Life is fragile, so do what you love

Joe Bartolotta

Joe Bartolotta

When you get toward the second half of your life, you start realizing time is a limited resource. It was the premature deaths of people close to Richard and me that finally kick-started us to move forward with Lark.

It’s always easy to say, “I’ll get to that next year.” And then you get the reminder that next year is likely but not necessarily a lock.

We got that reminder again today with the untimely death of Milwaukee restaurateur Joe Bartolotta. We were introduced to Joe through John Westphal, a good friend of Joe’s and big supporter of what we’re trying to do at Lark. John contacted Joe and asked him to spend some time with us and show us the ropes. Knowing what a busy guy he was, we were surprised at how quickly he contacted us and scheduled a visit.

We spent an afternoon with Joe in March, touring his restaurants including Downtown Kitchen and Harbor House. He quizzed us, hard, on why we got into the business and our goals. He shared his experiences and philosophy. It was plain that his employees adored him, and he adored them. His very sweet daughter, Mary, joined us at the Harbor House bar and we ate happy hour oysters, shrimp and other treats while he peppered us with questions and anecdotes from decades in the business. He gave us a lot to think about and it turned out to be a clarifying afternoon for us.

As he dropped us off at the hotel, Joe basically said we were old to be starting the adventure we’ve embarked upon. He shook his head, saying he’s two years younger than Richard and tired, ready to retire, but to each his own. We walked away feeling a little deflated, to be honest, but then as we talked about it that evening, while a full blood moon rose over Lake Michigan, it occurred to us that there was a key difference between Joe and us – he had been doing what he loved his entire life. We were coming to the party late, but we love it, too.

We will never accomplish what Joe did – 17 restaurants and a multimillion-dollar restaurant group. That’s okay. We hope to open another place or two in the next couple of years and have a small impact on Janesville’s dining scene. We’re still inspired by how food and drink bring people together and, honestly, just the craft of it. We love working with chefs, bartenders, servers and meeting other restaurant owners who are just as nuts as us. All of us love making people happy, which beats the hell out of sitting in a cubicle even if the pay isn’t great.

Joe died in his sleep at the age of 60, reportedly with a smile on his face. He did what he loved, he mentored a lot of talent, and he created some of the best restaurants in the Midwest. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, first dates, lousy-day rescues … he made a difference in so many lives. We can only aspire to inspire the loyalty and achieve the quality that he did in his restaurants. We learned a lot in a few hours with Joe Bartolotta and we will be forever grateful for his generosity.

Thanks, Joe, for everything.

Joan Neeno