By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Nov 16, 2004 at 5:42 AM

{image1}Milwaukee restaurateur John Vassallo, call him Johnny V., expanded his presence in "Mowaukee" in March with the purchase of Grenadier's, the once-popular upscale restaurant downtown. In less than six months, he's made his new place, Moceans, into one of the best-reviewed seafood restaurants in town. Recently, he changed his Mo's Market to a casual Italian dining spot, Mo's Cucina and just weeks ago OMC reported on his plans for a new 24-hour coffee house called Mocha-A Coffee Bistro at 124 E. Wisconsin Ave.

He's all about innovation and no stranger to risk, Vassallo opened Mo's -- A Place for Steaks downtown in 1999, a time when most of the power structure in town was still pessimistic about the neighborhood and its ability to sustain upscale, quality development.

Needless to say, Johnny V. has proven many wrong, and the former bartender and high school dropout has more than made his mark on the Milwaukee restaurant and bar scene. With more plans in the works, a buzzing Mo's -- A Place for Steaks still growing in downtown Milwaukee and in Indianapolis, too, Vassallo sat down with OMC to talk about his successes, failures, attitudes and, of course, his thoughts on Milwaukee (excuse us, Mowaukee).

OMC: Give us the Johnny V. story, in a nutshell.

Johnny Vassallo: I was born in Racine, moved to Milwaukee when I was 2. My father is from Italy and worked in a restaurant (for) the first part of my life, and then he went on to sell food. My mom is from Iowa, she's Irish, she came to Milwaukee to go to Alverno College and grew up in Greenfield. Five brothers and sisters, there were eight of us in the house. And just from an early age I liked cutting deals and doing business stuff ... so from buying and selling bubble gum and baseball cards when I was a kid to T-shirts, to fireworks, to a huge paper route.

I started working about 60 hours a week by the time I was 16, didn't graduate high school. Went to Greenfield, Marquette High School. It was an unbelievably good experience in retrospect, I just wasn't ready for it. I don't think I was challenged or whatever my situation was. And then started bartending when I was 21.

OMC: Where were you bartending?

JV: Scotty's Pub, 28th and Forest Home. The guy was the master, he still is. He's the king, taught me everything. As he would always say, he taught me everything I know and half of what he knows. He's a great guy, a great mentor, a great teacher, really knew the business. He really, really knew what it took to get people to come this far. Next, I opened a flower shop, then I owned a jewelry store, bought a few houses over on the South Side, too. Then I bought Smuggler's, which is now Slim McGinn's. And then owned a Subway submarine shop over on Marquette's campus. Then I got involved with my parents at Johnny V's Classic Café in West Allis.

OMC: What year did that open?

JV: That was May 5 of 1992, and I took over for them on Jan. 1 of '93.

OMC: That's still open, right?

JV: Yeah. Actually in '96 my parents and my brother Jaime bought me out. Sold my flower shop in '96 and closed my bar on 10th and Lincoln, Johnny V's Social Club, which I opened Nov. 6 of '89. First bar I ever owned. The jewelry store ... lost a couple hundred grand in that, that was a very good experience. And then I opened up another Johnny V's Classic Café in West Bend. That was probably my greatest learning experience, lost about a million bucks in three years and had to drive 42 minutes each way.

My boiler broke in my house so I didn't have heat in my house for three years. It was (an) interesting time, a lot of reflection. At that time -- I pretty much figured and believed since everybody told me it was me getting everything done. I was the man, I believed them. Now I realize I just lead a team, if I have a great team and I'm a good leader and a good manager things will work out, if I'm not then they don't work out.

So, I got out of that, scraped a little bit of money together, opened up Nacho Mamma's (775 N. Jackson St.) and that was a very good success. Sold that to my brothers. Took that money and opened a place called Papa Luigi's in West Bend in 1999.

{image2}OMC: Papa Luigi's?

JV: That failed. So, I opened Mo's and luckily a few people thought it would work, but there weren't many. We did about 130 people the first week we were open June 16, 1999.

OMC: So, you took a chance on downtown when a lot of people said it wouldn't work?

JV: No one thought it would work, especially this side (west) of the river. The list (of doubters) was long, there were people who thought I lost my mind, there were friends that I had for a long time, investors, that just really thought they weren't going to get their money back. They thought I was just nuts.

OMC: What made you think it would work?

JV: I think part of it is I had blind faith that if I put a team together I can make things work and I (thought of) all the things that I had done wrong over the years and created a system to try to alleviate all those things.

I love Milwaukee, I love downtown. I just think it's such a great city. My uncle Bill Drew was head of the Department of City Development for a lot of years, so I got a chance to see him and his passion for developing downtown.

So, just carrying forth his passion. But even he didn't think it would work on this side of the river. When you got a guy of his caliber telling you it's not going to work it's like 'whoa.' But the other thing was my back was to the wall, right?

