Posts Categorized: Entrepreneurs

Sum of Your Business: Brittany Todd

Intro by Aryn Henning Nichols • Photos by Photography by Brittany

It’s lucky that Decorah photographer Brittany Todd “never gets sick of wedding cake.” Because in the nearly seven years she’s been running Photography by Brittany, she’s surely eaten a lot of it.

Of course, weddings aren’t the only moments Brittany’s team captures – there’s also engagements, families, graduating seniors, and a shoot option called… “All Up in Your Business,” where – you guessed it – Brittany photographs your business.

Business is something Brittany has learned a lot about over the years. What started out as a hobby post-graduation has turned into a real-life career, and now encompasses a team of seven photographers, two cinematographers, and one marketing/social media expert.

Plus, the 29-year-old mother of two busy boys offers photography classes to the public, is involved in the community, and manages to, somehow, cook actual vegetables for dinner (much to her boys chagrin). On top of all that, Brittany recently moved from a home office to a studio space in Downtown Decorah. (Update: AND now husband Nathan and Brittany have added the Decorah Sugar Bowl ice cream shop to their list of businesses!)

Surely more than once, this busy woman has been requested to, “Teach us your ways of life!”

“I try to do it all and not pull my hair out, but really I am better at styling the mess on my head to cover up the craziness behind the scenes,” she writes on brittanytodd.com. “The main focus of my career is to capture YOU. Whether you are short, tall, blonde, brunette, married, single or anything in between: be that. My goal is to have you trust that being YOU is what makes you beautiful.”

The result is lovely, saturated images that speak honestly of life, love, and…well, the pursuit of happiness. We were excited to feature Brittany as our Sum of Your Business for this inspiring women issue because she is just that: Inspiring! Read on to learn more about how she manages to have her cake…and eat it too (what, too much?!).

The Basics:
Name: Brittany Todd
Age: 29
Business: Photography by Brittany
Years in Business: June 26 this year will start year seven of weddings!

1. Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?

After graduating from Luther College in January 2010, I was certain that my calling was in Residence Life. I went through a two-month marathon process of interviews with 15 different schools and became a finalist at two different colleges. We were certain we were moving to either Dubuque or Green Bay. In April, however, everything changed.  I was informed by both schools, within one hour of each other, that I was their runner up and therefore did not have a job. At all. Anywhere. As a couple, we decided to stay in Decorah for another year since we were getting married that July and at least had some connections to odd jobs while we waited for a full-time opportunity. During that waiting process my photo-shoots became more frequent and more substantial. I wasn’t just photographing my friends’ kids anymore; clients were actually hiring me to shoot their wedding day, and I was loving every second of it! In August 2011, our first son, Carter, was born, and we decided it would be much easier to raise a baby with a photography career than in a college dorm. I slowly stepped away from a career in Residence Life, to a newfound dream career in photography. Fast-forward to 2013, and shooting was officially something that paid the bills, supported my family, and gave me great joy on a daily basis. It was then that I became my own boss and officially launched Photography by Brittany… in an office next to our living room.

2. What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

There are countless perks! I get to travel throughout the United States doing what I love! I get to choose my own hours. Yes, sometimes this means I am the last one to leave downtown at 1 am, but it also means I can take a day off to celebrate my kids’ birthdays, go on a last-minute trip with my husband, or spend an entire day focusing on filling my own cup, whether that means a lunch date with a friend, yoga sculpt at Reefuel, shopping downtown Decorah, or binge watching online classes or even Netflix. I can dress up on days I am with clients and wear sweatpants and slippers on days in the studio. A major perk is that through this seven-year journey, my kids have been a part of almost every single work day in the office, whether that office was in our living room or downtown in the new studio. They have their moments, of course, but sometimes the brutal honesty of a three or five-year-old is exactly what I need when it comes to choosing a location, setting up a shoot or just choosing treats from Beyond the Bar or Java John’s Coffee House for a client meeting. I know not every profession allows the flexibility that mine does, but just think how much more productive everyone could be if they could work during their personal prime time hours (I am a night owl) and be with their family as much as possible?

