Against the advice of their father, brothers Joe and Paul Bartolotta opened an Italian-style bistro in the Wauwatosa village in 1993. The rest is Milwaukee culinary history.
I meet the brothers for lunch in their newest location – Downtown Kitchen in the U.S. Bank building. It’s a huge, upscale food court, modern and inviting, with popular Bartolotta offerings such as Northpoint Burgers and Custard, and Pizzeria Piccola, plus a Jewish deli, artisan sandwich stand and more.
At 1 p.m., the dining room is still busy, with diners enjoying the sun streaming in from the easterly wall of windows. Joe, 56, sticks to the salad bar at first. Paul, three years younger, orders a burger and chocolate malt (extra malt). This prompts me to opt for the strawberry shake. When Joe sees me ordering the 5-ounce Reuben, he tells the cook to make it the 8 ounce and cut it into quarters so we can all try it. This sets the tone for the meal. We take a seat and arrange the food in the middle. These two brothers can make even a cafeteria lunch feel like an Italian family meal.
Your first restaurant was Ristorante Bartolotta in Wauwatosa.
Joe: That little restaurant has just chugged along and it’s done well, and I tell everyone who asks that it’s still my favorite of all of our places. Ironically, they’re sort of in order. I love them all, but Ristorante has the more emotional connection because it was the first, and it got Paul and me into business together.
In 21 years, you’ve grown your business into 16 restaurants with a variety of concepts. That’s a lot.
Paul: We’re too small to be a big company and too big to be a small company now. With 1,100 employees, we’re sort of in this inefficient middle ground. But we’ve done pretty well with balance.
Joe: When it comes down to it, we’re always going to err on the side of A) the employee, and B) the guest.
How do the two of you partner in the business?
Joe: Paul is the culinary force. He has a lot more experience on the corporate side, working for companies like Levy and Wynn Las Vegas. I’m more of the boots on the ground and pretty much handle the operations, the growth.
Paul: He’s here every day, living it. And in the end, it’s easy, because he owns the biggest share. I can push as hard as I want, but when I hit a wall, I hit a wall – it’s his call.
Joe: I put up an allergy sign in here today and I thought it was perfectly fine. He didn’t like the wording, so I took them all down and we’re going to reword them. We don’t fight over much.
Paul: We don’t need to.
Joe: Paul is obviously my most trusted adviser. I don’t always do what he wants, but he definitely has more impact in my brain than he even thinks he does. We’ve had a few issues over 21 years – we’re Italian, we’re passionate, we’re independent thinkers – but first and foremost, we’re brothers. It breaks my heart to see how many businesses crumble because people forget what’s important – that brotherhood, family.
Paul: It’s worked out. I’ve been able to do things that help raise the stature of this venture, to improve the business, improve my family’s quality of life – my brother, my two sisters, my parents when they were alive.
To Paul: What’s your role with choosing chefs, concepts, etc.?
Paul: I don’t have to do much of that. My corporate executive, Adam [Siegel], worked for me for five years first. I sent him to Chicago, then Italy, then to San Francisco before he came here. As the group grew, he became my go-to guy. He makes decisions with Joe when I can’t be there or when it’s best for those two to figure it out.
Joe: Adam moved here with the intent of only staying two years. But part of what we do really well is to create a culture that people want to be a part of. He’s been here 14 years.
Paul: We try to promote from within, so when a new thing comes up, we look to our bench first.
The “Bartolotta culture” comes up a lot.
Joe: We hire about 10 percent of the people we interview. We look for a hospitality DNA, a work ethic, a certain sparkle. And when you fill your business with people like that, all moving in the same direction at the same time, as a company, you become very powerful. Then the culture becomes self-fulfilling and kind of moves along on its own. You’ll occasionally have a bad hire, but the team tends to expunge that person. It’s like, “You took the last fork and didn’t leave one for the person behind you – that means you don’t care.” And that’s what we see all the time – they care about each other and they’re friends.
Paul: We call that the “centrifuge effect,” where you either get sucked all the way in because of the speed at which this intense culture grows, or you hit it and you bounce out. But now, I’d say we’re in a period where the youthful work ethic has changed.
Paul: Once you find one who likes working hard, they stay. At the same time, though, you’ve got these others who are like, “Ugh. I have to work on a Saturday?” And we say, “Yeah, it is the restaurant business. Smell the coffee!” We’re working to adapt to this new culture, but it comes down to our customers. They tell us what they want and we work to deliver that. We build our restaurants for our guests and that will never change.
