The moment Mandy Abdo Sheahan charges into the booth, she transforms.
As she scans the sheet pans brimming with thick-cut bacon slices, her normally quiet voice finds a new octave.
“Those are looking nice, Aukievah,” she tells one of her 60-some employees at Big Fat Bacon, a popular Minnesota State Fair stop. “You can put them on the rack.”
“Sully,” she barks at another, “make sure those are cool.”
Then, she catches the song playing on the radio.
“I need some disco or ’80s in here,” she says. “I don’t even know what this is!”
Most of the year, Sheahan has plenty to balance: her job as co-owner and general manager of Saguaro, a south Minneapolis restaurant; serving on a host of boards; her deep commitment to her extended family; her passion for tutoring.
But in the days before the fair — where Big Fat Bacon just moved to a space six times its original size — Sheahan, 43, adds another task. As the logistics coordinator for the expanding operation, she’s the efficiency whip for a staff full of teenagers and the supervisor of bacon skewering — lots of it.
She’s also in a wheelchair, without the use of her arms and legs, although those who know her would be forgiven if they forgot that once in a while.
“One word: She’s formidable,” said her father, Larry Abdo, who owns Abdo Market House real estate, the Nicollet Island Inn in Minneapolis and other businesses. “When she’s around, she commands the room.”
Her presence, along with her success in building Big Fat Bacon and Saguaro, were cited by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal when it honored her with a Women in Business award this year. But when you ask Sheahan about what she’s achieved, she only shrugs.
At that, cousin and business partner Tina Jordan shakes her head.
“You probably blacked out a lot of this,” Jordan said, “but we were there, at the hospital. We watched what you overcame. And to see you come from that to where you are now, you absolutely deserve this.”
In the spring of 1994, it seemed like everything was blooming all at once on the University of Notre Dame’s ivy-decked campus.
Bill Sheahan had finally struck up a friendship with Mandy Abdo, a fellow performer in the Shakespeare theater, whom he’d long admired from afar. And that friendship was developing into something more.
“I like to say I met her a year before she met me,” Bill joked.
Long walks through the lush grounds led to lunch dates and dorm visits. The budding romance simmered over the summer, through a series of letters. When they returned for his senior and her junior year, they were a couple.
After Bill graduated, he went to law school in his home state of Colorado. They stayed close despite the distance.
But on Nov. 11, 1995, everything changed.
When Bill called to say good night, Mandy’s roommate answered. There had been a terrible accident. Mandy was in the hospital.
She and some friends were driving to a movie when the rain turned to sleet. The car’s brakes locked up on the ice, sliding into oncoming traffic. One person sustained a concussion. Another broke an arm. Mandy snapped her neck.
As soon as Bill heard the news, he raced to the airport, where he slept under the ticketing counter until an agent showed up in the morning. He caught the first flight.
When he got to the hospital in South Bend, Ind., he breathed a sigh of relief. A tangle of tubes led to and from her body. But beyond the ventilator, he saw the same smile.
“It was still Mandy,” he said. “It was still the girl I fell in love with before she knew who I was.”
In the days and months that followed, she would begin to breathe on her own and regain the ability to talk. She would, however, be permanently paralyzed from the chest down.
It was gut-wrenchingly difficult for her to learn to navigate her new world. But she was determined. And her family was by her side. So was Bill.
Even when Mandy was unable to speak, he would call her from Colorado, sometimes talking to her, sometimes quietly holding the line just so she would know he was there. He visited on the weekends after she moved back to Minnesota, and they would play Trivial Pursuit, with Mandy mouthing the words. Bill became apt at reading her lips.
Then, one day, she mouthed the words, “You didn’t sign up for this. You can leave.”
“I got angry,” he said. “I hated the suggestion that what we had was something frivolous and that I was the kind of guy who would walk away.”
Mandy nodded at the thought. “I had to give you an out,” she said.
“I had to know if you stayed it was because you wanted to, not because you thought it was your obligation.”
In 1999, Bill proposed. And in 2000, eight years after Bill fell for Mandy from afar, they said, “I do.”
Juggling it all
After her accident, Mandy fought her way back, graduating from college within a year.
“I’m 21,” she told cousin Tina. “I’ve got a lot of life ahead. What am I going to do, be miserable for the rest of it?”
Instead, she started working as the marketing director of the Nicollet Island Inn. She wrote the first business plan for MyBurger, a chain for which Larry is chairman of the board and her brother John is president and CEO.
Working with food had been a part of Mandy’s life since before she could crawl.
While she was growing up in St. Paul, parents Larry and Caryl ran a pita stand at the State Fair and at the Renaissance Festival. As a toddler, Mandy would sit on the counter. By age 5, she was pouring the pop. Eventually, she graduated into making the garlic sauce, cooking the meat, cutting the bread.
But business was not booming for Pocket Pies.
“They were so ahead of their time with health food, ethnic food,” Mandy said of her parents. “But no one goes to the fair to eat healthy food. So we decided to make some money.”
That was Big Fat Bacon, a concept dreamed up in 2008 by Larry, and named and run by Mandy. The idea was simple: a quarter-pound of bacon, sprinkled with a pepper blend and splashed with maple syrup. The novelty took off.
As her three younger brothers got older and more involved in the family’s projects, Mandy wanted something of her own. So in 2014, she opened Saguaro, a restaurant inspired by the cooking of her “Sito” (Lebanese for grandmother), who lived in Arizona.
“I can’t be hands-on,” she told her parents. “But I can be brains-on.”
These days, she juggles Big Fat Bacon and Saguaro. Mandy’s family, whom she describes as “unbelievably supportive,” is almost always around. They often work together and go out together for Sunday dinners.
And then there’s Bill. Mandy’s full-time aide recently had a second child, so Bill has been filling the role since March. (He’s also vice president of operations for the Abdo family businesses, “which means I do whatever needs to be done for whoever needs it,” he said.)
In the mornings, he gets up and gets ready before doing the same with his wife. For Mandy, there’s a half-hour of stretching, then getting in her chair, then contacts, hair and makeup.
“Hairstyles are limited, based on [his] talent,” Mandy said. “He’s good at ponytails, not so good at braids.”
Then there’s the outfit.
“The whole standing in front of the closet thing, he doesn’t get that,” Mandy said. “He’s like, ‘Just pick something out!’ ”
“It’s the classic 1950s movie scene where the woman is taking forever and getting ready and the man is downstairs, tapping his foot,” Bill said.
“Except we’re together,” Mandy added.
In fact, they’re together all the time, from work projects to yoga lessons to reruns of “Law & Order” at night.
They have the same struggles as most couples — and then some. But when Bill looks at Mandy, it’s obvious he still feels like everything’s blooming, all at once.
“I never fell in love with Mandy because I saw her gracefully gliding across a ballroom floor,” he said. “It was all mental, all personality.”
“This definitely has changed the way I do things,” Mandy said of her wheelchair. “But it doesn’t change what I do. It doesn’t change who I am.”