3. How about the worst?

Some days this list seems longer than the previous one, but I promise the good always outweighs the bad! I am the HR department, secretary, coordinator, president, CEO, and maintenance crew all rolled into one person. There is no guaranteed salary. There are no work benefits. Nobody gives me health, dental, or life insurance. There are no paid vacation days, paid sick days or even a single moment of paid maternity leave. When I first started, I took on any shoot that would come my way, including a family shoot the day before I went into labor with Carter as well as a wedding 13 days after he was born. (That is a story for another time, but, in short, Carter did great. Pumping in the doorway of a boat bathroom? Not one of my favorite life moments. 😉 )

There is not anyone to celebrate successes with in person. Cake in the break room is just not as exciting when it is your own birthday and you are eating it alone. Do not get me wrong, I love my days alone when I can crank the music and sing aloud while I edit, but there are many days when I wish there was someone here to celebrate with during the successes, and someone here to always get input from.

4. Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?

Not a specific hurdle, but there are definitely days and sometimes weeks that I stare at my work and think that I will never be as good others already are. If you think Pinterest is hard from a parent or teacher perspective, try looking at it through the eyes of a photographer (or a photographer mother!). Pinterest is amazing, and Pinterest is awful. I often remind myself that if I didn’t think there was someone better than me, I wouldn’t have anything to strive towards. The moments I doubt myself are the moments that make me a better photographer, business owner, and family member.

5. Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?

I highly recommend everyone start following Jeremy Cowart on Facebook, Instagram, or any other way possible. If you haven’t heard of “The Purpose Hotel” look it up! Jeremy is taking his talents of photography and expanding them into a vision that will help MANY people for decades, if not centuries, to come. His ability to run a business, expand the business and yet keep his wife and family as his number ONE priority is not only inspiring, but something we should all strive toward daily.

6. What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

Dear High School and College Self:

Your grades matter in order to keep your scholarships, but then they will be irrelevant. Stop writing down every single word that goes on the board and take a moment to truly LISTEN to those teaching. Social networking is everything. Relationships are going to build a business faster than money can buy one. Equipment is important, but without a solid work ethic, support from those closest to you, and an incredible client base, you will not be successful. That family and friend-base you have now? They’re going to support you every step of the way. Keep being kind to those around you, because those professors, classmates, mentors, friends, and acquaintances are all going to be clients of yours someday. Each will leave a photo session with a part of your heart, and give you a little more sense of self-worth.

7. How do you manage your life/work balance? You worked out of your house originally, and have recently moved to a space in downtown Decorah – what are the pros and cons to the move?

Working from home was fantastic. If you ever get the opportunity to do so I highly recommend it, even if it is just for a few weeks. While having a home office I would do laundry, make lunches, start dinner, vacuum, grocery shop, and play with my kids in between checking emails, editing, making phone calls, and creating online albums for client review. When the workday was over, so were all of our daily life tasks. Having a space downtown has been quite an adjustment to that, but I love it in a completely different way. I get to see more people (especially more adults) on a daily basis. I can still take my kids to the library as I used to, but when we return to the studio downtown I immediately have a sense to work, instead of picking up around the house. Although it is tempting to respond to an email as soon as I see that it has been sent, it is much easier to leave work at work, and be home when I am at home (check out Peter Awad’s “Slow Hustle” podcast for more on that concept!).

8. What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?

It is a hard concept to perfect at first, but I have gotten better about telling myself that I cannot serve others if my own cup is empty. Giving myself an opportunity to remember that I will be successful today, in this moment, could be as simple as a 15 minute break with Pinterest or an hour long Skype chat with a friend to collaborate on fresh ideas. Occasionally, I feel like these activities put me further behind in my to do list, so I remind myself that if I do not take time to enjoy life, my family, and my friends, there is no purpose to my career. Yes, we need money to pay bills, but if we are not enjoying life as it happens, we are guaranteeing ourselves missed memories. I would be a hypocrite if I encouraged others to prioritize their memories, if I, myself, was not creating any. Because of this, my job inspires me during every shoot. Every client has chosen me over any other photographer to capture one of their most important moments in life. These occasions may be as extravagant as a wedding day or as simple as an annual family session, but to my clients, and to me, it is so much more than just a shoot. You never know when a session is going to be your last as a family, exactly are you as you are right now, so embrace the NOW! There is no greater inspiration than to know that this gift I have been given (and am constantly trying to perfect) is something that positively impacts those around me, with the simple click of a button.

More Than a Hobby: Tim Blanski

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Tim Blanski of Granary Woodshops, Spring Grove, Minnesota

Story and photos by Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Fall 2015 Inspire(d)

Historic dream home you’d finally saved up for? Check.

