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Welcome to the Jear Bear Letter’s third letter of the series “Seven Degrees of Strangers”. If you’ve started reading this series, I interview a stranger one degree of separation at a time. This week, I’m presenting a conversation I had with Joe Lazarra. He runs a butcher shop and fish market in Carmel, Indiana. He also happens to be the previous interviewee, Evan, father’s best friend.
Joe has walked an unconventional path. We dive into his past work, his butcher shop, and so much more.
I wasn’t expecting Joe to be a masterful storyteller. If you ever talk to him, he has a very solid sense of self. He started his story by transporting me back over a century ago. His great grandparents grew up in Sicily. Different invaders have conquered Sicily time and time again. So much so that other Italians call them outsiders. Sicilians have a different dialect and different culture. They value family, culture and food. Especially food.
Joe’s grandparents and their brothers sold produce in California and southern Indiana. Their lives included stories of escapades, murders, and running from the KKK. If I ever get to hang out with Joe, I’d love him to tell me some of them. What’s important to Joe is the Sicilian heritage followed them to America.
Joe’s mother learned recipes passed down from the older generation. Joe’s aunt taught his mother how to cook, handing them generation to generation. Needless to say, the family bonds over food, like Joe helping make the sauce.
Joe is youngest of 6 children. There’s an 18 year generational gap between his oldest brother and himself. Because of that, his father, his eldest brother, and he are born in different generations. His father was born in the 20s, his brother in the 40s, and Joe in the 60s.
Joe’s father didn’t make much money. Yet, he valued education and funded all 6 children through college. He knew that going to college is important. He didn’t have a large house. He made sure none of his children never paid a dime. Joe’s very fortunate and grateful to his father.
In college, Joe met Charlie Roar, Evan’s dad. They became dependable friends and fraternity brothers. Today, they remain close. Joe is a godfather to Charlie’s daughter. Joe’s a part of Charlie’s family as they moved from Chicago to Minnesota to North Carolina. When Joe’s father passed away, you can bet Charlie was there for him and his family.
Joe studied Quantitative analysis, which during the mid to late 80’s, was the thing to study and get a great job. When Joe graduated, he worked at Indiana Bell on a software project. That project got sold to General Telephone and Electric, GTE. But, Indiana Bell didn’t want to help with maintaining the software.
GTE needed consultants. Joe’s co-workers and Joe saw this as an opportunity to create their own consulting company. They formed United Informations Technology. Joe was 23 at the time and moved with the company to Tampa Bay. On weekends he’d invite friends. The job demanded Joe travel all over. With the sales commissions, Joe was making 6 figures. But the company’s success didn’t last long. The company hired an HR manager to manage pensions as they started growing. But, no one else knew this HR manager would take their pensions and buy coke in Florida and resell it in Chicago. One day, the FBI and DEA knock on Joe’s door asking about the illegal activity. Joe exits as soon as he can; the company gets dissolved.
Joe took a position with GTE in Indianapolis selling cellular to wireless carriers. The market was ripe for cellular networks, and selling was like shooting fish in a barrel. Year over year, Joe was the top 1% of sales people. He rose the ranks and became a general manager over other sales people.
During this period, he got married and had kids. He’s in his early 30’s, and he’s traveling all over the U.S. for his sales job. He got tired of going out to the bars with his guy friends. Instead, he uses this time to explore restaurants. Today, many of these restaurants have Michelin stars or are James Beard candidates. Those are prestigious accolades in the food world.
Joe told me a story of how he met Emeril Lagasse before he was famous. He was in New Orleans. Charlie’s cousin invites Joe to meet Nellie Brennan, owner of Brennan’s restaurant. Nellie brings them to the Commander’s Palace to meet the head chef, who turns out to be none other than Emeril. This was right before he opened his flagship restaurant. Well before he was a Food network celebrity.
Joe meets Susan Spicer before she became big at the Bistro at Maison de Ville. Some of these restaurants catch wind of Joe, thinking he was a food critic. They would invite him at the Chef’s table if he called. When they found out he was only a food enthusiast, they laughed and would cooked up a storm. It was during this time Joe’s food and wine palette expanded.
GTE gets bought out by Bell Atlantic and forms Verizon. Joe becomes in charge of the telecomm act where he has to negotitate contracts on behalf of Verizon. He has to travel even more. In 1999, Joe quits to join a telecomm start-up in Indiana, First Mile Technology. The company was ahead of their competitors.
Business was going well. Then 9/11 happened. VC capital dried up. Joe had a tough time getting developers to invest upfront because they didn’t have the money. Joe left and consulted for a bunch of small companies.
After that, he consulted for a few years. But Joe grew tired on traveling around. Clients were asking Joe to do things that tested against his principles. For example, they asked him to move phone numbers around, move money around, and lose trails. He sought solace from his brothers and Charlie. They reminded him of wanting to start a restaurant or be in food.
Carmel, Indiana is a progressive city and their mayor wanted to build a city center. The mayor asked Joe if he wanted to start a restaurants there. When Joe asked his wife, she objected. She told him they have three children, ages 3, 5, and 7, and he wouldn’t be there for them at night. Joe remembered his friend, Mark Zannoni. He was also Italian, and Mark’s father owned a butcher shop outside of Chicago. Joe asked his wife about a butcher shop, and she agreed that would be a better choice.
They put about a year of work into opening the shop before it opened. The first year’s return was at a loss, but since then, they’ve been on the up. They’re netting a few million a year, and it has become such an integral piece to the community. Joe’s been at it for 11 years. You can find the butcher shop and fish market’s website at the end of the article.
There was an old couple that used to shop at Joe’s butcher shop weekly. They loved talking to Joe and the staff. One week, Joe noticed the husband stopped coming. The next Saturday, she came in early, right after the opening hour. She walks through the entrance, dressed top-to-bottom with a red dress.
Joe asked the lady where her husband. The lady leans over the counter and tells Joe her husband passed away. Joe tells her he’s sorry to hear, but the lady stops him.
“I came here to tell you. We loved interacting with you and the staff. Coming here for the past 5 years made him happy.”
Of course, Joe’s ready to melt after this. It’s situations like this that has taught him he’s the caretaker of community trust. He’s seen customers have babies who have now grown to become pre-teens. He caters to community member’s funerals.
Joe tells me it’s not about the money. It’s all about giving back to the people. It’s the satisfaction knowing you are delivering the turkey to your customer’s home during Thanksgiving. Early on, Joe wanted to franchise the business and build many “Joe’s Butchershops”. Now, Joe wants to make his shop iconic, like Ann Arbor’s Zimmerman’s Deli or San Francisco’s Ghirardelli’s Square. Carmel is an up and coming, affluent city, about an hour or two away from Indianapolis. People from all over the state come to visit the butcher shop.
Joe picked the right location, and he owes his success to his background in sales. Without it, he couldn’t see a different side of business. One where the customer gives you feedback and where you listen. Joe’s mission is to share good karma, because things come back. And he can’t see himself doing anything else.
“I sleep at night. I sleep like a baby, for the most part. Whereas before, I was always concerned about the next sale, or how I was going to get that revenue stream.”
Joe’s takeaway makes a wonderful quote. “Love unconditionally, and you will be returned with unconditional joy.” Very humbling.
Check out Joe’s Butcher Shop and Fish Market if you’re in the Carmel, Indiana area.
Credits to Joe Lazzara for talking to me. Credits to Evan Roer for the illustration and letterhead.