Sam Toia is no stranger to the restaurant industry. It was the family business he first got his start in before opening 13 Leona’s Restaurants and two Hop Haus Sports Pubs around the city of Chicago. Toia is also versed in community and government relations, with a degree in the field from DePaul University and high-profile seats on many civic agency boards-not to mention the recent appointment Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave Toia to the Zoning Board of Appeals.
So it was no surprise when, last July, the board of the Illinois Restaurant Assocation (IRA ) named Toia president-since it was a position almost created just for him. As president of the largest foodservice trade organization in the state, which runs the Taste of Chicago and Chicago Gourmet, Toia acts as the chief representative of the largest private sector employer in the state, posting 516,000 jobs last year. It’s no small feat overseeing 3,000 members, yet, as in everything he does, Toia is ready for the challenge.
ILM+E: Before becoming president of the IRA, what other board positions had you held?
ST: "I was previously the IRA ’s chairman of the board and before that, I served on the McPier Board, which is part of the convention bureau of Navy Pier and McCormick Place, from 2003-2010. I’m also president of the Central Lakeview Merchants Association and cover Special Service Areas of the city in the Beverly/Morgan Park and Central Lakeview neighborhoods."
ILM+E: In 2012 what were some of the benchmarks the IRA met, and in 2013 what are you looking to accomplish?
ST: "Last year, we worked on a mobile food truck ordinance that found common ground for the city, brick-and-mortar restaurants and mobile food truck providers. Up until it was passed, it was prohibited to cook on a truck. Now we have mobile food trucks in different stalls in dense neighborhoods of Chicago where restaurant locations can live with it, too. In 2013, membership is a big priority. We’re always looking to provide members with important resources. In addition to being part of a thriving community of restaurants and tours, our members benefit from industry representation at local, state and national levels. They also benefit from our endorsement programs, marketing and publicity, events, weekly news bulletin, certification and education, so team members are always certified."
ILM+E: What are some of the highlights of the National Restaurant Association Show coming up in May?
ST: "This year, the focus will be on children’s nutrition and healthier kids’ menus, as well as a push for more environmental and sustainable foods and practices. The great thing about this show is it lets the industry know where trends are headed."