Lessons from The Breakfast Queen

Last week, the ACF Windy City Professional Culinarians held their Dine-Around event at the famous Ina’s restaurant in Chicago. Ina Pickney is known in town as “The Breakfast Queen” for her remarkable breakfast recipes, attention to detail, and the type of personalized customer service that makes you feel at home. 

What made this event more than special was Ina’s willingness to dish out her recipes for life and business as they related to running a successful restaurant.

Have a Vision

Photo Nov 21, 9 56 22 AMIna baked her first cake at 37 years old and for 11 years ran a bakery.  Every day she ate out, choosing from one of only six restaurants in the area for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  What nagged at her was breakfast, something was wrong with that first meal of the day. 

There were hotels which offered either upscale fine breakfast or simple self-serve buffets, and there were diners which offered typical greasy spoon fare.  Ina thought there should be something in between these two options – a breakfast place that offered quality food, tablecloths, and provided a peaceful, nurturing experience.

The Breakfast Queen compared her vision to that of the late Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs’ vision for the iPhone was to create a product that broke the mold of traditional cell phones.Translation: Create something so unique, so advanced, yet so user friendly, the experience of just using it would be in high demand by the masses.  Her vision was to make the breakfast experience as rewarding to her customers, as Steve Jobs’ vision for the iPhone.

Big Flavor & Quality Ingredients

Ina chose to create a breakfast experience that would start with big flavors and quality ingredients,  prepared with more care – offer foods you couldn’t find anywhere else.  For example, you wouldn’t find pork sausage breakfast patties or links at Ina’s, but you would enjoy chicken sausage in a variety of flavors made with lamb (not pork) casing to appeal to a wider group of ethnicities.  Veal-Chive sausage, custom made Chorizo, and garlic roasted potatoes, in lieu of hash browns, were some of the other alternative dishes she chose to make.

Ina was one of the first restaurants in the city to use only pasteurized eggs.  They cost more money, but they were safe.  Back in 2010, when a salmonella outbreak traced back to eggs sickened 62,000 people and prompted a recall of  550 million eggs, Ina’s restaurant was not affected.

Photo Nov 21, 10 31 28 AMIna was also one of the first restaurants in the city to use only trans fat free oil.  At the time, most chefs didn’t believe food would taste as good with trans fat free oil and that it was too costly to use.  Ina, an industry advocate for healthy eating, invited a group of chefs to a private event where she served fried chicken dinner.  After the chefs had eaten, Ina told them the chicken was fried with six day old (and still good) trans fat free oil. Their thinking was converted.

She also committed to using name brand products such as, Hellmann’s Mayonnaise and Tabasco hot sauce, rather than generic or house brands. Ina feels that using only name and best brands supports her own brand. She also worked with Intelligentsia Coffee to create a custom blend for her restaurant and serves only real maple syrup. These are the types of subtleties that when combined, create a complete dining experience that’s simply delicious.      

High Touch & Personalized Service

Ina focused on the little things that most other breakfast places miss or don’t care about because creating a best experience for her customers was just as important as the quality of food served.  For example, the butter on her tables is always soft and sweet. You won’t find semi-frozen or foil wrapped pats of butter at Ina’s, but you will find a nice plate of soft sweet butter ready to spread on fresh baked breads.

Each table has its own hot pot of coffee too. Ina believes that nothing irks a coffee drinker more than when their perfect sugar/cream blended cup of coffee is dowsed with refills. Instead, the wait staff keeps the pot of black coffee on the table hot so the customer can refill their own cup as they wish.

No smoking, no cell phones, no alcohol, but high touch customer relations – Ina banned talking on cell phones in her restaurant when they used be the size of bricks. She believed her customers wanted to enjoy their breakfast by reading the paper or conversing with their party in peace, without loud cell  chatter or incessant ring tones at the next table. She also banned smoking in her restaurant before it was fashionable, anPhoto Nov 21, 9 56 18 AMd led the effort to ban smoking in public places in Chicago.

From day one, Ina kept a mailing list of her customers.  For over 22 years, she has written a monthly newsletter to her customers. (They were initially sent by mail with a “Love” stamp, before the preference of email.) Today she has thousands of customers on her mailing list with a successful open rate of 48-52%, compared to the 19% national average open rate for restaurants.

