Any business owner would be fortunate to have one successful enterprise. Jody André is working on her third.
First, she was at the helm of the wildly successful Andersonville restaurant Tomboy. Now, after selling Tomboy last year, she owns the cozy eatery The Room (which has the best mac and cheese in town) and co-owns the recently opened Speakeasy Supperclub, which features live music and an eye-opening decor in addition to sumptuous food. However, don't be fooled. Although André receives excellent reviews, samples incredible dishes, and rubs shoulders with luminaries, it's definitely not all fun and games. Not only did I learn a lot about the business, but I also learned about the values of TV's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—and Miracle Whip.
Windy City Times: What is your educational background?
Jody André: I actually got a degree in journalism at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. It was a great school and I enjoyed it. I left after graduation and moved back after eight months to start my graduate program in marketing. I then moved to New York and stayed there for about eight years and then I moved to Chicago in 1990.
WCT: What happened then?
JA: I worked for PriceWaterhouse. I worked up to a creative director position in a couple of years. Then, in 1995, I left Price because it merged with Coopers Lybrand and freelanced at a small agency in Bucktown. This was about the same time I opened Tomboy.
It took us a year [to open Tomboy]. We rented the space in November of 1995 and opened in November of '96. We rehabbed it ourselves. I remember when we first got this place that there was only electricity in the basement. The place was really dilapidated and the landlord wasn't doing well financially. He said that, if we took the space, he'd make sure that we got good heating. We got a new front on the building, which was the only thing we paid someone to do. We built the walls in the bathrooms, we tiled the floors, and we gutted the old drop ceiling. Worse, we worked in the winter with no heat.
After opening Tomboy, I actually thought that I'd be able to go back to my regular job ... but, lo and behold, this thing took off. The restaurant business became my career. You don't work 9-to-5 in the restaurant business. I would get up at 9, sweep and mop the restaurant, set up the place, did the books, go home to shower myself and feed the cat, open the place at 5, close it at 11 or 12, get home by 1, and do it all over the next day. All this time, I tried to have a life ... but for the first three years, I really didn't have much of one.
WCT: I think if I had that kind of schedule, I'd end up feeding myself and showering the cat.
JA: (Laughs) I'm sure I've done that once or twice! With the restaurant, it was just so busy. We literally had two-hour waits in the first year of business ... and people didn't seem to mind because it was such a fun atmosphere. Then, we opened The Room. It took about a year and a half to find the space for it. In the meantime, I had moved to Edgewater from Bucktown.
WCT: And there used to be a carpet store where The Room is now?
JA: That's from what I understand. I met a man in his 70s who told me about the space. In the 1940s, it used to be a nightclub with some pretty big stars. Then it became a carpeting store and an upholstery store. The gentlemen who I rent from now bought the building in 1998 and they were wonderful to work with. They helped me rehab the place. They put in new lines and made it very attractive because I said I would not go through what I went with Tomboy again. With The Room, they gave me a building that was in great shape with brand-new heating and electrical systems.
WCT: How is The Room different?
JA: The cuisine at Tomboy has a more playful side and their portion sides are larger. But the cuisine at The Room has more cultural undertones. You have French and Asian influences there. Tomboy's menu was more American eclectic. I refer to The Room as Tomboy grown up. I don't know if that's correct now because they changed the menu at Tomboy when I sold it. We still have some things like the egg roll and the mac and cheese. The egg roll is chocolate chip cookie dough put in an egg roll and deep-fried. It comes with caramel, chocolate, and vanilla sauces—and vanilla ice cream.
My chef, Linda, doesn't eat a lot but she's [very generous] when it comes to portions—and at one point she had 13 options for dessert. Now she's down to 11. The Room is twice the size of Tomboy. It's wide-open and the tables are spread farther apart.
WCT: The decor's a bit different at The Room.
JA: You get dealt a hand when you rent a space. How you design it is based upon where things are, like plumbing. I like wide-open spaces. I love the big rafters. Basically, I wanted the space to seem large and roomy, which is why I called it The Room.
WCT: Ah ...
JA: Actually, the name came purely by accident. We kept saying 'the room over there is so much bigger.' My accountant said to me that I really needed to come up with a name so we could file papers and I said 'Just call it The Room of Chicago.' At one point, I had written 500 names but I didn't really like any of them so that's how it got its name.
WCT: Now how did Tomboy get its name?
JA: I had six names picked out for this space—and one of them was Speakeasy; Tomboy's corporate name was actually Speakeasy, Inc. but everyone liked Tomboy more. However, I also noticed that when I came to Andersonville there were a lot of women-owned businesses. I wanted to let everyone know that our business was run by women and I wanted a name that let GLBT people know that they could be themselves in a place with good food.
I wanted the message to go out that this establishment was gay-owned and gay-friendly but I didn't want it to be exclusively frequented by the GLBT community. I think that inclusion is far more important than exclusivity. Tomboy was—and still is—a 50-50 mix [of the GLBT and heterosexual communities]; this is what a community should be about.
WCT: You're promoting that inclusiveness with all of your restaurants ...
