Saturday, June 14, 2014

Trader Joe

Alumni of Goldman Sachs have had to deal with a wide variety of issues in their next careers. There's the future of the banking system (former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson) and the control of interest rates in Europe (President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi). Others have had to grapple with the intrigues of the White House (former White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolton), as well as the running of the state of New Jersey (former Governor Jon Corzine). But probably not many have had to deal with the fact the stuffed clams have too many breadcrumbs. Then again, they're not Joe Mazzella.

Joe had a twenty year career trading commodities at the flagship Wall Street firm. But when his daughter had her sixteenth birthday, and introduced him at the candle lighting by saying "This is my dad, and I never get to see him," he knew it was time to leave. So he cashed in his chips, and started to trade for himself. Then one night his softball team stopped by a local watering hole 5 minutes from his house, a place that wasn't really making the grade. It turned out it was for sale, and Joe had always wanted to own a restaurant. He knew nothing about the business, but had a childhood friend who did, and who agreed to supply the knowhow if Joe supplied the cash. And before you could say truffle mac n' cheese, Somers 202 was born.

Joe figured it would be fun; after all, how hard could it be? You sell a steak for $10, you make $2, and you have a place that always has a table for you and your wife. "I was hoping to generate a little income, just pay the bills on the place," he told me. But he quickly found out that wasn't the case. "Because I live in this town, I had to throw that out the window. You can't cut corners. Every stoplight, every corner, I'm getting honked at. I can't go low end. Plus I eat here myself."

Joe wanted a place he could be proud of, one that had legs and built a following. But he's not a cook: "There's a swinging door into kitchen; when I go in, I'm a tourist." So he looked at the place the way a customer would. "People who come here know they're always going to see the owners. We don't tell people, but by the end of the night you know." Joe walks the room, checking on the tables, making sure everyone is happy. "There's an old Italian custom that you never come to visit empty handed. So I'm always giving out desserts." He laughs: "The staff says 'You're the reason we're not making any money!'"

He also approaches it like a business, using some of the skills he gained on Wall Street. He still trades commodities, and if he sees a spike in the price of pork or beef or propane, he adjusts his restaurant purchases accordingly. He created two separate areas inside, a bar and a dining room that play to different crowds. He's very tied into the community, hosting gatherings of Girl Scouts and sports teams. And he notes that the restaurant business, like the financial world, is all about paying attention to the margins. "That's what makes the difference," he said. I asked for an example. "Take vodka. Most places will buy 4 or 6 bottles a week. We just bought 100 cases, and got a great price, like 60 cents on the dollar. In the long run, that will pay off."

Still, he acknowledges that to do it right is hard work. "It's much more stressful than trading commodities. It's an open mirror, a huge reflection of yourself, and that means you're obliged to do everything the right way." And he's not just sitting still. This year they added a deck, have plans to put in a raw bar for seafood, and he's excited about a deal he just struck with a local farm to use their produce.  But even after a successful four years, he's going slowly; while he'd like to open another place, he doesn't want to sacrifice the quality and control he has at the one location. Still, for all the headaches, it does have its upside: "It really is a lot fun. And when people walk out with a smile, it really is worth it."


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to eat out. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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