Blue Collar Boss: Regular Joe builds eatery empire on guts, good people

By on July 9, 2013
Joe Rice knows how to run a dishwasher if he has to. (Mary Grossman)

Joe Rice knows how to run a dishwasher if he has to. (Mary Grossman)

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Local restaurant owner Joe Rice is so working class, his holding company is called Blue Collar Restaurant Group. From his flagship eatery, Merry Piglets, to his latest venture into the competitive pizza arena, everything this hands-on boss has touched has turned to gold. Now with six restaurants under his belt and a four-star hotel in the works, we caught up with the high-flying, ex-Marine foodie to ask him some obvious questions: What’s the secret to your success? And, have you finally gone too far this time?

There’s no “I” in Joe. When Joe Rice talks about his accomplishments, his aspirations, or his next big restaurant concept, he refers to himself as “we.” It’s a habit he shares with NASCAR drivers, who never forget who changes the tires and fills the tank. As in, “We really drove it home today. The Sidewinders-Ignight-Piglets Ford was really ‘racey.’ Hats off to the engine team and pit crew, they deserve all the credit. We just got it to victory lane is all.”

Presumably, idols like Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon or Joe Rice are not showcasing a multiple personality disorder. Rather, they truly appreciate the good people behind them. Whether it’s his wife, Denise, or his right-hand “man” Tracey [Joralemon], or a dishwasher at Merry Piglets, Rice would rather hang the gold medal around their necks and step into the background. Press him and he might take credit for building the podium.

“I wanna stress one thing,” Rice said during our chat at Dolce, his downtown yogurt-coffee-dessert shop. “It’s not about me or Denise – I’m being totally honest when I say this – it’s about our people. Because I’m not someone who goes around blowing their own horn. I don’t. I want my people to get the credit.”

Part of the reason why Rice scored Gold in the category of “Best Boss” in JH Weekly’s most recent Best Of voting (he has been silver or gold all five years of the poll) is because he is not above any job or any employee at any of his businesses. His people feel that. Whether you need advice on a multi-million dollar deal from a savvy developer with a proven track record, or someone to take out the trash at one in the morning, Joe’s your guy.


Joe surrounds himself with the best.

Planet Jackson Hole: You are a team guy, Joe, that’s obvious. You won’t take credit but you will shoulder the blame. Your people love you for that. What is your management style? What is it that makes people want to work for you? Are you a touchy-feely kind of boss or do you go all “Marine” on them? 

Joe Rice: The Marine Corps taught me how to run a business. You put good people under you and give them the freedom to make decisions. There is this fine line, absolutely. I can go “Marine” on them any time but I don’t have to, much, because they know they have to do their job and if they don’t they are going to hear about it. This is their living and they take it very seriously.

The 'boss' still drives his 1977 Ford pickup to remind him of where he came from. (Mary Grossman)

The ‘boss’ still drives his 1977 Ford pickup to remind him of where he came from. (Mary Grossman)

Look, I came from nothing. I drive a ‘77 Ford pickup on purpose. It reminds me of where I came from. Nobody ever gave me anything and I never forget that. I was doing dishes at Sidewinders yesterday. My point is I don’t look at myself as this successful entrepreneur. I really don’t. I look at myself as Joe Rice from New Jersey who made it. I think as long as you keep that in mind and you have emotional feelings for people about what they are dealing with on a daily basis, and you are there to help them financially or emotionally or whatever they need, then people know you care and that’s all they want. We don’t put ourselves above anybody. It is absolute genuine.

PJH: Your staff does seem loyal, dedicated and cut of the same cloth. 

JR: Our company is our own culture. The Marine Corps is a culture. You can go into any other branch of the service but if you go into the Marine Corps that says something about you as a person because they try to make you quit. In our business we have a lot of athletes and that’s a culture, too. They are mentally tough. All my kids are Division I athletes and so are a lot of my managers. They have this mental toughness about them that when I say, “Fucking fix it,” they say, “OK.” They don’t shrink up and blow away.

That is our culture and that’s what we are about, and we take care of our people. If someone’s car is broke we get it fixed for them if they need it. Those are the things we do. If someone is struggling and we find out about it we take care of the problem.

PJH: So you are kind of like a drill sergeant?

JR: I don’t want to be like the president and have everyone telling me things are great when they aren’t. If you come aboard with us on the management team or anywhere you have to be willing to say, “No, I disagree with you, Joe.” And it is hard sometimes for them to do that but I love it when they do.