Ina believes that no one tells your story better than you – so do it with love and care. These are the types of things that make good restaurants great.

Small Business Advocate, Suffering & Second Chances

You won’t find a Sysco product anywhere in Ina’s restaurant either because she believes you need to have the same type of loyal relationships with your suppliers as you do with your customers. This loyalty would pay off in good times and in bad. Big business often talks the talk, but rarely do they walk the walk.

When the economy tanked in the post 9-11 aftermath, Ina’s business was severely affected for 25 months. The drop in business was so dramatic she was unable to pay her bills. During that time, every purveyor that she worked with gave her extended credit to help her along. While times were hard on everyone, it was the local independent businesses that worked together to see things through. In return, Ina made sure that as things improved, every bill was paid and then took it a step further by paying COD for every delivery in appreciation and reciprocation for the help her suppliers had given her. Ina firmly believes she would have been cut off and out of business had she been dealing with large broad line suppliers at the time.    

Integrity, Love & Giving Back

In 2008, the recession hurt Ina’s business, but she made sure to take care of her employees – every one of them which she knows all by name. “The lowest paid employees have the power to hurt you,” says Ina. “All it takes is one dirty dish served to the wrong customer that can ruin your reputation.”

Ina believes that treating everyone with respect, love and integrity is more important than anything. Treat people how you would like to be treated. Giving back to the community through charitable work is equally important to her. Stricken with Polio as a child, her favorite charity is End Polio Now. 

In 2005, CNN produced a Photo Nov 21, 5 05 51 PMshow called THE TURNAROUND which focused on helping struggling small businesses. Ina’s was invited to apply for an episode. “As an entrepreneur, you say, ‘YES’, and figure it out later,” says Ina.  Her restaurant was selected, and she was shocked to learn that her mentor would be none other than Richard Melman, founder of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Richard told Ina she was selected because she was still in business after the downturn that he kept hearing how Ina’s was the best place for breakfast, and due to her charity work in the community. 

End on Your Own Terms

After over 30 years of hard work in the food business, Ina, now 70, has announced her retirement – Ina’s will close at the end of the year. Her mobility is limited from post-polio syndrome – she wears a brace and has trouble standing and walking for long periods of time – the time had come to close, and she wanted the end to be on her own terms. 

In her November newsletter, she writes: I have always said that life is like baking a cake. It’s raw for a really long time. It’s perfectly baked for a short time, and it’s overcooked forever. I feel like we’re closing at the right time before we’re overcooked.

Ina wanted to exit with the same integrity with which she worked, and announced her closing four months in advance to give her staff adequate time to find new jobs. She also wanted enough time to be able to say, “thank you”. 

Having no children or family to pass down her recipes to, the woman who set the highest breakfast standard in Chicago decided to publish her one and only cookbook. Taste Memories: Recipes For Life and Breakfast is the legacy she leaves her only family – her customers and friends.

Thank You, Ina.

From the desk of  John Cecala   @BuedelFineMeats   Fan Page   Slideshare

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from The Breakfast Queen

  1. Ina Pinkney is an amazing Restauranteur, Woman and Friend. Your article highlights her caring for her food and guests. She will truly be missed, but I know I have a friend for life. Thank you Ina!

  2. I never watch what I eat until now I’m a mom of two school-age kids, I do want them to have a good start in the monring. Our schooldays breakfast menus include:- hot steel cut oatmeal w/ flaxseed meal & drizzled w/ raw honey- multigrain toast drizzled w/ raw honey- “made from scratch” blueberries pancake w/ flaxseed meal- 1/2 avocado sprinkled w/ course salt & lime juice- bran flax or plain multigrain cheeriosOne of the above plus the following to complete one breakfast:- 1/2 hard boiled egg- low fat milk- 1 serving of fruitI hope this is a dietician-approved menu but certainly moms-approved :). Keep rotating these every weekdays I do feel like I’m running out of ideas!Enjoy your blog very much, particularly like your portion control. Keep up the good work!

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