Edmund Halabi is the owner/operator of Italian House.
Where were you born?
I was born in Dakar, Senegal, which is a country in West Africa. I was raised there for a few years, then we moved over to Liberia.
I went to a Liberian school, and we spoke English, but mostly broken English. Ancestrally, my mother is French and my father is Lebanese. When my dad was just 15, he left his family in Tyre, Lebanon, because my grandfather was only a blacksmith. As my dad got older, he was expected to help out the family financially. So, he went to Africa where my grandfather’s brother lived and had a business.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? Back in the old days, people just left their family behind and went on a journey of the unknown! He grew up there, worked there, met my mother, they married and decided to start a family. I have three brothers and a sister.
What brought you to America?
I remained in Liberia until I was 18, and then I came to America. In 1980 there was a revolution and the government in power was toppled by the native Liberians. There was never an issue between whites and blacks, but rather an issue between what we call Americo-Liberians and the natives.
The Americo-Liberians were descendants of the freed slaves of America and the Caribbean. A lot of ships went back with freed slaves, and they traded stuff with the chiefs and bought land in Liberia. The country Liberia was named after the word liberty, in part because of their freedom. The capital city is Monrovia, which was named after American President, James Monroe.
Nepotism played a role in the government, where the prime minister sent his kid to America and he came back to become the Prime Minister. The natives felt they were being cheated. It’s not like in America, where if you’re born in America you’re American. If you are a native in Liberia, you have to be black. And there was never progress on their end.
The many native tribal people felt they were being oppressed, they didn’t have support for education, hospitals, etc. So, America sent money, which God bless America … however, when they sent it, the president pocketed all the money, and the poor stayed poor.
We were just business owners there. We had a wonderful relationship with the people, but the natives got so tired of being so oppressed and cheated. So, they rebelled. They assassinated the president and their families, took them on the beach and killed all of them.
When that first revolution happened, my father decided it wasn’t safe enough for us, and it was time for us to leave. My uncle in Peoria, Illinois offered the opportunity for me to continue my education there. So, I left Liberia on my own to go live with my uncle in America in 1980.
I went to college there and was a medical lab tech working in a hospital. All throughout college, I worked at restaurants, and learned a lot. I vowed to myself that I would, never, never, never go back into the restaurant industry after I graduated.
After about a year working in the hospital, I just couldn’t handle sitting behind a microscope or computers. It just wasn’t for me. I was more hands on, a multitasker. That adrenaline rush from working in those restaurants became my chemistry.
What brought you to Rock County?
I came here on pure chance. Coincidence. After about a year, I told my wife, “Honey, I can’t do this forever, I can’t do this for 30 years.” We talked and talked about maybe opening up a restaurant. It would give me something do, and she didn’t mind.
Well, I didn’t want to open one up across from my old boss or anything. So, we originally came up to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and we couldn’t find anything there. We drove through Delavan, and after a little research, we discovered it was more of a Hispanic community, so I wouldn’t be able to sell my spaghetti there very well.
We researched through a thing called the Atlas Book. Remember those big thick books? I opened it looking for Hwy 51, followed the route, and it took me to Janesville! This was back in 1987. I drove down Milton Avenue, they had an old gas station there. As I was pumping gas, I just happened to look over my shoulder and saw a little place for rent, right there on Milton Avenue.
And that was my first location, right across the street from Wendy’s and McDonald’s. I called the owner, signed a lease and I told my wife, “We have to move up to a place called Janesville, Wisconsin.” She asked, “Why are you doing this?” For me, as a young man, I had a dream of opening up multiple restaurants.
Tell me about the beginnings of Italian House?
My wife came up here and worked with me at the restaurant, and we slept on the floor. It was just us, the restaurant, and our station wagon. It was an old house with a garage, which someone converted to a dining room. But, of course, we didn’t have any money.
We didn’t take out any business loans, so I went to my uncle. I was 25 and broke! I asked if I could borrow some money to open up a restaurant. He thought I was crazy! He gave me the whole lecture thing, tried to talk me out of it. But I was persistent, and he relented.
