From the restaurant group offices to the MPS schools where she kick-started a culinary program, Jennifer Bartolotta sprinkles "pixie dust" wherever she goes.
“I don’t operate from a place of fear, but a place of hope.”
— Jennifer Bartolotta
It’s 8:30 a.m. on a school day…
and Jennifer Bartolotta pulls up in her black SUV and parks on Sherman Boulevard in front of Washington High School. Wearing her white chef ’s coat, black pants and a black backpack, she strides into the school and past the security checkpoint. She greets everyone – security guards, teachers, administrators, students – with smiles, hellos and hugs all around.
The restaurant industry mover and shaker is visiting this West Side school to check in on ProStart, the culinary arts program she helped develop here and at three other Milwaukee public high schools in 2016. It’s designed to teach students about food, cooking, hospitality and job skills.
Like other Milwaukee Public Schools, students at Washington often struggle with poverty, low graduation rates, homelessness and sometimes hopelessness. None of that keeps Bartolotta from working in the city’s challenged neighborhoods, and a focus on the positive is part of her guiding philosophy: “I don’t operate from a place of fear, but a place of hope.”
She’s just as at home chatting with high schoolers on their turf as she is addressing business leaders in a corporate board room. “The power of connection and relationships,” as she calls it, is at the center of her personal and professional missions.
Whether it’s demonstrating how to chop celery for high school students, holding a cooking class for low-income women in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood, throwing a gala to raise money for a struggling nonprofit, or teaching young professionals the Ps and Qs of lunch with a client, Bartolotta goes all in to help others grow, regardless of their ZIP code.
“She’s a rare individual who’s self-assured and so clear about herself, her talents and her skills that’s she’s [able] to be in lots of settings to bring to bear whatever she’s doing,” says Susan Lloyd, a friend of Bartolotta and former executive director of the Zilber Family Foundation, which supports programs to improve the city’s neighborhoods. Those who live in struggling areas of the city are isolated from information and resources, she adds. “Jennifer goes into those settings and asks, ‘How do I use all the parts of me to make something succeed?’”
And there are many parts to Bartolotta. She’s a seasoned sales professional, public speaker, philanthropist, trained chef, volunteer executive, business owner, mentor, animal lover and eternal optimist. She signs her emails “Choose Happy” and talks, not entirely in jest, about “spreading pixie dust” to make positive change happen.
Of course, the Bartolotta name is well-known. Jennifer and her restaurateur husband, Joe, have built a dining empire. Bartolotta Restaurants now includes 17 businesses, including some of the city’s finest, like Lake Park Bistro, Harbor House, Bacchus and Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993. They employ over 1,000 workers.
For fun, the power couple might jet off to dine at some of the finest gourmet bistros in Paris, or head to New York for dinner at Eric Ripert’s famed Le Bernardin. On one of their first dates, they attended the 90th birthday party of French chef legend Julia Child at The Four Seasons in Chicago. Joe’s brother, Paul, a co-owner of the restaurant group and award-winning chef, was one of the culinary all-stars invited to cook.
But all the globe-trotting aside, Milwaukee is home.
The Bartolotta philosophy has always been to give back to the community, explains Joe. “We think we have a fundamental responsibility to make the city we do business in better.” For years, that meant handing out restaurant gift certificates – at first $25, and later $50 – to thousands of worthy causes ranging from the United Way and Meta House to schools and soccer clubs.
But in 2009 the Bartolottas, led largely by Jennifer and her vision, created Care-a-lotta as the charitable arm of the company to add structure and impact to their giving. She chairs the board, which is made up of restaurant employees. “The idea of Care-a-lotta is to engage the people in the trenches every day who take care of customers and who make our giving possible,” Jennifer says. “It gives them a say in how we give and it also leverages our brand and helps raise awareness and funds for worthy causes.”
About 40 $100 restaurant gift certificates are still given out monthly, through a lottery system. But Care-a-lotta’s premiere project is the yearly Gal-a-lotta gala that benefits a nonprofit agency. This year, 74 agencies applied. The board whittled that down to three groups that made a presentation before final selection. The Bartolottas provide the space, food, beverage and labor. Employees serve and work the gala.
The 2018 Gal-a-lotta raised $28,000 for The Women’s Center in Waukesha, which provides domestic violence services, and in 2019 it will benefit youth organization Running Rebels. Last year’s gala benefitted Safe & Sound Inc., a nonprofit that works with residents, law enforcement and others to create safe neighborhoods. It raised a whopping $230,000 – topping the agency’s own fundraising breakfast, which had brought in $50,000 to $60,000 in previous years.
“It was a game changer,” says Katie Sanders, Safe & Sound’s executive director. “We’re a small organization and the gala not only raised a lot of money, but it raised our visibility in the community and helped remove some of the risk for the organization. It helped us build capacity.”
The partnership was rewarding beyond just the money, she adds. Representatives from Care-a-lotta took a bus tour of the Safe and Sound neighborhoods, she says, and “got to know us.”
Isn’t this good work also good for business?