Your chefs audition for you.
Joe: We call them tastings. They do have to cook, and I tell them it doesn’t matter if they make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it just has to be done really well. We’re looking for technique, for palate, the right methodology. Not guys who try to wow me with 40 ingredients… This kind of cooking that’s happening right now is kind of shock cuisine, you know? Pickled pig’s brain does not excite me. But there’s a whole wave of young chefs out there who just want to create shock and awe. I’m concerned about that. I’m old-school, like Paul. Simple, fresh ingredients, properly put together and properly prepared will always make the grade.
Paul: It will always taste better. Always. Everybody will check out that wild new place so they can cross it off the list and talk about it at the next party. But you ask them, when they get guests in from out of town, where are they going to take them? To someplace they know they’ll have a great experience every time.
How did the recession impact the restaurants?
Paul: When the economy went south, there was a blizzard of restaurants screaming for customers. In the face of that, we fared quite well, because we stuck to the blocking and tackling – the basics. Everybody else is cutting back on staff, hours, whatever – we’re not. What we are going to do is have every customer not spend one penny more than they’re comfortable spending; we’re going to swarm them with hospitality. And by doing that, we ended up with some of the best years for our company.
Joe: Other people contracted, we expanded.
What does the future hold for you two, and for Bartolotta Restaurants?
Joe: I have two daughters, and they haven’t shown a lot of interest in the business. I’m OK with that.
Paul: I don’t want my daughter in this business. No way.
Joe: There really isn’t much of a transition plan in place yet.
Paul: Are you kidding me? We’re just getting started!
Joe: But you do reach a point where you get too saturated… If I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t change a lot. But I would have looked for a concept that was easier to replicate. What Paul and I have built is incredibly complex. It’s very chef-driven, very high-quality. This business model would be difficult to sell or cash out of.
Paul: This market has embraced our diversity. It’s given us the fun side of it, which is the ability to make a list – we want to open a Greek tavern, we want to do a Spanish tapas place. Fried chicken. We’ve been talking about doing a Shanghai Joe’s for years. I can’t even think of how many others we’ve thought of.
Joe: If we had stopped after half a dozen restaurants, arguably, Paul and I would have a better quality of life for ourselves, but these new restaurants fill our souls. We love to create and build things. There is some ego behind it, admittedly. I love the attention. But I also do it because it creates a career path for our employees. That’s why I have 10-, 15-, 20-year employees.
That’s a lot of creative license. What does that say about Milwaukee?
Paul: The city has its pluses and minuses. We’re known now here, so we have a certain amount of pressure, but also a certain amount of guaranteed attention if we decide to do something new.
Joe: Expectations are very high.
Paul: We try hard to be price-conscious, but we’re looked at as expensive, full stop. The good news is that it’s still relatively inexpensive to build here; the cost of labor is manageable. The people who walk in the door for work are good Milwaukee stock.
Joe: Good people. Great people.
Paul: The bad news is that if you try to seat someone at 9 in the evening, it might as well be 2 in the morning.
Joe: It’s a one-turn town. Most other markets can get a second seating. But our restaurants are empty by 8:30 or 9.
Paul: But we’re also on the cusp of a very exciting time for Milwaukee, because Downtown is on the verge of forming a nucleus of energy. More young people are living down here. But we need more commercial density – more restaurants, movie theaters, attractions – things that young people want to do. When we get that in place, we can get the renaissance we’re on the verge of.
Joe: We need a convention center. I sit on the Visit Milwaukee board and the Wisconsin Center District board, and the key to our future is to generate more density by bringing more people Downtown…
Paul: (interrupting) Yaahhh, we don’t agree. The people that book conventions look at the city and what’s available, and not the center. Every big city has a big convention center. The ones that do well are in cities where people actually want to go.
Joe: Turn off the recorder.
I do, and a lively debate ensues. The brothers are passionate about their viewpoints, but eventually, they “agree to disagree,” and we resume.
Do you see the company continuing on this complicated path indefinitely?
Joe: We’ve started doing something a little bit unique in this market. Rather than investing a lot of our monetary capital into new projects, we’re developing partnerships that allow us to leverage our intellectual capital. That doesn’t require dollars – we’re using our thinking and our experience to create new opportunities.
Paul: We’re partnering with people who have access to capital a lot cheaper than we do, and it’s turning out to be mutually beneficial. U.S. Bank is a good example.