I used that money, it was like $10,000, not enough to open up a restaurant. I was young and had no clue of what I was doing. I just had this crazy idea. When we opened up, we had four tables, and called it Italian House!
Although it was on Milton Avenue, the location was awful. That’s why a lot of mom and pop restaurants don’t last, they take what they can afford. To enter my building, you had to go around to the light, go into the old banker building, enter their parking lot, come back out, and then into my building. It was a nightmare, and we weren’t doing very well at all! It was just awful.
After a few months, we had no money. I went and got a job as a lab tech again at Dean Riverview Clinic. I would wake up at 2 a.m., work at the restaurant till about 7 a.m., shower, change and run down to Dean, till about 3:30-4 p.m., come back to the restaurant, work until about 11 and go to bed at midnight. Then I’d do it all over again. I used that money from my job to live on, because the restaurant wasn’t doing very well.
I had no marketing skills, or money to do any of that, and I set up in a community that was mostly German or Norwegian! Everything here was steak and potatoes, anything Italian was just pizza. Here I come trying to sell tortellini and all this. People would come in asking: do you have any steak? Do you have any hamburgers? People would ask me, “What is ravioli?”
At that time, Janesville had never had Italian restaurants, unlike bigger cities. People in larger cities grew up eating Italian. I couldn’t cross over, I just couldn’t sell any of it. That’s why I had that extra job, to sustain myself. It went from the American dream to the American nightmare. We were sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags! But I didn’t want to give it up.
A year and a half later, I heard of a building next to a high school up for rent. I thought, “Craig High School? What is that?” I drove over to check it out because the first place wasn’t working. I was selling the wrong food to the wrong people.
I decided to move over there and make a new plan. The theory I gave my wife was that if we wanted to stay in this business, we had to get the new generation to grow up on our food, something their parents never had. We decided to give that a shot.
I rented the building next to Craig, and again we did the worst thing we can do in any business: we did a job that wasn’t right. Restaurants are judged by the cover not the contents. The people want the experience, the ambiance, the parking, all that. I couldn’t afford to do any renovations, so we just brought equipment over, opened up, and hoped that it would work.
The high school kids liked it, they wanted cheap food, and a place to eat with their friends. They don’t judge. I was selling $2 specials; spaghetti, garlic bread, and pop. It was different every day. It would do so well during the school year, we’d feed 100-200 kids a day, but during the summer it plummeted. Looking back now, I realize how crazy I was then.
If you’d walk in there at that time, you’d sit in a dining room with fluorescent lighting, with Styrofoam plates, and plastic silverware, no coffee, no salad, no choices. It was a very limited menu. It was just not done right. It might have been good for carry out, but not for dining. We basically stigmatized ourselves with that.
As time went on, those kids grew up, and when they came back to Janesville, they came back to us. Our business began to grow off the backs of the high schoolers. I stayed there and decided to pay back my debts to my uncle, the IRS, the light company, all of that.
I learned to work in place of four people. I’d work the counter, the kitchen, the phone, all seven days a week. A few years after that, I hired a high school student. Then I’d hire another one to take on a couple of duties. It was slowly growing, and inched up as the kids were growing up and coming back to us.
I still have kids today working for me whose parents worked for me 20-30 years ago! Our customers today are in their late 40s, the age that originally patronized us.
How did you get from there to what you have today?
Excellent question. 18-19 years later, we were still in that place, slowly growing, keeping our cost of labor down, so we could save a few bucks for whatever. The realtor came after Hardee’s left, and we negotiated a deal to purchase the new building. We took all our retirement money and savings from over the years, and remodeled the entire restaurant.
We had to take out the look of Hardee’s, so we did the walls, the shingles, the flooring, gas lines, everything and were back to being poor! But, we finally had a drive thru, a walk-in freezer and a walk-in fridge. How exciting is that? I used to store stuff in my van. So, for 18 years, every day I would get my bag of ice from the gas station, and the only freezer we had was an at home deep freezer, that’s how bad it was.