Corporate tech jobs and a community of friends provisioning a predictable retirement? Check.

Logical next-step: Give it all up for an acreage in the rural Driftless, funded by woodworking skills dated to junior high?

Wait. What?

TimBlanski“It’s true,” Tim Blanski of Granary Woodshops says. “We hadn’t been in our dream house in St. Paul nine months – a house we’d walked past for years and saved to buy – when an ad for this acreage caught my eye in the paper.” One tour of the 1880 brick farmhouse and outbuildings at 18666 County Road 4, north of Spring Grove, Minnesota, had both Tim and his wife, Lisa Catton, testing fate. “We got back in the car, and she asked, ‘Do we make an offer tonight, or tomorrow?’”

MoreThanHobbyLogoThe problem was, they’d have to make a different living to make the move. As a marketing executive with an eye for salable detail, Tim set up a woodworking shop in the acreage’s original granary and turned his attention to the growing trend of artisan crafts made from reclaimed antique wood. “At first I made just gift boxes, picture frames. I’m not God’s gift to woodworking – this was stuff straight out of your average school shop class,” he says with a laugh.

Lisa, who continued contract tech consulting part-time, pitched in with varnishing and managing the fledgling business’s public relations, and they peddled their first goods at craft shows across the Upper Midwest. Soon, Tim found his niche: a rare patience for not only salvaging historic barns and sheds but in working the wood just enough to let its story shine.

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“All my wood is trouble,” he says, explaining that he’ll spend days matching up weather-worn grooves at the mitered corners of a box, or travel a state over to have a one-ton white oak burl sawn into slabs with the live edge (the outermost bark or surface) intact. “I’m giving people the story of this wood, its history,” he says, “and that means not shearing it down to its smooth heart. I leave the saw marks, the nicks and grooves mice have worn a passageway through.” He also believes in letting the material’s colors create their own mosaic. “I don’t paint or stain anything. I work with the texture of the wood’s original paint or patina.”

Now specializing in custom furniture, particularly farm tables and decorative side pieces, Tom will build four or more buildings into a single piece: walnut for the base, cherry for the upright table trestle, rare 1-inch-by-12-inch barn siding across the top, oak trim fumed to a deep mahogany color by the ammonia of its previous installation: a horse stall.

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He also aims to give his furniture a full life of its own, calling in the mechanical expertise of other craftsmen to make the leaves in his tables sturdy, for example. “This is mortise and tenon,” he says, pointing to tiny rectangles inset in a table’s edge, “and these hold a single oak bridge across the leaves when fully extended,” he says, jigging a discrete set of polymer tension knobs just out of sight. “Reclaimed, antique wood is some of the sturdiest, most valuable wood to grow on earth,” he says. “Its worth is not just in looking pretty. It’s in doing a job, part of daily life.”

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As his finished pieces have expanded in size and notoriety – it’s been nearly 15 years since that first handmade gift box – Tim has pared back art show travel, preferring instead to host prospective customers at the farm, where they can walk with him through his neatly stacked trove of woods in his barn and express exactly what they envision for their table or chair or entryway mirror frame. He makes a steady stream of contacts through his website, granarywoodshops.com, and on Craigslist.com, where clients are looking for something a little extraordinary.

“I started out woodworking to make a living, almost a desperate living,” Tim says. “And instead I found a passion. Creativity came pouring out of me. I get up every day excited about what I get to make next.”

Learn more about Tim’s work at granarywoodshops.com or by setting up a visit to The Granary Woodshops in rural Spring Grove, Minnesota.

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Kristine Jepsen understands the compulsion to ‘make things,’ as evidenced by whole drawers in her home of light-gage wire, glitter, beads, fabric scraps, papers and, especially, writing instruments. She’s proud to call the Driftless home, where creatives are far from the exception.

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Check out Tim’s work in Lanesboro!

