Story and Interview by Teresa Nguyen
I hope we all ride through this safely. And I hope our other restaurateurs hang in there and are able to come back. ~ Edmund Halabi
Italian House of Janesville, Wisconsin
Sometimes an entrepreneur comes to a new country, a new city and starts a small business and does alright. And in rare cases, that very community rallies around the entrepreneur and the business can tell an amazing and inspiring success story. This is the story of Janesville’s own Italian House and its successful business owner, Edmund Halabi.
Edmund’s determination, tenacity, hard work and positive attitude have given him a well-deserved, respected reputation around town. He overcame incredible obstacles in both his personal and business life and continued to persevere until he truly found that American dream.
He not only manages his beloved Italian restaurant full time, but Edmund has also manages to give back to the community in food donations and catering to numerous nonprofit fundraisers. He has somehow found the time to become involved in various community and business organizations, making a difference not only for himself, but for others. And that is an even greater form of success that not all can claim.
Edmund Halabi, owner of Italian House, was born in Dakar, Senegal in West Africa. As a child, his family moved to Liberia. Edmund’s mother is French and his father Lebanese. He stayed in Liberia until age 18, and then I came to America because there was a revolution and the government in power was toppled by the native Liberians. The situation became very dangerous for Edmund and his family. He had to flee.
Edmund attended college in America and worked as a medical lab tech in a hospital. He worked in restaurants during college and learned a lot, but never intended to go into the business. However, after about a year working in the hospital, he realized it wasn’t his thing.
Coming to Janesville
Edmund talked to his wife about opening up a restaurant. He looked on a map at some communities in Wisconsin. After looking at some cities east of here, he followed hwy 51 west and eventually came to Janesville in 1987.
They took up shop on Milton Ave, across the street from Wendy’s and MacDonald’s. Edmund’s wife worked with him at the restaurant. It was a tough start with little money and they slept on the floor.
Edmund says, “I was 25 and broke! I asked my uncle 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.”
With help from his uncle, he was able to peruse the dream. But after a few months, things became challenging again. Edmund took a job as a lab tech at Dean Riverview Clinic. He’d get up at 2 a.m., work at the restaurant until 7 a.m., shower & change, then work at the clinic until 4 p.m. Then he would work the restaurant until 11 pm and go to bed at midnight! Repeat.
Janesville had never had Italian restaurants at that time, and it was hard to sell the concept. Edmund recalled, “It went from the American dream to the American nightmare.”
A year or so later, he rented a building next to Criag High School on Randall Avenue. He knew that to stay in this business, he had to get the younger generation to grow up on his food, something their parents never had. He gave it a shot. The high school kids liked it and, as the business grew, Edmund was able to pay off his bills and pay back his debts to his uncle.
Seven days a week he worked the counter, kitchen and the phone. A few years later, he hired a high school student, then another and it expanded from there. Those kids grew up, and when they came back to Janesville, they came back to Italian House. He still has kids today working for Italian House whose parents worked there 20-30 years ago!
Today’s customers are in their late 40s, the age that originally patronized the restaurant.
Family Feast - Spaghetti Meal
The Brick Wall
One day, a student named Mark Kiskunas came to pick up an order. He said, “You know, Mr. Halabi, I’ve eaten here so much I think I’ve paid off something in this building of yours.”
Edmund replied, “You know what? You’ve probably paid off one of those bricks up there.” At the time Edmund was using a gold marker to write Christmas cards. He handed it to Mark saying, “Why don’t you go ahead and put your name up there on one of those bricks and include the year you'll graduate.” Mark graduated in 1992.
Edmund thought nothing of it. A week or two later, Mark’s friends came in and noticed asking, “What’s Mark’s name doing up there?” So then, they got to add their names. Every year, more seniors added their names.
In the most recent move to the newest location, on the corner of Racine Street and Randall Avenue, not all of the bricks made it over. But Edmund tried to preserve what he could.
He even has had a few well-known names on those bricks...one only needs to look around the place to find them (or just ask Edmund)!
The first name signed, that of Mark Kiskunas, can be found on this section of the I-House brick walls.
The 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic
In a recent Interview with Janesville Area Stories, Edmund Halabi shared his thoughts and experiences through this challenging time:
Like everybody else, we are devastated by the whole outcome of this, by the affect it’s having on our community, our neighbors, people who have already been victimized.
It was a tough decision to make, whether to stay open or shut it down. Woodman’s and other grocers were also going through a difficult period with certain items, like toilet paper, of course. We were waiting to see how things were going to go.
I thought the governor was going to say that the state was going to shut down, that we were all going to stay home for a couple of weeks, let this go through, then we’d slowly come back around.
On Monday, March 23, I heard rumors that the governor was going to issue a statement like that. Things were starting to get a little creepy out there. I happened to be at Woodman’s talking to the Food Market Manager, Steve “Shorty” Smith. I said, “Did you hear the rumors about this?”