The renovations were in 2007, and General Motors said they were closing down the next year. My immediate thought was “Oh God, what did we do?” and then the following year, the school announced that the kids would be staying in for lunch with a closed campus. You put your entire livelihood, your entire financial security, thinking that this would be for the best, to accommodate more kids, more customers.
Here is what the underlying thing was. Craig High School wanted to expand, and the justification was to have a cafeteria. How do we tell the taxpayers that we need a big cafeteria like that when the students could go places for lunch? It failed for a couple of years, but they kept fighting, telling them that our kids’ safety was in jeopardy, that their kids were picking up drugs and alcohol out on the streets at lunch; that was published in the Gazette.
Then they went on and on about truancy, but it wasn’t true. The freshman kids, aren’t going to be walking 5-6 blocks to go party. The ones who did that were the juniors and seniors, who had cars. And some parents enabled that, told the kids to come home and they’ll feed them every day of the week. The kids loved that. But, they sold the safety issue to the parents of the freshman and sophomore kids. And the parents bought it.
That decision to keep them in affected me tremendously. It was like someone cutting off my water line. It’s not a high traffic area, it’s just a neighborhood business. So, at that time, when they passed it, they finally did it after fighting for a good 5-10 years. I had no school kids, no General Motors workers; I didn’t realize how hard it was going to get.
In the next few years, 50% of local business dropped. So, many people had lost their jobs, houses, and were moving away. So, those mom and pop restaurants couldn’t sustain themselves. People couldn’t afford to keep eating out when their jobs were at stake. I couldn’t let my guys go, I just stopped rehiring after my kids were leaving.
Eventually, I came up with the idea of selling our breads at Woodman’s grocery stores. Sandwiches, breads, pasta salads, I wanted to sell all of that so at least my staff could keep their jobs until the economy turns around. I talked to Steve over there and asked him if they would be interested in selling our bread, and they said they’d love to. They wanted to help local business’, and they’d love to have something new on the shelves.
They told us to get our approval, bagging, labels, and barcodes and after that they’d sell our bread on their shelves. They saved our butts, basically. We’d package the breads during the slow afternoons, and the next morning I’d go bring them over there and drop them off. That kept us alive.
About three years ago, about 2008-2009, we were in Woodman’s, doing well, sustaining ourselves, and then we were starting to get requests for like wedding rehearsals, birthday parties, and I never turned down business. But, if you had a soccer, hockey, baseball dinner here, it was too crazy for other customers. So, I said to my wife, what if we expand and create a banquet room?” This was three years ago, and now we have a great new banquet room.
My wife Karen, she’s amazing. I always say, “Behind every good relationship is a woman who does everything. If things go downhill, she pushes him back up and says, ‘Keep walking.’”
Tell me the story behind the bricks. How did this tradition get started?
A young man by the name of Mark Kiskunas of Janesville had moved to South Carolina. He worked in a bank down there and would come up to visit his family now and then. One morning, on one of his visits, he came in to pick up an order. He said to me, “You know, Mr. Halabi, I’ve eaten here so much I think I’ve paid off something in this building of yours.” I said, “You know what? You’ve probably paid off one of those bricks up there.”
At the time I was using a gold marker to write some Christmas cards, so I handed it to him and said, “Why don’t you go ahead and put your name up there on one of those bricks.” So, he did. Then I suggested he put the year he graduated on the brick. I thought nothing of it.
A week or two later, his buddies came in to pick up some food and said, “What’s Mark’s name doing up there?” I told them the story and they wanted to add their names. So they did, Chris Campbell, Dan and Jason added theirs. Every year, when kids graduated from Craig, if they asked to put their names on the wall, I would let them.
But, when we moved into our new location at Italian House at 1603 E Racine St, I didn’t know how I would move all the bricks over. I didn’t really plan to use them in the new building. It was Al Fagerli of WCLO who called me and asked me what I was going to do with all the names. I told him I was done with that, that I wanted a whole new image. He said, “Are you kidding, Edmund? Those are nostalgic, there’s an emotional attachment to those names. We have to get them over!”