I don’t want a bunch of “yes men” sitting around. If you are a “yes man” you can’t work for me. You gotta be opinionated and willing to state that opinion, respectfully, and I’ll disagree with you or agree with you. And a lot of times I will agree with them. ‘Cuz guess what? They are in the trenches every day. They are the ones on the front lines.

PJH: Let’s talk about this new proposed hotel – an ambitious 100-key monster on a two-acre lot next to Staples that’s been sitting vacant since you bought it seven years ago.

JR: We bought it in ‘06 and had a development plan for 50,000 square feet of mixed-use ready to go, but in the summer of 2008 we pulled the plug. Thank God, or we’d have a hole in the ground like these guys [pointing in the direction of McCabe Corner].

PJH: You put the brakes on before the market crashed here?

JR: Yeah, it was at its peak. Prices were spiking high. Ridiculously high. And I just got this feeling, this gut feeling that things weren’t as good as everybody said they were. I was looking at the prices. Condos were selling at $1,500 a square foot. I’m hearing all these realtors and I’m thinking, “Man, that’s just hard to believe.” I was running all these fun numbers in my head, you know? Just kidding around. If I sold it for that it would be like making this … and I kept thinking there is no way. It was just common sense to me, I’m sorry, it was. The market was just too stupid. So we stopped right in the middle of berming it.

PJH: And you could afford to sit on it this long?

JR: We paid $3.4 million for 2.2 acres, so we bought it at a really good price. I bought it and brought partners in. Then the market collapsed but even after that we were above it.

I like real estate. I only get involved in deals that make sense. I ran the numbers and I asked myself a question: Can I make this work if it goes shitty? Now I never knew it would go as shitty as it did, right? And the answer was yes and we did it. And now, I don’t know what it’s worth but it’s worth way more than that. We were able to sit on it and we had offers to sell it in that time and make a profit but I have three or four other partners who trust me to make the right decision and I said, “I don’t think we should sell it,” and they said, “Then let’s not do it.”

PJH: I heard you’re going to make it a Marriott?

JR: We’ve been talking with all the chains in depth, believe me. Right now we are leaning more and more toward doing it independently with no flag. According to all the guys in town that I respect a lot, like Jim Waldrop at The Wort, consensus is you don’t need them because your summers are busy, busy, busy, no matter what and in the off-season the flag really doesn’t help you all that much.

PJH: You’ll need an expansion of the town’s lodging overlay zoning to include your property, right?

JR: Yeah, and that’s on track so we’ll see what happens. I would have [built a hotel] from day one but we couldn’t. A hotel makes so much more sense – to the town, to the community, from an investment standpoint. It’s a win-win situation for everybody. The town absolutely needs some higher-end hotels. We don’t have enough – and everybody agrees with this – of the nicer, more upscale hotels.

Most of the surveys, believe it or not, that the big hotel companies do, show that even in the winter most people would rather stay in town. Which was surprising to me. If I was skiing I would rather stay in the Village but there’s just more to do here. It’s limited out there and I don’t want to crap on them because they have done a great job, but they’re their own world out there. The town of Jackson and Teton Village are like two different countries, I’m telling you right now.

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PJH: What about that move of Sidewinders years ago to the “dark” side of Broadway? You looked like a madman when you did that.

JR: You know how many people told me that? The bank kept wanting to buy that building from me. I kept saying no. It was one of those crazy deals where I wasn’t trying to manipulate the price or anything like that; I just didn’t want to move. And they kept calling me up and raising their price. “No, I’m not selling it; I have nowhere to go,” I told them. Finally they raised the price to a point where I thought, “OK, I’ll start thinking about it.” Then they raised it even more. Then I got a place to move it to. Alan Hirschfield, a good friend and partner of mine in some of my deals, told me I was nuts. “You’re going to move that over there to the second floor?” he said. And I go, “Yeah, I am.” And it’s been extremely successful. I just thought it would be. I don’t know, I just get these feelings and believe me I could be wrong but I thought it would work.

PJH: Now you’ve bought out Giovanni’s and plan to turn it into a pizzeria called Pizza Antica. Don’t we have enough pizza in town?

