I first met Sheila O’Grady a year ago after Chicago Gourmet. Her career pedigree and educational background are very impressive. She’s a smart, no nonsense, Chicagoan who cuts through to the issue. I’ve enjoyed our conversations and see that the focus she has not only for the Illinois Restaurant Association but for Chicago Gourmet is all about Chicago. Her mission is to promote the city and the restaurants within.
I got a chance to pepper her with questions yesterday on the eve of the Chicago Gourmet weekend. I snuck in two extra which I’m sure she would have teased me about had she known.
Name Sheila O’Grady
Title Director, Illinois Restaurant Association
Kids Mary Claire 6 & Finn 4
From Flossmoor, IL
University Undergrad at St. Mary’s, Graduate Degree from London School of Economics & a Law Degree from Notre Dame
Knife Right Handed
Twitter Handle I don’t tweet.
1. What did you have for dinner last night?
I didn’t have dinner. I went to two events. Got home and put the kids to bed and then put myself to bed.
2. Place you eat out most often?
Someplace that would like to have Finn and Mary Claire Duffy as guests.
3. If you got $5,000, how would you spend it?
I would put it in the kid’s college education accounts
4. First word that comes to mind when I say Michelin?
5. Favorite Charity Event that you work with?
SOS Children’s Villages
6. Last weekend on earth – what city are you taking eating in?
7. If you weren’t running the IRA, what would you do for a living?
I would run a philanthropic organization.
8. Most exotic vacation destination that you’ve been to?
9. Most embarrassing moment when you worked for the City of Chicago?
(pauses) Probably when I had to give interviews. (Laughs)
10. Person you would most like to go to dinner with?
Sheila: My mom. She passed away in 2004. I’d love to sit and get advice about raising the kids and life.
CFS: It’s something that you take for granted that parents will always be there and then when you can’t have that conversation any more it hits you.
Sheila: Ya, parents are always so honest and don’t sugar coat it.
11. What is the biggest issue facing the Hospitality industry today?
12. What are you most excited about right now?
Sheila: Getting closer to question 20.
CFS: (Laughing) You’re the first person who’s answered it that way.
13. Do you have any pet peeves?
(Laughing) Non-responsive answers
14. Karaoke song?
Elvis Presley, Kentucky Rain
15. Chicago Gourmet is about to have its 4th event – what are you most excited about this year?
Sheila: I’m excited that it’s year 4. We started the event in the worst economy possible and the response has been tremendous. We have great partners like Bon Appetit magazine and so many wonderful chefs we want to shine the spotlight on. We’re always trying to make it a great food and wine experience.
CFS: Ticket sales seem to be strong this year and there was no groupon. Are they on pace like last year?
Sheila: We’ve always had a presale and had a strong start this year. We sold Saturday out at the beginning of the month. Sunday is doing well but frankly, my goal is to have attendance the same as last year and test drive the new operations and layout plan we’re putting in to effect this year. I want to make sure we really understand how the crowd moves and flows through the event. We know it can’t be perfect but we want to be as close as possible. We have more chef’s and pavilions and a shoot system so there’s less stopping and starting.
We want to have more food and pavilions peppered throughout. I hope these things make a difference and I hope there’s a tasty morsel always close by to try.
16. What do you hope people notice this year that’s different then the past 3?
Sheila: The first thing they’ll notice are the two gates to enter. No one was more shocked then I was when I looked out the main gate and saw a line to Michigan Ave. I personally have never gotten to anything before the gate opens. I understand and think its great people were enthusiastic to come in.
We want to make sure whether its entry to the event, a pavilion or for food, you’re not waiting in line. We know the majority of people come in the first 90 minutes for the event. We’ll have a better layout, the trays are helpful.
CFS: Has anyone else done the trays? I’ve never seen that.
Sheila: I saw it as an event similar to Hamburger Hop and thought it was great. It was a bit different then the shoot system. We’re also going to have a whole lot more programming in the South Promenade. There will be a Belgian beer garden and of course a pig roast because what else goes well with beer then a pig roast.
17. Terlato Wines, one of the main sponsors pulled out from this year’s event. You’ve brought Mondavi Family wines in how do you see that differing in the Grand Cru event?
Sheila: Mondavi’s always been a big part of the event. Constellation has always had a large presence.
CFS: Will Grand Cru differ much?
Sheila: No, we’ve got more wines, and a longer Grand Cru and up on the Harris rooftop. We understand Terlato couldn’t do it this year and hope they come back next year.