So, he went on the airwaves and for a whole week, Al Fagerli and Stan Milam talked about this every single day from 9 to 11 about what to do with the brick panel boards. They got so many ideas! Some people said we should use them in the ceiling, use them as table tops, put them on the floor. So, we brought them over with us and found space on the walls for them.
We have a lot of great names on these walls. In fact, Paul Ryan has his name on the wall, and when he was running for Vice President, people were coming in to take pictures next to it. We have Milwaukee news anchor, Tim Elliott, and the comedian, Pete Lee is on the wall. They’re all Craig High School graduates.
What are some of the changes you’ve witnessed over the years in our community?
Amazing changes! We’ve moved so much further along. It’s like anything in life, when one door closes, another opens. We have an amazing infrastructure. Our administrator down at the City is doing a wonderful job.
Forward Janesville is also doing an amazing job of connecting businesses and providing services. For example, the 5.0 development, headed by Diane Hendricks and Mary Holzhauer, and other groups, all these entities are collectively coming together and pushing Janesville forward.
We are very lucky to have these entities. The 5.0 are getting people shovel ready. If you want to open up packaging, they’ll say to you, “It’s already done” and you bypass all the hurdles. They’ve helped companies move more quickly and blossom.
At one time we only had one employer, General Motors, but today we have a plethora of employers. Prent, GoEx, Rath Manufacturing, every entity that has been established here, Grainger, Woodman’s, Farm and Fleet, everyone’s been expanding and growing. We go through a difficult economic downturn, but as thing change, we adapt and we grow, and the community is growing in a very positive way. The communities around Rock County are also partaking in this development.
Tell me about some of your own community involvement.
I’ve always had this thing about being active in your community, in whatever way you can. Maybe you can sing a song at a platform, and say, “This is my donation to the community.” But as for me, my donation has been culinary.
For over 20 years, I’ve catered to many church events, many hot lunch programs in schools, places like Saint Mary’s, Saint John’s, all at a reduced price so they can afford to feed those kids. We’ve worked with ECHO Food Pantry, many organizations that need something or the other, raffle tickets, gift baskets, things like that. For many years we’ve been asked to help and we always have.
I also sit on the board of Blackhawk Credit Union. I’ve been a member there 25-plus years, and they’ve always been supportive of me, despite my history. I toot their horn a little bit because they are always giving back to the community. So, I’ve sat on that board because, like me in so many ways, they take a lot of their profit and put it back into organizations and into the community.
Who have been your role models in life?
I admire people who start businesses, especially in my industry. When I look around, the successful families in our community that run very successful businesses like the Pregonts, the Kennedys, the Ryans, the Hendricks family, I look up to them and think. “How can they do what they do?” They run huge businesses internationally! It’s beyond comprehension.
There are a lot of people like that here and I really look up to them and how they’ve learned to sustain themselves. Like David and Billy at Mac’s Pizza Shack, Jane Gilbertson at Farm and Fleet. They give back and donate so much money back into the community. These are people who take money, the kind that if you and I had it we’d retire and go to the Bahamas, and then they donate it back into the community.
What keeps you here in Rock County?
Rock County has given birth to many amazing people and industries that have all flourished so well. If you look back in time, the Parker Pen industry, the J.P. Cullen industry that basically built Janesville. You look at the people, the families that keep coming back, Janesville has been blessed by these amazing people that have given us so many benefits and forged a way of life in our community.
Rock County is just a perfect community of beauty and prosperity. The interstate connects us all, Beloit, Janesville, Milton. We’re close to Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago. We have rivers and lakes, and the beauty of Wisconsin. I’ve made Janesville my hometown.
I have a book of the history of Janesville from the Rock County Historical Society. One day I was looking at it and read of all the big names, everyone who’s built Janesville. A teenager asked me why I was reading it, I told him that when I go six feet under later in life, I want to know who my neighbors are!
Janesville is a great community, I’d never leave it. There’s a plaque down at Dawson Field about Burr Robbins Circus, it says that if he ever stops his wandering, he’ll always look back at Janesville. So, I guess for over 100 years or more, people still have that close attachment to Janesville. Once you come here and drink this water, you’re not going anywhere.