A portrait of Ina Pinkey.
Kentaro Yamada

Ina Pinkney had 21 jobs in her life, and was fired from 19 of them.

From 19 Firings to Breakfast Queen: The Inspiring Journey of Ina Pinkney

The restaurateur transformed from someone who had never separated an egg white before to building a breakfast empire in the Windy City. At 80 years old, she’s now recounting the lessons learned along the way.

While growing up in the 1940s and early ‘50s, Ina Pinkney can’t recall seeing any examples of women in the media who were entrepreneurs or who owned their own businesses, so the thought of opening her own business didn’t cross her mind until the ‘80s. From being a manager at furniture and toy showrooms to working customer service at Revlon, Pinkney had 21 jobs in her life, and was fired from 19 of them.

“Now, I was a hell of a good interview, wasn’t I? I kept getting jobs. And what I learned is that every job had something that I wanted to know,” she says. “I got fired a lot because I treated my job like that department or that area was my personal business, so my employees were happier and more productive. And we got things done, and I created a flex time when there was no such thing … I really understood the business world.”

“By the ninth firing, it didn’t bother me at all,” she quips. Pinkney recalls being fired from one job on a cold Chicago day because she came in wearing pants under her dress to stay warm, and women weren’t allowed to wear pants at most businesses at the time.

One day while getting ready to begin her 21st job as a manager of a plastics company, she saw an ad in a local newspaper for a balloon delivery service—and an idea sparked. “For your birthday, people send you balloons, they send you strippers, and they send you singing telegrams,” she says. “This was 1980. But nobody sends you a cake? Isn’t that sort of wrong?” She pitched the idea of tuxedoed butlers delivering cakes to people with sparkler, plus parchment scrolls with birthday wishes and kind messages. “And everybody was going, ‘oh my god, what a great idea.’ And I went down to my apartment, it was a Saturday, and I wrote down all the things I thought I needed to do to make that happen.”

Soon enough, Pinkney’s phone was ringing with orders from people who had heard through word-of-mouth about her new butler-cake-delivering service. “And I did what every entrepreneur does—I said yes. And I took down all the information. And then I thought, ‘oh my god, I need a cake,’” she recalls. At the time, most cakes were dry, layer cakes with “bad buttercream and I thought, ‘oh, I wouldn’t even eat one of those.’” So she decided to make one of Craig Claiborne’s recipes for a flourless chocolate cake she saw in The New York Times Magazine

“Now here was the issue—I had never separated an egg. I had never beaten an egg white. And I had never melted chocolate. So I tried to make this cake and it was a disaster, so I went out and bought enough ingredients for three more cakes,” she admits. “And by the end of that third and fourth one, it was perfect. It was absolutely perfect. And I thought, well, I've just learned something. If you can read, you can bake.”

“I would follow a recipe and I would do what it said. Baking was so in my wheelhouse, because a tablespoon is a tablespoon,” Pinkney adds. “I’m baking at night, bringing the cakes to work, and these guys are showing up in their little tuxedos, they’re going off and delivering cakes, going everywhere.”

Pinkney got fired from the plastics company and began baking fulltime at home, until she snapped up a storefront in the neighborhood and turned it into a licensed baking kitchen. She started a dessert catering business in 1980 when that kind of concept didn’t exist, she says. 

That business quickly evolved into a full-blown breakfast restaurant in 1991 after Pinkney realized the opportunity she had to create something different from the other options in town. “Because it was the ‘80s, breakfast was thoughtless, coffee was insipid. Somebody was breaking eggs on a greasy griddle and scrambling them there. Everything was so bad,” she says. “Somewhere in the ninth year of eating the worst food on the planet, I said to [my husband at the time], ‘why can’t anybody make a really good breakfast?’”

Right then, Pinkney decided to open her own A.M. eatery “like no one has ever seen.” Her idea was to combine the best hotel dining rooms and old-school diners, and create a fine-dining breakfast restaurant with accessible food, but with the atmosphere of an upscale hotel with carpeting and no music. 

Pinkney opened Ina’s Kitchen in 1991, which quickly became the premier breakfast spot in the Windy City. At 8 a.m. on Wednesdays, she had 110 seats filled, thanks to people doing business and meeting before work instead of leaving at lunch. Most importantly, the quality of ingredients was top-notch—like freshly-baked whole grain bread with seeds twisted and baked together for her version of breaking bread (without the crumbs from a baguette), and freshly-cut soft butter, never wrapped in foil or served cold. “Everything had to be different and better than they had ever had, and our signature,” she says. “I had a starting menu and I thought, ‘Okay, whatever doesn't sell, I'll change.’ The menu was exactly the same menu for 22 years. I added things, but I was right on.”

After 22 years in business, Pinkney closed Ina’s in 2013, but has continued sharing her love for food in various ways. In 2014, she self-published “Ina’s Kitchen: Memories and Recipes from the Breakfast Queen” in hardcover, and has sold thousands of copies with minimal bookstore distribution. She also became a regular columnist for Chicago Tribune until 2020, writing about everything from Chicago restaurant reviews and where to find the best bagel to tips for getting breakfast delivered.  

The next year in 2015, a 50-minute documentary was released called “Breakfast at Ina’s”—showcasing her inspiring restaurant career journey and the legacy she made in the Chicago food scene—which appeared in 48 film festivals. “Having [my life] documented is profound, and I’m very proud of how it came out,” she says. “It’s a little overwhelming. And I say a little; it’s more than that.”

On April 26 this year, Chicago Chefs Cook organized a birthday bash for Pinkney’s 80th trip around the sun, where more than 60 local chefs gathered “in the spirit of neighborly love to unite and celebrate an icon, the Breakfast Queen,” the event news release said. “But more importantly, the community will unite to celebrate Ina’s wish to lift up the next generation and ready themselves for the challenges of a changing world.” Chefs in attendance included Top Chef Master Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill; James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Gale Gand, host of “SWEET DREAMS”—the first ever dessert-only cooking show on The Food Network; and reality star Chef Fabio Viviani of Siena Tavern and Bar Siena. The star-studded event’s proceeds benefited Chicago’s Green City Market and nonprofit Pilot Light.

“This is the part of the story where I look at you and go, I had no idea I would be relevant at age 80 and still be asked to do things,” Pinkney notes. “I went to work every day and did the right thing, and I think some owners don’t get it; they don’t come out of the kitchen, they don’t understand their presence matters. They don't understand that they need to greet their employees like they greet their guests, because the employees are the first people through the door. And you set the tone with them by greeting them.”

“Now, being a woman owner was very different than I've heard from other chefs,” she explains. “I always said they would never mistake my softness for weakness. Only once did I have to raise my voice, and that’s because I saw someone doing something dangerous.”

Pinkney’s advice to “old chefs” is to “really respect the new way of thinking about the younger chefs, about having time and sharing that time,” she adds.

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