds some expectation that you're going to stay in your job, because you're going to have to be part of the tanda and pay up. And it gives people a chance to have a $1,000 at once instead of $100, which they just might blow.
In the old days it might go across two kitchens, when the economy was good and people worked two jobs. So you could have 25, 30 guys in a tanda. Now it's usually very specific to a restaurant. And we've done four or five cycles since the recession has tapered down.
But your staff has to be stable for that to work.
Exactly, and staff stability is an issue everywhere. We just don't seem to find the labor force that is competent and critical thinking. We're talking front of the house here, we're lucky that back of the house has been stable for many years. We had two people leave when we announced that we were closing. I told them not to be scared, that we had jobs lined up for them, I have four places who want my staff and now they get to choose where they want to work, because everybody wants my people. My people are good people.
But there's no busing staff that comes up that is competent. And training is a big issue—it takes a lot of energy. And if you have a busser who's mediocre who trains somebody, now you have two mediocre bussers.
Do you think it’s because the restaurant scene has boomed so much?
Part of it is because of how many restaurants are opening—I mean, everybody needs labor. Something like Mario Batali's Eataly will suck up three, four, 500 people. Where is Boka [Restaurant Group] going to get the staff for a 500-seat steak house?
Number two is that the borders have closed up pretty tight. People don't want to talk about it, but the undocumented workers are the reason that you had good bussing. You had people who needed to work, wanted to work, and had a work ethic. The other part is that deportations are up, dramatically, in the last five years. So you have less people coming to the door saying I need a job.
Let's talk about your book. What did you set out to do with your book?
I set out to make people feel when they opened the book that they were still here. It's very brand specific, very Ina specific, and it has only the recipes that I have done. When you go to a publisher they say, 'We need to go to a recipe consultant, we need all these recipes, we need to put in some muffins.' Well, you know what? I never made a muffin. Ain't gonna put it in the book.
This is what we do, everything you have loved in here, the Heavenly Hots and the baked French toast and the frittata. And things from my bakery that I did for many years. So the stories are memoir, how did I get from Brooklyn to breakfast? How did I get here? I didn't bake my first cake till I was 37 years old. The memoir stories are very sweet, some people need a hanky when they sit and read it, that's OK with me.
But I wanted to let Chicago know that Chicago has become my family. So I'm leaving my recipes to them.
Ina's, 1235 W. Randolph, 312-226-8227, breakfastqueen.com