JR: I’ve been wanting to do this concept for a long time. The way I look at it the pizza business is all right here downtown – Caldera, Pinky Gs. But this is Neapolitan pizza and the location is south of town where there are tons of condos and apartments around there.

The atmosphere is going to be really cool. We’ll have a lot of seats and we are building a big deck out front with waterfalls and firepits and giving it some street presence. ‘Cuz that building right now [and its street presence] looks like a fucking junk show.

If this wasn’t a perfect deal for us we wouldn’t have done it. I’ve been asked to do this for over four years and I’ve always said no. Then finally came a deal that was almost a no-lose situation. And it’s not costing me millions of dollars to do this.

PJH: That place never got on track. It was cursed. Won’t its bad rep rub off on you?

JR: I don’t think so. You know why? No one’s ever been in there. I know so many people that have never been in there. That doesn’t scare me at all.

PJH: But you are competing with other pizza joints, even yourself. Sidewinders makes pizza.

JR: One thing we won’t ever do is compete with people we directly know. There is one restaurant I won’t open because I have friends in that business.

Like when I opened Dolce there was one coffee shop in town: Jackson Hole Roasters. And Stefan is a good friend of mine. We were the second coffee shop in town and the first yogurt place for about two months. Then two more yogurt shops open up – one over in Albertsons and one by Smiths. No big deal, I don’t care. Cowboy Coffee opened, Atelier Ortega opened, then Persephone opened.

Now, fucking Starbucks is coming in, which I am totally against. It pisses me off. I’m totally against them. It makes me mad. You can eat where you want but support the local guy, huh? I buy everything here. All my buildings are built by guys in town. I don’t go out of town for nothin’ unless I absolutely have to. It really makes me mad because they are the bastard of the coffee business. They move in and put their coffee shops everywhere and squeeze out local brands. I’m totally against it. I hope the locals don’t support it. I really do.

PJH: And now you’ve added Bubba’s to your fleet?

JR: They came to me to help them. I’ve been helping behind the scenes for almost two years now. I’ve come in on a management contract to help make it better and get it to where it needs to be. I will be bringing in one of the top smokers in the country. The guy [Larry Levine] who started Chili’s.

PJH: They went downhill after the move across the street.

JR: What do you think happened? I’d like to know so I can help it.

PJH: It used to look, feel, smell and taste like a smokehouse. The new location looks too sterile, too chain-like. It’s an IHOP. 

JR: It’s funny how you say that because I’m hearing that from a lot of people and we are going to change all that. When I started hearing that I didn’t really get it at first and then when I looked at it I thought, “Goddamn, they are so right.”

PJH: To sum up: You are a calculated gambler with a strong gut instinct.

JR: I got a gut. I got a huge gut feeling. It’s just something I have. People bring me deals all the time. Other restaurants want us to help them. Other restaurants want us to take them over. And if it doesn’t work we just say no. Because in today’s world, if it’s not the right deal you better not do it. When people fail in this business it’s because their overhead is too much or they don’t have enough capital. You can’t force it.

They think just because people come in and love their food and all that they will be successful and they can’t understand why they’re not. So we make sure before we go in that we check all the boxes. It’s a numbers game. It’s not rocket science. It is a scientific, cold approach but it’s what keeps you out of trouble. Too many people get in trouble romanticizing these things. It’s strictly business for me. I don’t open a restaurant so I can sit at the bar. You’ll never see me doing that.

PJH: What’s left to prove, Joe? How many restaurants is enough?

JR: Right, how much is enough? I’m fine with my life right now. What it’s about for us now is I want to help others be successful. You know, I had a mentor named Gene Street from Dallas, Texas, that taught me the business when I got out of the Marine Corps. He is still a good friend of mine.

The reason why we are going to continue to roll out restaurants here is we have this young group of kids – I call them the “Young Guns” – including my daughter, [Ellie], her fiancé, a finance major and former wrestler at UW. He’s hungry. This kid Blaine Woodfin grew up here, quarterbacked the state championship high school football team. There’s a kid named Brian Izard; he’s one of the managers over at Bubbas. They all want to make it.

If we didn’t have these people we wouldn’t be [looking to expand]. They are like I was 25 years ago. They are working their asses off. At Pizza Antica, they’ll come to me and go, “What about this?” and I say, “Well, figure it out.” If they can’t figure it out I’ll tell them the answer, but I want them to learn and they will only do that by figuring stuff out on their own.

About Jake Nichols

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