Milwaukee Biz Blog: Remembering Joe Bartolotta

A passionate entrepreneur who loved what he did

Joe Bartolotta

Last updated on June 25th, 2019 at 01:35 pm

I had the pleasure of working with Joe Bartolotta from 2008 to 2016. I was his TEC chair at the time. A TEC chair works with TEC members in groups and on an individual, one-on-one basis. In his TEC group, Joe always brought a unique perspective to issues on which members were working. On an individual basis, Joe brought life. Full, unadulterated, what-you-see-is-what-get, warts and all…life.

There is no doubt that Joe was a true visionary when it came to the restaurant business in Milwaukee. I have worked with others who had the ability to see things “out there” differently. Lake Park Bistro was an underutilized, ice rink warming house and children’s pavilion with some offices built in 1965, with spectacular views of Lake Michigan. Most who looked at it, saw it as just that. But Joe saw opportunity for something special.

Not only did Joe see these types of opportunities…Joe executed. Imagine working with the county and the Friends of Lake Park to convert a cherished historically significant landmark into an upscale French restaurant. Joe, his brother Paul and Joe’s people got it done.

Imagine seeing a deteriorating, money losing, Pieces of Eight restaurant along the lakefront. Imagine seeing a renovation that included gutting the building entirely – including the exterior walls, to create a beautiful new restaurant, Harbor House. Once again, Joe executed on the vision with the help of his partner, Mike Cudahy…another Milwaukee visionary.

Joe had his restaurant failures, as well. But he never stayed with a bad deal very long. Part of this success was rooted in the fact that Joe was very good with numbers. Sometimes it was on the back of an envelope. Sometimes it was Joe’s CFO, Keith Trafton, working him through the financials. The combination of a visionary who was good with numbers can be very dangerous…to the competition.

Joe also had a talent for selecting good people. From longtime employees like John Wise and Adam Siegel, Joe had a knack for hiring talent that fit the organization. For years, Joe would be the final interview for every potential new hire. He said he was looking for the sparkle in the candidates’ eye, when it came to hospitality and being of service to others. He knew he could hire a hostess, a waiter or a sous chef. Joe wanted the sparkle.

Joe worked a lot. Many of Joe’s fellow TEC members (and his chair a time or two) suggested he slow down a bit and take some time off, particularly considering his numerous and well documented health issues. The problem was Joe loved what he was doing every day. He was able to overcome a classic entrepreneur’s constraint. The entrepreneur is used to being very hands-on, doing things. Eventually through growth, the entrepreneur must learn to let go and manage through others or growth is constrained. Joe was able to recreate his job as he went from doing to managing to leading. He was able to create a perfect job for himself…and he loved it.

While Joe was not a chef…as some of his critics were quick to point out…Joe could cook. Paul and he created some of the recipes that are still on the menus at many of their restaurants. There are many stories of Joe having friends to his house to teach them how to cook something interesting. He taught me how to make a Bartolotta omelet one unforgettable afternoon.

Joe did not like hearing about bad food or other complaints at his restaurants. He took every complaint personally. This was good and bad, as he took the complaint issue too seriously sometimes. On the other hand, complaints drove Joe and the organization to be better.

My guess is everyone who knew Joe reasonably well has a favorite goofy Joe story. One I can share without breaking confidentiality was an afternoon one-on-one session where Joe asked me to meet him at the Rumpus Room. Joe wanted to work on enhancing the color of some new wooden chairs that he selected for the expanded area south of the dinning/room restaurant while we talked. Joe was “enhancing” the color of the wooden chairs using a hand held propane torch. He would burn off some to the wood finish, hoping to get the desired “aged look.”

It wasn’t too long after the wood finishing work commenced that the smoke from the enhancing set off the fire alarm in the office building the restaurant is located in. No harm. The building only partially evacuated. The fire department did not have to respond. It was just Joe, doing what he loved.

Dennis Ellmaurer is a management consultant working as Chair Emeritus with Vistage Worldwide, Inc. He is also a speaker and executive coach. He can be reached at (414) 801-5780 or dennis@globenational.com.

Get our email updates