18. Chicago Gourmet is very inclusive and Chicago focused. Do you see the event shifting in the future to be more of a global event?
Sheila: I get asked that question a lot. A lot of other food and wine events bring in TV chefs and I think that has a lot of sex appeal. At the end of the day we’re marketing and promoting the chefs here in Chicago and the city. I think to go full throttle in the other direction is a disservice and undercuts our primary mission.
One of the things we do the entire month of September is to run a program to generate business for restaurants, the Dine Around. Last year, we had $130,000 worth of receipts we gained at the gate. So in a month with great weather but still a difficult month for restaurant operators you have Labor Day and two religious holidays it’s tough. But to see $130, 000 was spent to get a ticket to Chicago gourmet that’s exactly what we want. We want people coming here and spending money in our restaurants. You don’t get that ripple effect if you fly in chef’s who have no connection to the city.
CFS: I think that’s the thing. Do you decide and play the global game and bring in personalities or focus on who’s here. Is it about the city?
Sheila: If I wanted Chicago Gourmet to make the most money possible that’s exactly what I would do. This event is about the industry and the chef owners making money. It’s a different focus. I’m sure there are a lot of female personalities we could put on the masthead. We would sell gobs of tickets but that helps the event. I subscribe to the rising tide raises all ships. That’s the hope for this event. We advertise internationally, but I don’t have high expectations people in Paris are buying tickets. But if they see that outside ad and see that Chicago is a world class dining city it will penetrate. That’s what I want when they think about Chicago. There are obviously chefs who have made that a fact. This is one more event to be a marketing tool to shore that up.
19. Why is Chicago Gov’t. focused on random food legislation – quick to ban foie gras becoming a joke of the food world, mulling the Trans Fat ban and now slow to adopt food trucks?
I think all three are great examples of ideas that have presented without any kind of consensus building. That’s probably the biggest obstacle they’ve all faced.
20. What is the IRA doing to help in the food desserts around Chicago?
Sheila: I think the food desert issue is primarily related to fresh food and vegetables and grocery stores. In that respect nothing. What we have done and encouraged with the city planning department is we do ward tours with the alderman and business owners. As you know, the industry has a high failure rate. People are reluctant to go in to an area where they might succeed or not. The city, in the past, has used some TIFF funding in the past to encourage restaurants to bring them to food deserts. I think that‘s the exact kind of carrot that should be out there. I’d like to say that I or the IRA have the ability to make businesses go and open up in unchartered/untested areas, but I don’t. There needs to be some kind of financial incentive not a large one but something, some incentive to help make the process possible.
I worked on a project in the city in the 17th ward, a restaurant, and it’s still open today. The city gave them some financial assistance. It provided a restaurant for people to eat at, jobs and a gathering place. The real shame is that there isn’t a place to gather and celebrate gramma’s birthday at the restaurant in the neighborhood.
CFS: It is something a lot of people take for granted.
Sheila: It is but if you like at the areas in the city that have gentrified over the past two decades and why they’ve become desirable areas it’s all because of the restaurants and small retail shops. That’s what makes a neighborhood buzz.
It’s something we need to partner with the city on and it can be done. The food desert isn’t a restaurant shortage it’s…
CFS: A lack of access to food.
Sheila: Ya, there are neighborhoods that haven’t had grocery stores in decades.
21. What do you put on your hot dog?
22. With Hamburger Hop being the kickoff event. What do you prefer on your burger and where do you go out for one?
Sheila: I go to Twin Anchors. Most people go for the ribs I go for the cheeseburger.
CFS: Special cheese?
Sheila: I usually get both Swiss and American. I’m a traditionalist. I think they have great crispy fries. Sometimes I’ll actually get the ribs as an appetizer.
CFS: (Laughing) I like that
Sheila: (Laughing) I usually have to take a nap when I’m done.
CFS: I’ve been preparing mentally and physically all week for Friday night. I was so unprepared for last year’s amount of food.
Sheila: You do!
Thanks for taking the time to meet during a busy week. I'm looking forward tot he weekends events.
If you liked these 20 questions, check out the how Ryan Poli, Francis Brenna, Giuseppe Tentori, Charlie McKenna, Chris Pandel , Michael Muser, Curtis Duffy , Rob Katz/Kevin Boehm, Michael Taus, Chris Curren, Patricio Sandoval, Bill Terlato, Matthias Merges , and Vic Perdue answered.
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe is retained as a compensated blogger by Pei Wei Asian Diner. and contributes to Eater Chicago.