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Meet the Experts


You have questions. We have Experts.


Imagine a room full of restaurant and hospitality industry experts ready to help you with your business. That's "Meet the Experts" and you're invited.

Each year, this popular event offers restaurant operators the opportunity to speak one-on-one with experts in a variety of fields including staffing, insurance, taxes, purchasing, marketing, public relations, licensing and more. While enjoying a fun, casual evening with good food and drinks, attendees can sign-up to sit with selected experts to ask questions, get advice, and exchange business info to keep the conversation going in the future. It's speed-coaching and power networking!

Meet the Experts 2017 was an enormous success!

The Illinois Restaurant Association hosted its 4th Annual Meet The Experts with Keynote Speaker Nick Kokonas, Co-Owner and Founder of the Alinea Group of restaurants: Alinea, Next, The Aviary, and Roister, and founder and CEO of Tock, Inc. At the event, registered restaurant/bar/hospitality operators were able to reserve fifteen (15) minutes speed coaching sessions with the experts of their choice. Thank you to our event sponsors: Old Crow Smokehouse, Reinhart Food Service, Taft Law, Stahl Cowen and CliftonLarsonAllen.


To view past events and experts click here:    2017    2016    2015    2014



Thank you to everyone who participated in this year's Meet the Experts.  The event hosted more than 375 people and was our most successful so far.

The Illinois Restaurant Association presents its 4th Annual Meet The Experts with Keynote Speaker Nick Kokonas, Co-Owner and Founder of the Alinea Group of Restaurants: Alinea, Next, The Aviary, and Roister, and Founder and CEO of Tock, Inc. At the event, registered restaurant/bar/hospitality operators will be able to reserve 15-minute speed coaching sessions with the experts of their choice (subject to availability). Thank you to our event sponsors: Old Crow Smokehouse, Reinhart Food Service, Taft Law, Stahl Cowen and CliftonLarsonAllen.


Keynote Speaker, Nick Kokonas

Co-Owner and Founder of the Alinea Group of Restaurants:

Alinea,Next, The Aviary, and Roister, and Founder and CEO of Tock, Inc.


2017 Meet The Experts is Sponsored By:





 2017 Event Sponsors:  



Meet our 2017 Experts:

Joe Baez



Joe is a principal with CliftonLarsonAllen LLP (CLA) and has been with CLA since 2001. He has 15 years of assurance and consulting experience working with a wide range of closely held companies. He has developed a significant focus on the issues and concerns of businesses operating in the food and beverage industry, including dealing with the challenges of mergers and acquisitions. Through this experience Joe has gained a comprehensive understanding of the concerns confronting owners and managers of middle market companies.


Erik Baylis


Big Onion Tavern Group


Erik is responsible for managing operations; human resources, marketing campaigns, concept generation, and product development for each venue. Called the modern day Bill Veeck for his innovative out-of-the-box marketing ideas, Erik firmly believes that he has never had a bad day in his life, just lessons, and takes that attitude to shape day-to-day operations. With over 15 years of experience in the industry, Erik understands the intricacies, complexities and opportunities of hospitality like no other. Erik believes that the company culture and mission statement are the key elements which differentiate BOTG from like companies. Hiring ‘good humans with great character’ and teaching them the foundation of the company is always the goal, rather than hiring people with ‘great experience’. Erik holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Management and a Minor in Political Science from the University of Arizona.


Bottleneck - Team - Chris

Chris Bisaillon


Bottleneck Management


Chris’s main areas of responsibility include Site Acquisition, Private Placement Offerings, Investor Relations and leading many of Bottleneck Management’s professional relationships.Chris graduated Cum Laude with a double major in Economics and Business Administration from Illinois Wesleyan University. Professionally, Chris spent 18 years with Van Kampen Merritt/Invesco where he was employed as a Regional Vice President and most recently as a Divisional Sales Director, overseeing a region that included portions of 19 states.Chris grew up in Herscher, a small rural town south of Chicago, where he met Nathan Hilding in grade school. After graduating from Herscher High School, he continued on to Illinois Wesleyan University, where he met Jason Akemann. During his time at IWU he was a 4 year starter on the football team. Chris lives in Hinsdale with his two children, and loves all Chicago-based sports teams, although admits he doesn’t know as much about the Chicago Fire professional soccer team as he should.

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Mark Braver

Chief Operating Officer

Heisler Hospitality


Mark Braver is a partner at Heisler Management and serves as Chief Operating Officer. After graduating from Penn State University in 1996 with a degree in Communications, Mark moved to Chicago to pursue a career in broadcasting. Though his intended career path did not pan out, he soon realized that his first job as a nightclub DJ was leading him to a career in hospitality. Mark opened, operated, and sold his first restaurant in Chicago by age 28 andhas held senior management positions with BR Guest in New York City, Starr Restaurants in Philadelphia and the Boka Group in Chicago. In 2013, Mark became Heisler Hospitality’s first corporate hire where he helped the emerging group expand to 10 critically acclaimed bars and restaurants. Mark’s proudest moments have come from playing a part in the success of those around him, which pale only in comparison to time with his son Hank. He resides in Wicker Park, Chicago.


Gerrin Butler

Director of Food Protection

Chicago Department ofPublic Health


Gerrin Cheek Butleris currently the Director of Food Protection for the Chicago Department of Public Health. She has been instrumental in facilitating partnerships to develop innovative data and electronic tracking systems, including a system to detect foodborne illness via social media. She has spent the last 15 years in senior management positions at several health departments, which helped develop a passion for food safety, leadership, and public health. During that time, she has made proven and sustained programmatic gains including: increased revenues, data driven decision making, Sanitarian Standardization Program, and lean process development. Gerrin received her B.S. in Environmental Health from Illinois State University and a Master of Public Administration from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.





Bang Bang Pie and Biscuits

Born in St. Louis, Michael Ciapciak always loved restaurants & hospitality. Michael honed his craft in New York’s restaurant world as Head Maître D’ at Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill’s General Manager. Once making the move to Chicago, Michael managed Chicago’s TRU. In addition to running the front of the house at some of this country’s finest dining institutions, Michael traveled the globe as an incognito critic for Forbes Travel Guide, hunting for the world’s best restaurants, luxury hotels & spas. This vast and varied experience helped to refine his vision for what type of place he would some day open. Michael is owner/operator of the Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits with two Chicago locations (Logan Square & Ravenswood). When not brightening his guests' days, Michael loves spending time with his wife Susan and his four young children, Ned,

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