‘You can have two loves’: Alumna Mary O’Connor, ‘77, shares how owning a catering business led to her second career in city government
Mary O’Connor, Class of 1977, has owned Unforgettable Edibles, a certified, women-owned catering company for the last 32 years, but what people may not know is that Mary also served as the first and only female alderman in the 41st Ward and now oversees the Small Business Advocacy division for the City of Chicago.
After attending Eastern Illinois University, Mary ended up in the hospitality industry, working for many different restaurants. She was always encouraged to start her own restaurant, but that was not quite what she wanted to do.
“I love working. It’s where I shine and where I am most comfortable. My whole life, I grew up with a very strong work ethic…” O’Connor said. “One time, I was working in a corporate building, and I started catering in that building, and then it clicked - this is what I want to do. It’s more controlled. It’s not like in a restaurant where you are waiting for someone to walk in. You can kind of control your outcome, and I said this is it. This is what I should be doing.”
She added that her catering business really started when a friend of hers asked her to cater for his child’s christening.
“From that moment on it never stopped. Somebody at that party hired us, and then it just grew,” O’Connor said. “I would say maybe Irish typically don’t have a name of being great caterers, and we had an Irish background, so we really tapped in at the beginning in the Irish community and did well, and then, obviously, continued to branch off, but it was something where I decided to do catering, and then a friend hired me, and then it just evolved from there.”
She added: “I love people. I love service, and catering filled that for me.”
Unforgettable Edibles has now been in business for 32 years, and Mary said that it is a statement to other young female entrepreneurs.
“Growing up, I didn’t know a lot of women-owned businesses. I don’t think I was very familiar with it, so I think it’s a statement for younger people of risk-taking, willing to be passionate and go for what you believe in, and you stick with it,” O’Connor said. “It has been one of the most fulfilling jobs I’ve ever had and it’s a lot of hard work…”
Mary also shared that the company has always been in the Edison Park/Norwood Park community since it began - even before it had its own storefront.
“My business partner Mary Ellen Stanton, is also from the neighborhood. We worked for a restaurant and decided to start our own catering businesses and started out of the basements of our mothers’ homes for years; and then we were able to move into a storefront on Northwest Highway, and then moved to Devon Avenue, where we are today. We have been there for over 22 years,” O’Connor said.
“It is the community where I grew up, but it’s a community that has always been very good to me and to our business. It’s a give and take. There’s times when the community needs your help and you're very supportive with benefits…but, I will tell you that it came to light during COVID… so many people came forward during COVID and made a point in supporting us in any way they could - helping us, promoting us. It’s a community that I love, but it’s a community that has also given back to us.”
In reflecting on being in business for 30+ years, Mary said they have been very fortunate. She said she’s had the opportunity to meet so many great people and “understand their journeys and be able to participate in some of the most memorable or important times in their lives.”
She said whether it's catering a very small intimate event or a large wedding, she has always run her business the same: “as a very intimate, mom and pop atmosphere. We are very hands on. People know us. We are at almost every event that requires staff - you are still engaging with the owners.”
Looking ahead to the next 30 years, Mary said that in addition to keeping the catering company, she hopes to remain active in small business and small business development “in encouraging young entrepreneurs and being a support to them so that they continue to be sustainable.”
While building connections over the years within the community, Mary also wanted to do more and be more active in the neighborhood, and as a result, she served as the president of our Chamber of Commerce and is the co-founder of our Edison Park Turkey Trot that’s been around 27 years. Additionally, she became the first and only female alderman in the 41st Ward, serving from 2011-2015.
“It wasn’t something I had planned, and this is an example of where life can take you, and you can have two loves and build that in different ways, but through our catering [business] and being involved in our local Chamber of Commerce, and then for some changes I was making in our business, I realized that I wanted to advocate more, not just for myself, but for the community. I thought we had a great community, but I had a larger vision for it, and I think that’s the entrepreneur in me, you’re always looking for something larger and you’re always building and you always have to improve and keep up. So I took a risk,” O’Connor said.
“I was very active in the community and got to know a lot of people and took a risk in running for alderman. I am the first woman, and only woman alderman in our ward, the 41st Ward, which lacks a lot of women in government. So I served as alderman for four years (2011-2015). It was a great opportunity. I accomplished a lot. I met a lot of great people along the way, but I was recognized in City Council as someone that continued to advocate for small business, which kind of brings me back to your first love. So after my term as alderman, I was asked to come to the city and oversee small business development. I am in a division that is fairly new in our department, and it's called Small Business Advocacy, and it helps me be the entrepreneur that I am, because I am building something here now with the city in supporting small businesses citywide. It’s been a great experience.”
She said being an alderman was “a great experience and took me to a job that I really love now. It brought me to another place where I am really enjoying the job and the work we are doing as a team here, I am seeing great results from it.”
Mary’s advice to RES students and all young people is “believe in your gut, if you’re passionate, don’t be quick to give up. Be willing to take risks. Be willing to live with the outcome, and sometimes if something doesn’t turn out the way you want, you will be surprised how shortly it opens the door and takes you where you belong.”