“I’d like to think so,” says Jennifer. “I’d like to think people appreciate that we give back to the community, but it’s not something we advertise.”
She’s also been active in civic organizations outside of Care-alotta, including TEMPO Milwaukee, Meta House, Schools that Can Milwaukee and the humane society. At one time she was on the board of seven organizations, she says, but in recent years has shifted her focus to working for causes at the ground level.
“Jennifer sees disruption as an opportunity,” says Adams. “She just shows up. And she’s also built trust and made friends in the community,” she says. Part of that trust was built when she agreed to teach a yearlong, once-a-month cooking class to a group of women in the low-income Lindsay Heights area. At the first class, Jennifer cooked a meal and joined the women at the table, talking about what they cooked at home, sharing family recipes, getting to know them and what was available to them. Making connections.
“She gave our team insight into what was possible,” says Driver. “It was drastically so outside the box.”
Darienne Driver, former MPS superintendent on Jennifer Bartolotta’s work setting up the ProStart program
Today’s ProStart culinary arts program at Milwaukee Public Schools started in 2016 when the Bartolottas were opening the restaurants at the Mayfair Collection and having a hard time finding workers, says Jennifer. She ran into then-MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver and it hit her: You have kids. We have jobs.
Nationwide, ProStart is typically offered as a cool extracurricular, but at MPS it’s leveraged as a workforce development tool to allow students to gain real life work experience, as well as learn how to sauté a pork chop.
Jennifer served as a volunteer administrator for the program and recruited chef mentors to work with the students not just from Bartolotta Restaurants, but also from SURG Restaurant Group and others. She and Joe underwrote a gala at Discovery World that raised $278,000 to help pay for the program and transform an old home ec room at Washington High School into a modern kitchen with appliances, cookware and other tools.
The program now operates at Washington, Vincent and Bay View high schools and the James Madison Academic Campus. It has 390 students. This year, there’s a shortage of chef mentors, so Jennifer has stepped in at Bay View – assisted by Jeremiah Price, a 19-year-old graduate of the program who now has a job with Bartolotta Restaurants.
“She gave our team insight into what was possible,” says Driver. “It was drastically so outside the box.” More importantly, Jennifer is there for the students, Driver says. “She knows students by name, knows their stories and knows them like her own children. She has high expectations and it’s beautiful to see.”
(Driver spoke with Milwaukee Magazine before leaving her post this summer. Her successor, Keith Posley, says he backs ProStart 100 percent. “It’s real authentic experience to learn on the job and to cook a wholesome meal,” he says. “It’s outstanding.”)
Coming to terms with the basic needs and home situations of some of the students has been an education for herself. Jennifer recalls a class in which the teacher put an onion, a head of celery, a carrot and a chef ’s knife on a cutting board. “As we were getting ready for class to start, two girls leaned over and said, ‘We know what the onion and the celery are, but what’s the orange thing?’” Jennifer sighs. “It’s just tragically sad. It broke my heart. I learned I would have to go slower and deeper in this environment.”
These days, she refers to the students as “our kids” – something those who know her find surprising, she says, since she chose not to have children. “I care intensely about these kids as if they were my own.” Last year, she started giving some students a small pink rose quartz crystal to carry in their pocket. “I tell them it’s a grandmother’s stone of love and protection,” she says. “Carry it and know my love and protection is with you.”
But not everyone shares Jennifer’s pride in and concern for the students. “I’ve heard horrific things said about our kids,” she says. Last year, an elected official – she declined to say who – toured the program at Bay View. “He observed the kids working and they were rocking it – it was just what the program should be. And in front of Dr. Driver and others, he asked me, ‘Why are you wasting your time on these thugs?’”
Comments like that come from a person’s experiences and from letting time and distance create separations, she says – exactly what she’s trying to break down in her work. “What I know about life is when you get rid of that line and have respect, you can make a difference,” she says. “Everything in the universe is connected. We are all connected.”
Jennifer Shiparski was born on Nov. 8, 1963, in Michigan City, Indiana, the oldest and only girl of four children of Gretchen and Harry Shiparski. Her Polish-American father put himself through college at night, digging ditches and working in steel mills in Gary.
“He was first-generation American, so he wanted to do better than his parents,” she says. “He was stubborn, ambitious and motivated.” He worked for Gerber, the baby food company, and climbed the ranks, which meant the family moved often.
The summer before Jennifer’s fifth grade, they moved to Puerto Rico, where Jennifer played on the beach and lived in a diverse housing complex with friends who were Japanese, Russian and Saudi Arabian. It was the ’70s – travel was expensive – and Gerber would pay for only one family visit a year to the mainland. So on holidays, they would travel to various Caribbean islands that were accessible and affordable.
“It was a trip to Haiti on Thanksgiving of fifth grade that really altered the course of my life,” she says. At the time, strongman Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was in power. Armed militiamen were on nearly every corner, enforcing order among extreme poverty. At a large public, open-air market, they saw feral cats and dogs, moms carrying multiple kids wrapped around their bodies. It was loud and dirty.