JA: Absolutely. Instead of The Room, some people wanted me to name it something like Sissy Boy. I thought the name Tomboy helped to make a statement. We're beyond that now. As a community, we don't have to advertise [ourselves]. Plus, I really couldn't think of any good names. (Laughs)
It's about the food and the ambiance. The people who come through that door are going to make it what it is. The name is not going to change anything. If it weren't for the gay community, these restaurants would not be nearly as successful as they are.
In addition, we've hosted fundraisers for Windy City Media Group, the Gay Men's Chorus, Open Hand, and others. However, I would also have a benefit for the Anti-Cruelty Society or things I believe in personally. The GLBT community has been such a strong presence in this neighborhood. That's why I've kept my restaurants in this area. These restaurants do well because gay men appreciate good food, good service, and good value. I always say that gay men lead in a lot of areas. [The TV show] Queer Eye for the Straight Guy points this out.
WCT: Speakeasy Supperclub is different from the other eateries because it features live music ...
JA: You have the live music, more menu selections, and smaller portions; it's more of a tasting menu. It's about coming in and sharing food. I think it's working because the restaurant is packed, especially during the weekends. If you don't have a reservation, there's a little bit of a wait. We have people coming in from downtown as well as from the North Shore, which is very good.
The level of talent that has performed at Speakeasy has been incredible. We've had Suzanne Palmer, who used to be a dance diva and who has the most amazing voice. We've also had Stephen Rader, who heads a group that does songs that Dolly Parton has written. We've sold out two shows already. We also have Alexandra Billings, who's amazing and who cracks me up. There have been also acoustic guitar players and jazz trios. So, the live music is what truly sets Speakeasy apart from The Room. The energies of both places are just so different.
WCT: The co-owners of Speakeasy are...
JA: They're Amy Matheny, [famed pianist] Michael Feinstein, Terrence Flannery, and myself.
WCT: How have computers helped you?
JA: When I first opened Tomboy, I purchased an IBM ThinkPad. We used it for scheduling, sales projections, billing, and nightly specials. That ThinkPad still works to this day—and I still use it for the same things at Speakeasy.
WCT: What about Web sites ...
JA: There's already one for Speakeasy; it's www.speakeasysupperclub.com . The Room is getting one put together right now.
WCT: You can include a quote from me at The Room's site stating that the mac-and-cheese dish is kick-ass.
JA: I will! (Laughs) With The Room's site, you'll be able to see pictures of the space. You'll also see pictures of our dishes. We plan on having tasting focus groups for our restaurants. Each person will pay about $20 and will be tasting about 10 courses. The site will advertise about these groups. We actually had tasting groups before we opened the restaurants. Someone told me that Ted Allen [from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy] was a taster and I didn't even know that.
WCT: What would people be surprised to know about you?
JA: That I'm a homebody. I'm a typical Cancer. I have two dogs, two cats, and a wonderful partner. If I had my way, I'd be a housewife. (Yeah, right.)
JA: Oh, yes. I love being in my home but, at this point, it's a luxury. When you're putting your personality out there, you can't afford to be in a bad mood. It's hard sometimes because there are days that you have to smile—so when you're home in your sweats and being grungy, it's nice. Everyone thinks that I'm Ms. Social Butterfly, but that's not necessarily true. I love to cook at home. I love to try new [cuisines].
WCT: What's your favorite thing to cook?
JA: Anything and everything. I love trying things I don't think I can make. ... I like anything that only needs three pots or skillets. French cooking is not as difficult as people think. The one cuisine I haven't mastered is Asian. I love cooking; I just don't get to do it very often. I also don't get to eat out very often. ... As much as you want to want to enjoy the experience, you look around and say 'I could be doing this or that.'
WCT: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
JA: I would love to still be running The Room and Speakeasy—and I would also like to be a business consultant. ... I would also love for Speakeasy to be the premier spot for up-and-coming Norah Jones-type singers. Music has always interested me.
WCT: What is the weirdest food you've had?
JA: I used to eat—and still eat—Miracle Whip and Jay's or Lays potato chip sandwiches with a glass of chocolate milk. By the way, not just any mayo will do; it has to be Miracle Whip.
WCT: You've hosted a lot of benefits and fundraisers. Do you have a favorite?
JA: Without sounding political, Jan Schakowsky is the most interesting person to hear. I love what she's doing in Washington, in general. As far as organizations, I've had some good ones—like the party for Nightspots anniversary. But they're all good. I've had [benefits for] Howard Brown, Open Hand, Horizons, and the Hearts Foundation and enjoyed those.
I really liked one we had at Speakeasy recently because Michael [Feinstein] sang. It's great to have someone of his caliber come in and help raise money for a group like About Face Youth Program, which is very important to me. I also like hosting for politicians, like Gov. Blagojevich.
WCT: Do you have a piece of advice for someone who wants to own a business?
JA: Know your market. Look around to see if people need or want your product or service.
The Room, 5900 N. Broadway, (773) 989-7666. Speakeasy Supperclub, 1401 W. Devon, (773) 338-0600. The Web site is www.speakeasysupperclub.com .
I'm at email@example.com .
Pictured: Speakeasy co-owners Amy Matheny (also co-host of Windy City Radio), singer Michael Feinstein, Jody André and Terrence Flannery. Photo by Tracy Baim
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