When we think of the traditional “Boys Clubs” we don’t expect to see a black woman, or any female for that matter. However, times are changing and that’s especially true at Formento’s, one of Chicago’s hottest Italian restaurants where Michelle Herndon shares partnership with a group of white males. Not only is she one of the gang, these gentlemen went out of their way to invest with Michelle, who manages and operates the restaurant from the micro to the macro. To understand how she came into this unique position one must look at her exceptional experience in food and hospitality.
Growing up, Michelle spent time between Chicago and a farm in Wisconsin owned by her Polish immigrant grandparents. It was there that she learned how to milk cows and cook using only the finest and freshest ingredients. Michelle’s first introduction to the restaurant scene was as a waitress at Red Lobster, from there she added hostess, and before you know it she was a part of the opening team at Patina, an award-winning pioneer of nouveau French cuisine in Los Angeles. At Patina, Michelle’s education in food and wine would begin to take flight. “I was a young woman surrounded by the Wolfgang Pucks, the Emeril Lagassi’s, and the early movement of food experts and critics that would all become mainstream,” says Michelle. “It definitely exposed me to a certain caliber of restaurant experience.” But it was upon her return to Chicago, following the passing of her mom, that Michelle would soar after taking a position at one of Michael Jordan’s restaurants. On the brink of closing, Michelle partnered with her team, restructured the private events program and helped increase the restaurant’s event revenue. She and Michael Jordan became good friends and it was there that she met one of her current partners.
Ask Michelle what it’s like as the only Black female partner in a group of white males, and she’s quick to say, “I use the term “Boys Club” in “air quotes” because I work with really progressive men. They brought me in because they value my diversity and female perspective. Sometimes as women we want to blend in and not stand out, but I’m here because I’m different.”
One of those differences is in how Michelle manages the restaurant. “My nickname at work is ‘mama,’ and they know that I love you to death, but I don’t play. There’s a huge millennial base of young people that respond to a maternal leader,” she says, adding that her shoulders have definitely been used to cry on. “My partners are good human beings, but they can’t always give that.”
Another asset is Michelle’s elite relationships. “I bring in a who’s who of Black clientele who support me, and come back,” Michelle says of diners like actress Angela Bassett, director LeVar Burton, ‘Empire’ actress Tasha Smith, and her twin, film producer Sidra Smith.
“Formento’s is definitely one of my favorite restaurants,” says Sidra Smith who makes a point to drop by for dinner whenever she’s in Chicago. “It’s authentic and trendy in a sexy way, and the food is always fresh and delicious.”
For Michelle, success is also about giving back, so when mentoring other women she advises- “It’s important to let your confidence come out in a very organic way. Be yourself. Do your homework. Work hard. Pay attention. Listen. Observe. And know that your skill set is valuable to someone. Also, take the emotion out of it. When women get emotional in the workplace it can be perceived as a sign of weakness while men can be considered passionate. Lastly, it’s really important to have key people in your life and mentors to help you get through.”
Words to live by.