U.S. Bank paid for this space?
Joe: U.S. Bank has made a very significant investment in their building.
Paul: It’s an amenity.
Joe: There are others on the horizon… Everybody knows we partnered with the Grain Exchange and with Mike Cudahy at the lakefront [Harbor House restaurant].
Joe: We could never have built that.
Paul: We would have wanted to, for sure.
Joe: We had the vision, we had the ability to execute…
Paul: Michael had the money.
Joe: The Mayfair Collection is our newest one [in the Burleigh Triangle development in Wauwatosa]. We’re opening three restaurants there [each with a new brand – a contemporary diner, a beer pub and a casual French restaurant]. They’re paying for the entire buildout, we’re charging a management fee to run it for them.
Paul: They’re going to make more money than we are, but we’re able to grow, use what we know how to do, do it in a way that mitigates our need to borrow. Which is good, because we’ve made some significant investments over time. We build expensive spaces.
Joe: There’s a perception that we’re swimming in cash, and that’s just not true.
Paul: The truth is that we’d probably be better business guys if we did it for the money, but we do what we love.
Does anyone build their own restaurant for the money?
Paul: Sure. There are guys who are really in the real estate business who build restaurants to pay the mortgages so they can build assets. There are venture guys who sit on Wall Street and build or buy restaurant chains. We’re trying to figure out how to make ourselves be just a little more like those guys. (He laughs.)
Joe: (also laughing) That would be a good way to go.
Paul: So, part of our plan for the next 10 years is to create a concept we can be really proud of, that we can execute well and that we can scale.
To new markets?
Joe: Yes. We’ve had opportunities all over the state, and Paul’s had opportunities all over the world, to open new places.
Paul: Seriously, there are guys out there looking for concepts, and if we can really laser-focus a great concept or two, partner with them – that would be the way to grow for us.
What happens to Milwaukee in that scenario?
Joe: I’m never leaving Milwaukee. I love this city more than anything. My father was a pioneer in this city, he was an amazing visionary. He knew what Milwaukee was, but he also knew what it could be.
Family is obviously important to you.
Paul: This bracelet I’m wearing (he points to a strand of blue and white plastic beads), my daughter made it for me. The string is really cheap elastic, but every time it breaks, I find all the beads and put it back together again so I can wear it. It reminds me of what’s important.
Joe: My father was involved in music, in theater. He ran the Pabst Theater for about 13 years as the GM. He had his own theater on Oakland called Theatre East. He was very involved in founding the Italian Community Center.
He opened a tavern called the Rumpus Room [the namesake for the Bartolotta property on Water Street] and played his own music. He didn’t care what you wanted to hear. He had the most technologically advanced sound system for the time, and he would fly to New York and buy albums and play them before anyone else had them. He would send out mailers about what he was going to play – Giuseppe di Stefano playing Madame Butterfly. People would show up to hear the needle drop on the record at 8 o’clock. When I told him Paul and I were thinking of opening a restaurant, he told me, “Don’t do it in Milwaukee. This city will break your heart because it just doesn’t move. It stays in the same place.”
Paul: To your credit, Joe, Dad probably wasn’t wrong. But yet you moved the needle.
Joe: The political will and the leadership in this city are very slow. They move, but you can hardly see it with the naked eye. You go back to the convention center – a good mayor would have identified this problem years ago and made it a priority. I’m not singling out the current mayor by any means, but this is what Kansas City is doing, St. Louis. Even Oklahoma City – in the middle of nowhere – knows this.
Paul: Mayor Daley in Chicago decided to build from the lakefront out. And he was wildly successful in bringing the life back to downtown.
Joe: So I didn’t necessarily listen to my father, but I think Paul and I have had a profound impact on the culinary landscape of the city. If you look in the kitchens of restaurants all over the city, those chefs started with us. Almost all of them.
What advice would you give young restaurateurs?
Joe: There are some young owners who have worked in quality places and they want to spread their wings in an environment that’s unrestricted. So they do whatever they want and it’s an artistic expression of who they are, and I love that. But that artistic expression also needs to make business sense. It’s like a constant battle of good and evil in our industry.
Paul: Art and economics.
As we sit around the table, Joe takes a bite of the Reuben sandwich from Oy Vey Deli. It’s the first time he’s tried it, and he’s pleased with the flavor and tenderness of the corned beef.
Is there anything either of you absolutely will not eat?
Paul: Cumin. That’s it.