“What stuck with me is people didn’t buy a whole of anything,” she recalls. “They were buying tablespoons of tomato sauce from a can that was open, and flies were all over the place. I remember at that moment in that market thinking, ‘Wow, I live a very different life.’ I was really lucky and really privileged. It was that moment that fueled this compulsion in me to pay attention to the margins.”
After five years in Puerto Rico, the family returned to Gerber’s headquarters in the small, west-central Michigan city of Fremont, where the high school freshman found culture shock. “I had spent my formative years in this Caribbean melting pot surrounded by as much culture and diversity as you could imagine. In Fremont, there were no people of color.”
Those in her Fremont class stayed in Fremont, like their parents and grandparents. Only 10 percent of the graduating class went to college. She was part of that minority. She attended Michigan State and earned a degree in international relations with a minor in Spanish and Latin American studies. She wanted to “change the world” and work for the World Bank, but poor math scores dashed plans to attend an international business school.
Instead, she spent 18 months as a liaison between a dairy cooperative and the government in Costa Rica. She then returned to the States, working in sales for Land O’Lakes in Chicago, eventually moving to Cintas, a large company that specializes in uniforms. A 10-year marriage ended with her staying friends with her ex.
It was through her job at Cintas that Jennifer met Joe Bartolotta around 2000. Joe didn’t get along with the local Cintas rep, so Jennifer came up to Milwaukee to perform triage on the account. The two flirted a bit, and it soon became clear that Joe was smitten. After she was no longer filling in on his account, he called her repeatedly until she agreed to see him. Jennifer says she wasn’t ready for a relationship. “And I had no interest in a guy in Milwaukee.”
Says Joe: “Milwaukee is a tough city to break into because it’s very cliquish, so it takes time to develop your brand.”
“This was his town, his family, his house, his business, his company and instead of just showing up as myself, I tried to make everybody happy,” Jennifer says. “I got really depressed.” She started taking medications that took away the lows, but also the highs, she says. After six months, she began to slowly wean herself off the meds, but it took about a year. “I made the decision I needed to figure out how to cope with my life and recognize my triggers and dig myself out of the hole. It was hard.” Informal counseling with wise friends helped.
“When I crawled out of my depression, I became a student of trying to live in grace,” she says. “It’s my job to be better today than when I woke up, and for me that means spreading pixie dust wherever I can.”
Today she rises early and begins the day with the Chinese breathing and movement system Qigong, as well as meditation and philosophical readings. She and Joe live in the western suburbs with three dogs. She enjoys walking, yoga, swimming and tending her vegetable garden. She spends times with her parents, who live in a local retirement community.
Professionally, after joining Joe’s family, Jennifer also joined the company. For 10 years, she put her sales experience to work to help develop and grow Bartolotta’s key catering and corporate events business, Joe says.
In addition to her community work, she runs her own seminar business, Train-2-Gain, which coaches young professionals on business etiquette, social skills, building self-confidence and the importance of body language.
She’s also served as a mentor to many women, including Angela Damiani, the president of NEWaukee, who was a 20-something starting her career when she heard Jennifer speak. “She was brave, bold and impressive, and I thought, ‘That’s the type of leader I want to be,’” Damiani says.
Later, Jennifer introduced Angela to her younger brother, Jamie. Romance bloomed and a wedding followed, at which Jennifer officiated. Last year, the couple had a baby boy, Harry, on whom Jennifer dotes.
But Jamie has another intimate connection to the Bartolotta family. Joe, 59, has been a Type 1 diabetic since his early 20s and five years ago needed a kidney transplant. Jamie stepped forward to donate. “He saved my life,” says Joe. “I’ve gotten a gift because of Jennifer.”
A few of her favorite things
Jennifer Bartolotta’s favorite Milwaukee restaurant: “THE NEXT ONE”
Favorite restaurant anywhere: LE TAILLEVENT, PARIS
Favorite food: POTATOES IN ANY FORM, MAYBE WITH A LITTLE BACON
Favorite entrée: PORCINI MUSHROOMS COOKED IN BUTTER FOLLOWED BY A BONE-IN RIBEYE
Favorite dessert: THE CARROT CAKE AT THE MASON STREET GRILL
Favorite drink: A FULL-BODIED CABERNET
Favorite travel spot: “THE NEXT ONE” AGAIN. THE LIST INCLUDES PORTUGAL, SPAIN, THE GREEK ISLES, BALI AND THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA.
Favorite sport: FOOTBALL. SHE’S A GREEN BAY PACKERS FAN NOW, BUT SHE’S LIVED IN MANY CITIES AND HAS ROOTED FOR THE BEARS, LIONS, COLTS AND VIKINGS.
Now 55, Jennifer says she’s trying to slow down and not overcommit.
She loves Milwaukee and believes in it. Most people want to do good, but they may not know how, she says. “It’s a challenge because in Milwaukee, we haven’t created an environment where people feel comfortable, because we’re not connected. So are we going to make a choice to try to be more connected or not?”
She thinks it’s possible. “We will find a way to come together and connect. I’m never going to give up hope. And I will spread my pixie dust here in Milwaukee until the day I die.”