Lessons from the Breakfast Queen

Lessons from the Breakfast Queen
Courtesy Jim Frost

It’s been about a month since Ina Pinkney closed down her famous breakfast spot, Ina's. She sold the building back in July, with a handshake agreement to Mark Malnatti, and was able to keep the story secret until it was announced, on her terms, in late August by the Chicago Tribune. If you’ve met Ina, that won’t surprise you because the long time restaurateur did everything on her terms.

She spent January selling off fixtures and equipment and catching her breath. I caught up with her last week at Ina’s which was nearly empty except for a last few remnants of equipment and supplies. She was with long time employee Seana putting the finishing touches on the closure of the restaurant. She walked me around the space still full of stories. She’s never seen the restaurant empty because when Ina bought it years ago it was a functioning restaurant.  As I left, we made plans for lunch.

I met Ina for her first retirement lunch last week at GT Fish and Oyster. We became friends two years ago when upon reading my end of the year predictions post I was summoned to breakfast. She’d liked what I’d written and found humor in the blog. I think her exact words may have been “You’re funny and I like what you had to say when can you come to breakfast? We have to meet.” We immediately hit it off and have remained friends since.

It has been over the past few years that I’ve learned much about Ina and her way of doing things. I wanted to share that with her fans and those who think the customer is always right and that you can’t say no. When you dined with Ina, it was akin to an invitation in to her home, and when you’re at Ina’s you follow her rules.

Ina’s Rules for the Restaurant

  • No Cellphones – If you were a fan of the restaurant, you know this rule because she had a plaque prominently displayed for the entire restaurant to see. Oddly in all my visits. I never saw anyone break this rule.
  • No Music – As a breakfast spot, Ina wasn’t trying to be a hip place with a big vibe. She wanted her guests to find a place of calm and quiet to start their day. The lack of music helped keep the room, even on a busy Saturday, lively but not concert level loud where you couldn’t speak to the person across from you.
  • Hot Syrup and Soft Butter – She served only the best Tim Burton syrup and she served it correctly. How often have you gone to a restaurant for a meal and had room temp syrup or hard butter that tears your bread or doesn’t melt? You could enjoy the hot food as it should be, hot.
  • Coffee on the Table – I hate going to places and asking for coffee because it is constantly being filled and the cream to sugar ratio is thrown off. Ina gave you a large thermos with every coffee order. You could control the pour and it helps not being interrupted every five minutes and having to explain to three different motivated coffee pourers that you’re done.
  • Make it right  - Her staff knew if there was a problem they were empowered to make it right immediately! After the fix, come tell her so she could acknowledge to the guest on the way out that there was an issue and was everything ok?
  • Morning Interviews – She jokes she can teach service but she can’t teach hospitality. As a breakfast place how is the person showing up for their morning interview? Did they have Bed head, yawn a lot, could they manage the volume and were they able to think three moves ahead?
  • Children Stay in their Seat – She describes getting down to the child’s level when they would walk in. With a smile, she would let the child know “they’re in her house now and in her house you get rewarded for good behavior. At Ina’s, you can color on the table (thanks to the paper covering over the white table cloths) as long as you follow the rules.” She never took crayons away but a look from Ina communicated instantly with the kids her displeasure if they acted out.
  • Paper under the highchair – This allowed the dropped toys to stay clean and avoided food to be ground in to her carpets.
  • Feeding the kids – All the kids were offered a banana the second they sat down so they could have something quick to eat. The kids also all got their food first so mom or dad could cut it up and get them started. When their food arrived it didn’t get cold and they could eat and enjoy their time as a family.
  • No Computerized reservation – She wanted to connect with her customers over the phone. She knew her regulars and their needs.
  • Single Diners – She always had a table up front with the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune.
  • The Bouncer – She never removed or kicked anyone out but she would let them know kindly they were not welcomed back. It worked because no one ever tried to come back. Ina had no problem confronting the guests for unruly children or boorish behavior and even told one customer he was an idiot.
  • Ego –It took her some time to separate her own ego from the menu and the requests of her guests. Just because you don’t like the bread, doesn’t mean you don’t like me.

These lessons seem simple but next time you're in a restaurant and there are loud patrons or children running wild, ask yourself how a little control from the restaurant management could tame the situation. As a former general manager, I had more than a few customers I wish I could of called out for their actions.

Ina has spent her first month of “retirement” learning to make dinner at home. Because her life is less regimented, she’s found it easy to not feel the urgency she once did. One of the first things she did was unplug her alarm clock. She now sleeps-in till 6:30am and finds herself staying up later at night, able to catch the news. She’s enjoying TV and recently watched an entire movie from start to finish, Silver Linings Playbook. Ina’s a huge fan of the movies and has also watched Holiday Inn, again, and finally got to see Nanutchka. She joked with me, “I saw Godfather was on last night and the hospital Vito Corleone is in after he gets shot is the French Hospital. I was there at 15 for my corrective surgery.” I joked with her “You’ll see Godfather on a lot. It’s always playing somewhere in the cable universe.”

Post restaurant life and retirement suits Ina and she’s embracing the chance to begin the next chapter. This week she leaves for 14 days to enjoy a spa in Arizona. She smiles and says, “13 massages in 14 days, it’s going to be heaven.” She’s bringing Tina Fay’s “Bossy Pants.” After her time away, retirement won’t be very sedate because she has many speaking engagements with Rotary and others to talk about her life with Polio and the restaurant. She hopes to become an ambassador for Rotary where she can travel the world sharing her story and supporting the organization. She quips, “Bill Gates, THE Bill Gates follows ME on twitter. He even sent me a DM thanking me for a speech to Rotary.”

I have a feeling the next chapter in Ina’s life will be just as busy and productive as her restaurant life. She could easily sit by her window and watch Lake Michigan all day but her drive to tell stories and help others will keep her on the go.

If you haven’t had the chance to buy her book, you can still order them at www.breakfastqueen.com for $34. There’s a section that allows for her to inscribe them personally if you like as well.

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 joe@chicagofoodsnob.com




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