Jody Birnbaum is the founder and president of Caterconsult, Inc. a Chicago-based consultancy that helps restaurants and caterers operate more efficiently and profitably by providing core strategies, resources, training and support. Outside of consulting, Birnbaum teaches foodservice business classes at Kendall College in Chicago as an adjunct instructor, and she is a regular speaker on the topic of restaurant and catering business operations.
FE&S: What keeps you working in the foodservice industry?
Jody Birnbaum: It is just part of my DNA. All my life I have loved both food and events and, to me, being involved in the industry is as natural as the sun rising and setting every day. I love the people, the unexpected pleasures and pitfalls, the energy, and the fact that there are very few days that are ever the same. The challenges and adrenaline flow of over 25 years as a catering business owner have served me well as a consultant. I am in constant pursuit of knowledge and finding out what’s new in the industry, and I love what I do.
FE&S: Who was the person that influenced your career most?
Jody Birnbaum: I know this might seem odd at first, but my initial reaction is to say it was me — or better put, my own experiences. After college I worked in corporate sales and was miserable. I knew I had to honor my entrepreneurial streak and wanted to break free from corporate America. Other early influencers and supporters were my mom and grandma, both great cooks and bakers. I am so grateful to my mom for giving me her gracious gift of hospitality. I learned so much from her about being nice, being gracious, having good manners and being sensitive to other people’s needs. These skills were critical to my success as a catering business owner and still serve me well every day.
FE&S: What aspect of your career gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment?
Jody Birnbaum: Helping others. When I was young and starting out in the industry, I always wished I had someone who I could turn to for help and advice. Now that I am able to support my clients and students with real life stories and the resources I have developed from the experience of “walking in their shoes” makes me feel absolutely vital. I refer to myself as a cheerleader for small business and entrepreneurship.
FE&S: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in the foodservice industry?
Jody Birnbaum: That nothing stays the same forever and that change is constant. As a result, I have become a very open-minded and flexible person over the last 30 years and it has helped me weather a number of different storms. The second most important thing I’ve learned is that it is not enough to be passionate about what we do, we must also pay big time attention to the numbers.
FE&S: When traveling for business, what is one of your favorite pastimes?
Jody Birnbaum: I love to research the local restaurants, of course, along with markets and other food-related businesses. I usually try to visit as many of these places as possible to observe what’s going on and talk to the owners and staff when possible. I find it broadens my horizons and keeps me educated to real time issues both good and bad in the industry. I am always looking for new business ideas and I like to see how others are doing things.
FE&S: What was your first job in foodservice?
Jody Birnbaum: I was hired as a waitress at The Nite’nGale in Highwood, Ill. in the mid 70s. It was a very busy neighborhood restaurant with both a bar and a dining room section. I had to wear one of those old-fashioned zip up the front, short sleeve panel uniforms circa 1950s coffee shops — pantyhose and all — what a look! However, I was lucky enough to be trained by some amazing women in the industry, and I caught on quickly to the multi-tasking demands of the profession. I also learned it is best to be discreet, as I quickly observed that there was a whole lot more going on in that bar than the sale of booze! Anyway, I made more money those summers than I could have ever imagined, and between the money, the adventures and my natural aptitude, I was hooked.
FE&S: If I were just starting out in the foodservice industry, what advice would you give me?
Jody Birnbaum: I say this all the time to my start-up clients and students: work for others, gain experience in as many areas as possible, keep a low profile, don’t judge, and discover the parts of the business that flip your switch. Learn as much as you can from the good, the bad and the ugly and choose how you want to move forward in the industry. Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people who are smarter and more talented than you are and leave your ego at the door. Don’t burn any bridges. It is up to each and every one of us to carve our own place in the industry and make it the way we want it to be.