I was looking for a shot, and it worked. Now it's just a blessing, it's the best thing that's ever happened to me and it's continued and enhanced my commitment to downtown Milwaukee. Didn't really need to do the wine store and deli which has become Mo's Cucina. In every entrepreneur book I've ever read it just says that by nature entrepreneurs are builders and like to make things around them better -- this is what they like to do.

And so it's just second nature for me to do this and t0 do the pub (Mo's Irish Pub). Because the pub's the right thing, right? For the Midwest Airlines Center, for tourism, for us profitably-wise, I'm not saying I'm doing this for free but all these things, right? It's a really good fit. And any time there's a convention or big baseball game in town: Cubs, Minnesota, St. Louis, the pub is full and it's filling that niche and making it fun to be downtown.

OMC: What are the plans for Mo's Cucina (former Mo's -- A Place for Wine)? Will it become an Italian restaurant, is that what you think?

JV: Yeah. Cucina means kitchen in Italian and I want people to feel like this is their kitchen. The pub is a pub and people know what that is and it's been instantly embraced and busy. And the steakhouse, people know what that is. And the new Moceans is a place for seafood, and it's very clear what all those concepts are.

This has been a wine bar, deli, a market, it's been all these things, all these names, it's got no real identity. And this will be a place where you'll be able to come down and eat awesome, inexpensive pasta, and buy wine still at retail and pay a 25 percent up charge to drink (the bottle) with your dinner. And we'll have the espresso and the cappuccino, and I just want people to be able to come here and feel comfortable and get a good home-cooked Italian meal.

OMC: What are your thoughts on the restaurant business in Milwaukee.

JV: I think it's exciting. I think we're definitely in a renaissance, and I think that there is a phenomenal amount of great restaurant owners in this city. We're blessed with some very passionate independent operators that cut the deal and get it done. And it's an exciting time to be here, it's an exciting time to dine here, and I take a lot of pride in talking to as many of my customers as I can. They have a lot of choices and they're enjoying living, moving downtown, being part of what's going on here. It's an exciting time.

And I think somehow that the fear or the naysayers have reduced themselves in the last five years. The belief in Milwaukee and the economics are here ... the energy's just different. If you say you're going to open up a cool restaurant people aren't telling you it's not going to happen, they're excited. The difference between when we opened the steakhouse and Moceans -- I had thousands of people that tell me now it's one of the greatest ideas to open up this really high-end fresh seafood place. When I opened this steakhouse and I showed people the menu, which is very similar in price to the Moceans' menu, I couldn't find five people who thought it was going to work.

OMC: The naysayers are fewer but I'm sure you still get the comments like 'Johnny's growing too quickly, he's got too many places, too leveraged.' How do you respond to that?

JV: Yeah. Don't go too thin, right? That's what everybody says, you're spreading yourself too thin. I've had the benefit or the failure of going through businesses basically three different times and having them not work. I've spread myself too thin, not had the infrastructure, have not understood the business of running the business.

And I'm not saying that I'm anywhere near to understanding that now, but I have surrounded myself with some incredibly bright people and where I think maybe in my past I was afraid to ask a question because I might look like I'm not the smartest guy in the room and you know what, I'm very comfortable now being the least smartest -- that's probably a good indication, right?

There are some amazing people in town that have taken interest in what I'm doing and have introduced me to the head restaurant analysts for Daine Rauscher and CFOs of companies like Panera. And I've met the CEO of Wendy's; I've met the CEO of Baja Fresh. They take my calls, and they answer my questions, and it's exciting when you think about it.

OMC: How does Global Restaurant Systems play into your growth?

JV: Here's a kid from Milwaukee, who didn't graduate from high school and these (big name) people are talking to me and helping me structure the infrastructure that's needed! This year we've finally -- after four years of planning -- launched a company called Global Restaurant Systems and have been able to bring people like Jim Wegerbauer to town. Which, think about it, he left Houston and the Houston Rockets to move to Milwaukee and work for Mo's. (Wegerbauer has left GRS since this interview was conducted.)

OMC: There's a new steakhouse down the street, Butch's Clock Steak House? Competition for Mo's or good for the street?

JV: Great for Plankinton Avenue. And it's proven that a restaurant row concept works. In Indianapolis everybody wants to be on it. We're a couple blocks off of it and we still do well. And Butch is a phenomenal operator. In my younger days it was my favorite restaurant that I'd save up and go to. And our family knows his family real well, and I'll be happy to have them down there. I think on a note it shows that the market is there and if you look at how many steakhouses have opened since we've opened, it works.

OMC: Have your plans to buy the building that Mo's Irish Pub is in gone through?

JV: The deal has not gone through, it was a hard day for me, we got to deal with a couple banks and one of the banks pulled out at noon on a 2 o'clock closing, and it was one of the most difficult days for me. You hate to fail. It was my deal, I put it together, I lined it up, and it didn't work. We're still in negotiations to buy the Posner building.

