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A graceful exit

Michael Jordan did it. Oprah Winfrey did it too. In a city where the only way career politicians seem to leave their seats is handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser, Chicago’s superstars, refreshingly, have designed their own exits—arguably while still at the top of their game.

The latest Chicago icon to retire her uniform is Ina Pinkney. After 33 years in the food business, the gutsy “Breakfast Queen of Chicago” is putting down her spatula. She’s closing her 6,000-square-foot restaurant (with a parking lot!) in Chicago’s hot-as-fire West Loop neighborhood and retiring on Dec. 31.

Even though she shares the block with some of the area’s hottest restaurants, including Girl & the Goat, Au Cheval and Grace, Ina’s reservation book is full all the way to closing day as regulars and revelers stop by for one last plate of Scrapple or Baked French Toast.

One of Pinkney’s goals that she accomplished before her final bow was to publish her first—and only—book, “Taste Memories: Recipes for Life and Breakfast.” Part memoir, part cookbook, the self-published book recalls the lives of Ina the person and Ina’s the restaurant. There won’t be a follow up book. “I gave you all my recipes. I have no family with whom to leave these recipes, and so now you become my family. It seemed very sad and almost unkind not to leave these recipes behind.”

During my lunch with Pinkney shortly after her announcement, she also was kind enough to leave me with some of her insights and advice on this industry that she has helped, in her own way, to shape.

On ownership: “I tell people all the time, women hold up half the sky, good idea to also own the ground you’re standing on while you’re holding it. If you don’t own your property, when you want to end, all you have are tables and chairs and recipes. You have nothing to show for all those years of work. [Pinkney bought the building that houses Ina’s restaurant in 2004].

On women in the kitchen: “Women change the culture of the kitchen, and that’s the difference. Everybody checks out with me on Sunday; I sit in the back and [my staff] has to come and sit down, and I ask them, ‘How was the week?’ I need to let them know that there’s a caring, but don’t mistake my softness for weakness.”

On the difficult side of the business: “If you are risk averse, this is not for you. A huge part of my job is to metabolize anxiety. When something is not right, they look to me and if I look calm because I’m getting it fixed, then everyone can go on and do their best work. I’ve always had that. I have no fear.”

On retirement: “You have to have an exit strategy. I was able to execute an exit strategy on my own terms, in my own time and for the right reasons. Not everybody gets that in life—especially in restaurants. You know how many go out for all kinds of reasons and not because the owner says, ‘I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m really happy with what I did, and it’s time for me to stop.’ So to have this opportunity is extraordinary. I believe that we have reached this moment where it is so right to say, ‘thank you.’”

Although Pinkney has happily spilled all of her recipes for food and success, don’t expect the 70-year-old polio survivor to go quietly into the night.

“I’m not going to stop my brand,” says Pinkney. “It’s too valuable.” Instead she will stay in touch with her loyal guests and admirers by continuing her newsletter that goes out to more than 2,000 people every month filled with news and words of inspiration.

Those lessons, like Pinkney’s Heavenly Hots pancakes, continue to provide something worth waking up for.

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