He said to me, “You know what? If you are planning to shut down, think about it. You’re an essential business because you provide to grocery stores, like us, with sandwiches and bread and pasta salads. You can be open if you want to.”
At the time, the talk was that hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies would stay open and everything else would be shut down. Steve said, “Well, if you’re going to shut down, I’ll need to order 2,000 loaves of bread from you.”
Phil Woodman and Edmund Halabi (from a pre-pandemic date)
I said, “Oh my God! Thank you very much!” I figured this would keep a couple of my baker guys working.
Woodman’s is incredible. They asked if I could sell it to them for a little bit less than usual. Then Steve told me that he wanted to drop it from $2.99 to $1.99 a loaf. I said, “Sure! But you don’t need to do that. The bread is flying off the shelves.” And do you know what he said to me?
Steve said, “Sometimes it’s not always about making a profit.”
What he was trying to do there was to support me and take care of his customers at the same time.
Woodman’s has been just a blessing!
Steve "Shorty" Smith
The “Safer at Home” Order
On Tuesday, March 24th, Governor Evers announced that bars and restaurants that were still open could do curbside pick-up and drive through. I didn’t know how I would juggle everything between getting the bread to Woodman’s and the carryout orders because we would be staying open. Plus, we didn’t know how busy we would be or if the restaurant orders would be dead. We had to play it by ear.
It was kind of weird. On that Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday we were so, so busy with pick up orders! Saturday night, there were continuous cars going around my building out in the parking lot for two hours! I was really surprised to see how busy we were.
There was one employee whose parents called saying they didn’t feel comfortable with things. They didn’t want their son coming in to work. And I respected that and told them that was fine. But, the rest of my staff was still willing to come in. We didn’t force anyone to come in, but left that decision up to them. They’ve provided us with great help!
We have been putting a lot of emphasis on our young kids. I tell them, “When you come in here, you wash your hands, you put on your gloves and you change your gloves. When you leave here, you wash your hands. And when you get home, you wash your hands again, so you’re making this disconnect. This way, you’re not bringing anything in here and you’re not taking anything home with you.” All my staff are inundated with that message of “Wash your hands, wash your hands.” I’m looking into finding masks for them, as well.
A Word on Carryout
I can’t speak for a lot of people out there but, in my case, I was privileged with the ability to do carryout. For 32 years I’d already been doing that. For most of our business years, we were known for carryout, as well as dine in, catering and banquet. We already had a drive-up window, so that really helped. We had no idea 5 years ago how that would make a difference or that it would become so important today.
Fettuccini Alfredo, Sandwichs and Janesville's favorite garlic bread
Italian House Flatbread Pizzas
When this happened, we were in the right time at the right place, with the right product at the right price. When you have a family of 4, 5 and 6, they’re looking for a great meal at an affordable price. A lot of these dine-in restaurants thought they could turn their dining experience into a carryout. It’s not an easy transition and a lot of them ended up closing. It just doesn’t work with the higher prices and things like steak meals. The restaurants might not get enough in volume to even make it profitable.
For those selling pizza, subs, Chinese food and affordable products, they have a better chance of making it out there than the supper clubs, dine in restaurants and such.
I don’t know what to tell others. I’m hoping that they’re able to get that subsidy and the loans that might be available. For those who are shut down, they might be better off staying shut, doing the paper work and then applying for the loans.
How can the Community help?
Staying safe out there and being conscientious with this virus is, I think, the biggest job you have. No one knows who’s really infected out there, right?
There are a lot of delivery companies out there today, like EatStreet. You might be better off getting your food that way, rather than going out into the public and picking up your food. A lot of these companies use gloves and drop the delivery right on your doorstep. With that, you only have to go out for a minimal time. It’s difficult, but minimum exposure to the public is important. If you have been staying put for a couple of weeks, then stay the course.
I’ve had some elderly people actually come in to the restaurant to order their meals. I would ask them if they had a phone on them and then encouraged them to go back to the safety of their cars to order from there. I was more worried for them than I was for me.
Be sure to call in your orders early! Don’t wait until the last minute with the hope to have it in a half hour. It doesn’t work like that.
Words of Gratitude & Encouragement
We’re thankful to the community. We’re thankful to our staff. I’ve had staff come in here at 5 in the morning to butter the bread, package and label the loaves and get them all ready. They didn’t have to do that, but they felt the need to help out. And I’m so thankful for the community support.
I hope we all ride through this safely. And I hope our other restaurateurs hang in there and are able to come back. Janesville needs to have those guys, the variety, the flavors the concepts and different tiers of restaurant foods. We need that variety from the Italian House to Lark, and some newer establishments like Draft House and Wissota Chophouse and the others.
We’ve had these great new places come into the community with these different concepts and ideas. How neat was that? And now many are closed up. My heart goes out to them.