Our dream is to get somebody put in an 80- or 90-room W-type hotel in here. We've gotten calls from 10 or 15 different hoteliers from around the country. And a 20,000-square-foot day spa. Something that would rival anything -- actually a med spa so you'd get medical treatments from Botox to massages, to pedicures. Something that people would want to come and spend the weekend.

OMC: What do you think is missing from the Milwaukee market in terms of restaurants?

JV: More Starbucks. I love Starbucks so the more of them the better for me. And there finally is a 24-hour Starbucks (on Highway 100), which for me is really exciting.

OMC: Does the fact that more chain restaurants are coming scare you?

JV: It's hard to imagine -- I just went to a CEOs conference in New York, about 140 restaurant CEOs from chains to independents, and the chain business is 35 percent of the business.

We'd have to check that detail, I think that's what they said it's about 35 percent. So, all the restaurant business in the world is 35 percent. And when you see what's going on in the world of banking and you see it in airlines and beer companies, all these consolidations, and you see the Wal-Marts of the world you have to see it coming.

I think that Milwaukee is a unique market because the customer base here is the most loyal and intertwined that I've ever seen. And as I travel around the country looking for other locations, I can't find a city so far that I like as much as Milwaukee.

I mean that genuinely. I don't know that you'll find a city that's as loyal as Milwaukee and that's why I think the chains sort of shy away because they realize that if they come here there's 20, 30, 40 great local operators, maybe 50, I don't know what the number is, but there's an amazing amount of us -- look at the differences if you go to Crazy Water, people love that place.

The Social is awesome, too. Il Mito. Then you have Sandy D'Amato and you have Cubanitas and Osteria, one of the greatest chefs probably that I've ever met, he's here in Milwaukee (Osteria's Marc Bianchini).

OMC: Who were your mentors along the way?

JV: Scott Belongia, from Scotty's Pub, he's great. The Strategic Coach in Toronto -- a coaching program for entrepreneurs that I would recommend to anybody. I would recommend it to you. They told me I would double my business and work 100 less days a year in three years, that's their premise of doing this class.

Not that I work any less days but it's really helped me organize my infrastructure, it's forced planning and it's forced ego management. Because you go there once a quarter with 40 other entrepreneurs and then you think you've done so many wonderful things and you're like, 'oh I'm a schmuck, I've done nothing.'

I think my grandfather and my uncle Bill have had one of the greatest impacts on my life. He (Drew) was pretty much single a good part of his life until his 40s, he met his wife, they lived in downtown Milwaukee and he ... loved to develop downtown. So, he was huge. And then Mo's in general, just the amount of things that you can learn from the customers at Mo's is astronomical. I think if you consider the friends that we've developed at Mo's as a cumulative mentorship -- they would be probably the greatest changing factor of my life.

OMC: Define success.

JV: My goal every day when I wake up is to create a better quality of life for everyone that's committed to our organization. If I do that on a daily basis, if one of our customers closes a big deal at the steakhouse, or one of our staff members buys a house, or one of our staff members starts seeing that the profit sharing is kicking in and they start putting money in their own 401(k), or one of the single moms that works for us gets to go on a 10-day trip somewhere, or I get a thank you note from a guest or staff member -- I think then I'm successful. As much as I can I just want to make what's around me better.

OMC: What's next for you?

JV: We plan on expanding to wherever we can find great leaders and managers who share the cultural beliefs of the organization. However, Milwaukee will always be home.

OMC: If you had a drink or a cup of coffee or whatever with one person who would it be and why?

JV: Alive, right now, probably Peter Drucker. He's a management futurist and is 95 years old, still teaches at Cornell and to meet him ... I'd have so many questions for him.

And he just seems to see the future, if you read his books backwards sometimes, like you're in present day and you read a book that he wrote 20 years earlier, he gets it, he defines it. And dead, Ronald Reagan in the mid-'80s. Mainly because he was the true optimist. Whether you agree with his politics or you don't, when the country really needed a shot in the arm to feel like we were the best again he was there for us.

OMC: If you were mayor, what are three things you'd change about Milwaukee?

JV: I'd like to work with Miller Brewery to increase the draw of their tour, and I would like to use the Guinness model for that. Guinness gets about 700,000 tourists a year to go through their tour. The Miller Brewery gets about 100,000. I'd like to help them with that -- that would be a huge thing.

I would want to start another university downtown because I think that what Marquette has done by adding 4,000 students downtown has had one of the highest economic impacts on the city that's imaginable.

And I would also, with that school, part of it would be to do more music. I would like to see -- if we had more musicians and more live music downtown -- I think that it would increase the creative class in Milwaukee, and I think it's creativity that builds a great community.

And the last thing with my magic wand would be to reach out and touch more people with the confidence of the entrepreneurial dream. Whether that be through the Milwaukee Public School system or through whatever system.

OMC: For those who may not know, who is Mo?

JV: "Mo" is short for Maureen, my mom.

OMC: Finally, Milwaukee Magazine called Mo's "overrated." Care to comment?

JV: If I can quote Chris Rock, 'nobody hates the Clippers.'

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.