Mayor Rahm Emanuel caught Chicago off guard last week when he announced he would not seek a third term in office. Emanuel has become a polarizing figure over the last seven years, but he’s shown strong support for the city’s food and beverage industry. He helped lure the James Beard Foundation Awards, revamped the struggling Taste of Chicago, and streamlined the process to open their businesses, among other initiatives.
Stephanie Hart, owner of Brown Sugar Bakery in Greater Grand Crossing, said she was “devastated” when she heard Emanuel wouldn’t be running for reelection. She hoped he would complete a third term and continue programs like Retail Thrive Zones and Neighborhood Opportunity Fund which help minority neighborhoods through incentives. The funds help places like Hart’s 75th Street bakery.
“Under this administration, this is the first time I have felt that there has been focus and attention on doing something for communities like mine to grow,” Hart said.
Hart knows there’s more to running a complex city like Chicago. She mentioned the mayor’s critics who are angry at the closures of schools and mental health facilities. But creating jobs, like the ones at restaurants, also have an impact on a community.
“I don’t think most people see that there are links between creating jobs and the other issues,” Hart said.
The Emanuel administration is quick to bring up neighborhood restaurants in its talking points, knowing that not everyone can afford a Michelin-starred meal. But for those who can, wrestling the Beard Awards from New York was a big deal, bringing together the country’s biggest restaurateurs to Chicago to celebrate the industry at the “Oscars of the food world.” Restaurateur and returning host of PBS’ Check, Please! Alpana Singh had a front-row seat for the mayor’s negotiations.
“I can say without a doubt that without the mayor’s influence, Chicago wouldn’t be the Beard host city,” Singh said.
Singh talked about Chicago as a Sanctuary City, and said Emanuel recognized the contributions of refugees and immigrants to the food world. She also pointed out that the Beards were brought to Chicago without taxpayer money. Chicago has the Beards through 2021, and without Emanuel, no one is sure if they’ll remain in Chicago.
The Illinois Restaurant Association’s Sam Toia saw the mayor the same day he made the announcement. They were gathered at Moe’s Cantina in River North. Emanuel was bent on increasing tourism dollars, focusing on bringing 55 million annual visitors to Chicago. The city hit that number thanks in large part to how they marketed the city’s restaurants. He called Emanuel a “great ambassador” to the city. Emanuel’s network was a great asset.
“I can’t overstate how supportive and thoughtful Mayor Emanuel has been for the restaurant industry over the past seven years,” Toia said.
‘No places to eat’
Craft beer has also seen a boom over Emanuel’s tenure. Half Acre Brewing Co.’s Maurizio Fiori said the administration was much in favor of his company’s expansion, as last year they opened a second brewpub in Bowmansville to complement its flagship North Center facility. There are now around 150 breweries in the city. Though the credit doesn’t go all to Emanuel, who Fiori said streamlined permitting and made city hall more friendly to brewery and restaurant owners, there were less then 20 breweries in 2011. Despite the support, Fiori feels the industry and government need to work together to solve some problems.
“How do you actually increase wages for cooks, line cooks, dishwashers without making food cost prohibitive?” Fiori said. “There’s some real challenges here.”
And that comes back to the Taste of Chicago, the annual food festival that was on life support when Emanuel came into office. Jeff Mauro, the “Sandwich King” and owner of Pork & Mindy’s, interviewed Emanuel this summer as part of a promotional event for the Taste. Mauro walked away feeling that the mayor truly cared about the industry, but isn’t foolish enough to view Emanuel’s tenure through rose-colored glasses. While he respects the mayor’s job, he knows there were tough and unpopular decisions made.
“At the end of the day, we have to do more than eat and be entertained,” Mauro said, noting other issues like police brutality and education. “If not, we’ll have no places to eat.”