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As Blue Wolf Tavern marks 20 years, owner recounts culinary journey

At least a quarter of Blue Wolf's 100 employees have been with the restaurant for 12 years, “which is not typical for the restaurant industry," owner Joe Rzonsa said.

[EDITOR'S NOTE — Each week, this feature section, “Movers and Makers,” will feature the stories of the movers, launchers, entrepreneurs and makers who contribute to the vitality of the Mahoning Valley. This section is supported by our first community partner, Farmers National Bank.]

BOARDMAN — Blue Wolf Tavern, located at 1295 Boardman-Canfield Road, is celebrating 20 years in business. It first opened its doors in Struthers in 2001. 

Joe Rzonsa, owner and executive chef, described the Blue Wolf Tavern menu as diverse. It's filled with a combination of “Youngstown staples” like chicken Parmesan and fried greens, seafood that's delivered to the restaurant five days a week, grilled and barbecued ribs, steaks and pork chops that are smoked in-house, a variety of pasta dishes, handhelds and more.

Rzonsa, who graduated from Boardman High School in 1992, said he started his restaurant career as a teenager working for a plethora of different restaurants with varied cuisine like Little Caesar's, Magic Twanger in Boardman and the former Fonderlac Country Club in Poland (now The Lake Club). He then moved to Colorado in 1995 to work for Keystone Resort.

“I got to do some things that were outside of the box for Youngstown, Ohio and really learned how to run a kitchen. I worked in a hotel kitchen that serviced seven or eight different restaurants, room service, a 10,000-person banquet facility. It was a huge operation that I was a small part of but I got a lot of different experiences and very well-rounded experiences that you couldn't do in one place around here,” Rzonsa said.

“I basically got a culinary education for free by working with a couple of chefs on the U.S. Culinary Olympic Team for a few years and [I] really became interested in having my own restaurant someday,” he added. 

Rzonsa said his restaurant dream “wasn’t going to happen in the middle of the mountains” so he moved home and ran the kitchen at Caffe Capri in Boardman for five years before opening Blue Wolf Tavern in his late 20s. 

“A friend of mine, who was also a chef at the time, had the opportunity to get a little place in Struthers,” he said. “So we did it. That was in 2001. We took the plunge and it was a fantastic opportunity.”

Blue Wolf Tavern opened its doors in August 2001, just one month before the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I don't really have anything to compare it to other than the recent pandemic here.” Rzonsa said. “It was scary. [People] sat in front of the TV and waited to see what was going to happen. Nobody went on vacation. Nobody went out to eat. Nobody went out to drink. Everything just kind of stopped. So it was challenging. It was definitely scary. But we made it through that.

“It definitely created some optimism about our future moving forward from that point,” he added.

Three years later, Blue Wolf Tavern moved to its current location in Boardman. Rzonsa added partners, up to nine at one point, who saw the restaurant as an investment opportunity. 

“We were able to build the place that we have now without going to the bank. Then I spent the last 17 years buying back pieces of my own business so now it's just me again.”

In 2006, Blue Wolf Tavern began dabbling in the catering business. Blue Wolf Events began inside a building on Lockwood Boulevard before moving to its current location, The Maronite Center, in 2013. 

“About half of what we do, as far as catering and events, is at our own place. The other half is at other venues such as golf courses, we do a lot at the [The Butler Institute of American Art], Stambaugh Auditorium, DeYor Performing Arts Center, Mill Creek Park, [as well as] different churches, hospitals, schools, institutions, stuff like that.” 

Along the way Rzonsa met his wife Stacey, who has a background in wedding planning and a degree in hospitality and communications. 

According to Rzonsa, Stacey got her start at Blue Wolf Tavern as a server and played a crucial role in expanding and developing Blue Wolf Events. She currently serves as vice president of Blue Wolf Tavern and director of Blue Wolf Events. 

“We do fantastic business, probably about between 50 and 70 weddings a year, with the exception of last year, of course,” Rzonsa said. 

According to Rzonsa, at least a quarter of his 100 employees have been with the restaurant for 12 years, “which is not typical for the restaurant industry.” 

In Rzonsa’s opinion, the restaurant business is all about people — both staff and family. With four children of his own, he hopes the restaurant will remain a family affair. 

Rzonsa is looking forward to opening another restaurant in Boardman sometime this summer with a fast-casual atmosphere. He told Mahoning Matters more details will come within the next month. 

Overall, Rzonsa said Blue Wolf Tavern wouldn’t be celebrating 20 years in business without the support from the community — first in Struthers, then in Boardman.

“We're very grateful that a lot of the folks from Struthers and the surrounding communities like Lowellville, Campbell, Youngstown and even western PA have followed us to where we're at now, you know, for the last 17 years,” he said. 

Pandemic resilience

For Blue Wolf Tavern, being in business for 20 years has come with a fair share of adversities, Rzonsa said. He told Mahoning Matters the pandemic has brought many uncertainties — most recently, finding employees. 

“There's no shortage of people that want to eat out, what there is [is] a shortage of is people that want to work,” he said.

At the time Rzonsa spoke to Mahoning Matters, he said he hadn’t had a job application in almost seven weeks. That hasn't happened before in 20 years, he said. 

“We're paying our cooks in the back $15 [an hour], $18 an hour, whereas at this time a year ago we were paying $9 or $10 [an hour]," he said.

In Rzonsa’s opinion, right now, restaurants aren’t in competition with other restaurants for employees, but with the federal government’s pandemic unemployment assistance program for “who can pay more for doing less.”

“If you have a choice between working hard in a kitchen and working hard carrying a tray of food for 35 or 40 hours a week making $1,500, or waiting by your mailbox for the fifth stimulus in 12 months — because you fall into that category of being eligible for it and having your unemployment extended for the rest of 2021 — it's just human nature," Rzonsa said.

"You're going to pick the path of least resistance and that's affected the hospitality industry tremendously,” he said. 

Combined with the state's months-long shutdown of indoor dining at bars and restaurants, it's "a recipe for failure and a recipe for disaster ... and certainly, the tribulation and trial of 2021," Rzonsa said.

But Rzonsa told Mahoning Matters that Blue Wolf Tavern has maintained a mentality of resilience through the pandemic. He said the restaurant transitioned to carry-out only overnight when Ohio restaurants were closed for indoor dining at the start of the pandemic.

“After a couple of weeks, we were doing the same volume numbers in bags and boxes out the front door with deliveries and pickups and catering. We really didn't miss a beat at all and because of that our business survived that and even thrived through it now,” he said.

Rzonsa told Mahoning Matters he’s determined to not dwell on last year, but look at it as a testimony to the restaurant’s consistency, the hard work of its employees and the support of the local communities. 

“Moving forward, we know that the people that have been there for us for the last 20 years will continue to be and we'd like to do whatever we can to be able to give back to the community whenever possible," he said. "That's what we've always been about. As an owner, I love what we've built and what we've accomplished."

For employment opportunities, visit the Blue Wolf Tavern website.