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Behind the Scenes at Obama's Election Night Party: 2,500 Slices of Pizza, One Teary Bartender

Along with the 15,000-guest celebration that played out in front of the news cameras, McCormick Place hosted four "behind-the-scenes" receptions.

Photo: Courtesy of SAVOR

What's more daunting and logistically wrought than planning President Obama's election-night victory party? According to reps at Chicago's McCormick Place, where the November 6 celebration took place, it's planning the NATO summit.

“One reason the Obama team chose McCormick Place was that we hosted the NATO summit here in May,” said Connie Chambers, general manager of food and beverage at Savor Chicago, the convention center's food-service supplier. “NATO was very similar, except it was to the extreme. Our team was very prepared to handle election night because of our training and success with NATO.”

After their experience in May, Chambers and her team saw some familiar faces back at the convention center in November. “Many of the same secret service agents were here,” she said. “We'd already developed a rapport and an understanding of how to work together.”

On the historic Tuesday, McCormick Place hosted the victory rally for 15,000 guests (the globally seen celebration with waving American flags and confetti galore.) Behind the scenes, some 3,000 guests took part in four catered receptions: one for Obama and his friends and family, another for Vice President Joe Biden and his guests, one reception for the campaign co-chairs, and another for the national finance committee. Then, there were six holding rooms with some catered elements, as well as a press room where roughly 2,000 members of the international media worked.

Though Obama's team had been campaigning and hoping for an election-night celebration for nearly two years, the staffers at McCormick Place had a three-week timeline to prep for their hosting duties.

“It was a three-week, nitty-gritty whirlwind,” said Alison Parks, Savor's senior manager of catering and the Obama campaign's direct liaison for the event. “There are many levels of planning related to a presidential event. Normal movement of the staff has to be looked at and evaluated, the secret service needs to be involved with the coordination, and around 200 staffers had to be credentialed to be in the building working.”

Additional security measures included building sweeps and lockdowns starting on Monday of election week. “We operate on a campus-type setting out of a main kitchen, so we had to think through how everything would be staged, know what times the sweeps and lockdowns would be, and have all of our equipment and materials onsite” at a temporary lakeside kitchen, Parks said.

Obama's staff handled the menu selection. “They were very specific in what they wanted and ordered from our standard catering menu,” Park said. At the big rally, guests took advantage of concession-stand fare and consumed 2,500 slices of Connie's deep-dish pizza, 700 barbecue sandwiches from Robinson's No. 1 Ribs, and 699 Kosher-style hot dogs. 

Behind the scenes—“literally behind the scenes, behind the blue drape that Obama spoke in front of,” said Chambers—the guests at the smaller receptions got roasted vegetable skewers, blue crab cakes with spicy remoulade sauce, garlic-ginger-lime chicken brochettes, shrimp, andouille sausage, red-and-green-pepper kebabs, and roasted tomatoes with grilled country bread.

There was also the task of feeding the massive press contingency, and on a guesstimated timeline to boot. “The media knew the election may be very close and have some delays,” Chambers said. “The media was onsite here and going for 24 hours. We were ready with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and breakfast again on Wednesday.” Staffers were in the kitchen at 2 a.m., and breakfast was served at about 5 a.m. on Tuesday and 4 a.m. on Wednesday.

The questionable timeline also affected planning for the general rally. “We prepared for the worst, not knowing exactly how late it would go,” Parks said. “But elections are generally called by 10 or 11 p.m., so we planned for that.”

“We'd learned from NATO that when [the secret service] is moving the president, they're very orchestrated, planned, and thoughtful,” said Chambers. “We knew Obama would be here between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m., regardless of the election results, to greet everyone within those smaller receptions and the 15,000 guests that had worked on the campaign. And, if there was a major delay with the election results, someone from the committee was going to come out at 2 a.m. and say something like, 'Thanks so much for celebrating with us; keep watching your local news.'”

Initially, the catering staff was asked to serve liquor until 4 a.m., but since results came in relatively early, the last call was at around 1:30 a.m. Parks and Chambers said that masses of guests started to exit the convention center at about 2:15 a.m.

With several days' perspective, Parks said that working on the event was “a little stressful, but terribly exciting. Being able to see it all come together, and stand in the crowd when the president spoke, made it worth all the extra hours.”

Chambers remembers walking into the reception for Obama and his friends and family just as the news outlets were starting to call the results. “The bartender in that room was welling up. She jumped out from behind the bar, hugged me, and thanked me for putting her in that room,” Chambers said. “Being in that environment was just overwhelmingly wonderful for staff and for everyone involved. The energy was flowing, and we felt like we were really prepared. We'd worked with the secret service. We knew the drill."