Joe: I have two things – lamb and goat cheese.
Paul: Aww, I love lamb, are you kidding me? And goat cheese.
Joe: So we did this tasting with this chef, and he made a saddle of lamb, stuffed with rosemary and goat cheese…
Paul: And I was like, “Oh my god, he’s not going to get the job!” And everybody was laughing. This poor guy, he had no idea. The only two things Joe won’t eat!
Oh dear. Did he get the job?
Joe: We hired him, but I was like, “Don’t ever make lamb for me again.”
Paul: Geez, it was so damn funny. We still talk about that one!
Joe: I have a theory about why I don’t like it.
Paul: This story…
Joe: Yeah, you’ve heard it a million times… My father was in theater. At the Pabst, they were doing Porgy and Bess, OK? My dad wanted to be really authentic, so he struck a deal with the Zoo and he got this goat on loan. Clay Caruthers was my dad’s house manager, and we climbed into this 1962 van with a mid-engine. I’m sitting on the engine and the goat was in the back. And I remember hearing the hooves on the metal floor and seeing these little pellets of poop rolling up and down the tracks on the floor… You’d never do this today, right? So I’m 4 years old and this goat is probably terrified when I think about it. We get to the theater and Clay ties it up to a fire hydrant right in front on the street and tells me to keep an eye on it. Then he walks inside and leaves this 4-year-old kid with a goat tied to a fire hydrant!
So, I accidentally get too close and it attacks me. Knocks me down and is literally on top of me, and Clay comes just in the nick of time and pulls him off. So I have this vision still of this goat clawing at me, and I have this smell that comes from the underbelly of a goat that I’ve just never been able to get out of my mind.
Paul: It’s a pretty vivid story.
Joe: So something about goat cheese and lamb, it reminds me of that.
Paul: Scarred for life.
Joe, you had a kidney transplant last year, donated by your brother-in-law.
Joe: I’ve been a diabetic for almost 35 years. With diabetes, the kidneys are vulnerable. My wife has been my bedrock through everything. You have to be your own advocate when it comes to your health. You have to ask a lot of questions and have the ability to recall the answers – and to challenge your doctor. You damn well better know what’s going into your own body.
You seem to be in good health now.
Joe: I took about 12 weeks off to recover and couldn’t wait to come back. The steroids I was taking to fend off rejection made me gain about 80 pounds – I ballooned up to about 300. Now I’m down to about 270, and I’m losing about eight pounds a month. Logging every bite of food, limiting calories to about 1,800 per day and exercising five days a week.
Has the transplant impacted the business?
Paul: You know, it’s just a business. It’s not life, not what’s important. It’s a passion but it doesn’t define who we are, at all. We always knew his health was crappy, I was always saying to him…
Joe: (imitating his brother) You shouldn’t be eating this, you shouldn’t be eating that…
Paul: And I would say, “Joe. I don’t care if we make less money, we’re going to hire a chef who comes to the office and makes your food so you don’t grab the wrong thing. We’re going to get someone to deliver your food to the house.” I told him he should stay home until noon every day, then do just a couple of hours of meetings, then be in one of the restaurants only until 8 or 9, then go home.
Joe: You know, I’ve lost a little step. Not mentally, but physically.
Paul: No, no. Definitely not mentally.
Joe: But I parcel my energy out over the day now that I’ve been given a gift with this kidney. Without it, I’d be on dialysis already and my work would be down to nothing. Paul would have had to step in more. We had that plan in place.
Paul: We knew that if anything happened to Joe, we’d have an obligation to continue.
To Paul: How’s your health?
Joe: His is perfect.
Paul: Yeah, I’ve been really blessed so far. It kind of scares me that’s it been so good. Our family has problems that I want to watch out for and I want to be around for my daughter. She’s everything.
How old is she?
Joe: Living in Florence right now, with his wife.
Joe: (laughing) He spends quite a bit of time there. And they Skype twice a day.
Paul: We’re doing homework in about 10 minutes.
Joe: Part of the reason I wanted Paul in this interview was because Milwaukee needs to know that he’s actively involved in this business.
Paul: When Joe got sick, I said that people need to know there’s two people out here who are competent and can get the job done.
Joe: Yeah, that’s really important. It’s not just me.
Paul: And vice versa. If I fall over dead tomorrow…
Joe: Then I’ll take care of your family.
Jon Anne Willow is a Milwaukee-area freelance writer. Write to her at email@example.com.