Lanesboro Arts presents “Story Wood: Combining Nature & Rural History”, an exhibit of 3D woodwork by Tim Blanski. The exhibit opens with an artist reception on Saturday, April 16, 2016, from 6-8 p.m., and runs through June 12, 2016. The reception will include wine and hors d’oeuvres, as well as live music. Always free and open to the public, the Lanesboro Arts Gallery is open five days a week through May and six days a week through December. Inspire(d) is a proud sponsor of this exhibit! 🙂

 

Sum of Your Business: “Happy” Joe Whitty

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Sum of Your Business: “Happy” Joe Whitty
Intro and interview by Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Spring 2016 Inspire(d)

MannyMaryAnn_NEWForeword: While this story has just come out in our Spring 2016 issue, the news of losing Decorah’s Manny Madrigal has also just reached us. Manny, whom owned and ran the Decorah Happy Joe’s with his Wife Mary Ann and family for many years, was a one of a kind. He was well known in Decorah, played a mean game of pool, and worked out almost everyday. He will be missed in the Decorah Community and at Happy Joe’s. Our condolences to the entire Madrigal Family.
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If you grew up anywhere near a Happy Joe’s Pizza restaurant, chances are you either hosted or attended at least one of their epic birthday parties, with the honking of Bombay horns, the singing, the fire engine siren, and a birthday ice cream sundae presented in full glory with a candle (and cherry alongside the wafer cookie) perfectly placed on top. The elaborate performance may not have caused tears of joy to the younger birthday boy or girl every time, but the festive atmosphere definitely lent itself to a happy experience. And the formula (to this day) is not an accident. It – happiness – was one of the key selling points to the “crazy idea” that Joe Whitty took from nothing to the now multi-generational, franchised restaurant that invented the taco pizza (something we’re pretty big fans of at Inspire(d) HQ!).

Just west of Minot, North Dakota, in the sprawling Midwestern plains, Lawrence Joe Whitty was born the middle of five children. The family lived on a farm just outside of Des Lacs, milking cows, farming, and living in a typical farmhouse – void of modern plumbing and heated entirely by a wood stove. From a young age, Joe and his siblings learned the meaning of hard work, dedication, hospitality, and determination. And at eight years of age, Joe fell into a coma due to spinal meningitis and wasn’t given long to live. Nothing short of miracles and stubborn dedication led to his recovery – and appreciation of the life he was given. It’s a telling tale of Joe’s ability to overcome life’s challenges. The ups and downs of entrepreneurship are enough to give most people rough days, even years – add to that losing not one, but two wives to cancer, and you’ll begin to see the depths of Joe’s tenacity. This ability to survive – and thrive – is likely one of the reasons Joe has made giving back to the community, and especially handicapped and special needs children, a big part of the business.

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A huge thank you to the Madrigal family of the Decorah Happy Joe’s for helping put this story together.

A love for connecting with every customer who walked in the door (or drove up!) started early for Joe – age 18 – when he bought and operated his first restaurant in Minot, North Dakota: The Keg Drive-In. He also learned how to make work – the place where you spend most of your waking hours – as fun as possible. The Keg didn’t last forever, but it did give Joe an even bigger love for being your own boss and making people happy. As his young family grew, Joe worked as a baker, which eventually led to a series of jobs in Davenport, Iowa (one baking for nuns!), and finally to managing two Shakey’s pizza parlors. Joe saw the fast rise that pizza was making – and the idea of a pizza – and – ice cream store was hatched.

Today, at age 78, Joe continues to oversee Happy Joe’s business – with over 50 franchises and stores in seven states – while enjoying a little more time for retirement projects. His passion and sense of family continue on in the business with son Larry as the president of Happy Joe’s, and daughter Kristel serving as marketing director. Yet Joe Whitty can still be found often in one of the many Happy Joe’s restaurants – from Davenport to Gilbert, Arizona – greeting friends and talking to guests, and he’s still a driving force in the Happy Joe’s Kids Foundation which focuses on outreach to children with special needs.

HappyJoeThe Basics:
Name: Lawrence Joe Whitty aka “Happy” Joe Whitty
Age: 78
Business: Happy Joes Pizza & Ice Cream
Years in Business: 43
(The first Happy Joe’s opened in November of 1972 in the East Village of Davenport, Iowa)

Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?

In 1956 when I was 18, I bought the Keg Drive-in in Minot. I also met my wife Sandie there. The Keg only lasted a couple years, and then I went on to be a commercial baker – we eventually had the opportunity to move to Davenport, where I also baked for Mercy Hospital and the Catholic Nuns – that’s where I really got my pizza crust down – the nuns loved my pizza. When I managed a Shakey’s pizza parlor in Davenport, families were always coming in for pizza and then going down the street for ice cream afterwards. That’s where my idea for a pizza and ice cream place came from – I knew what I wanted to do.

I had wanted to be in business for myself for forever – I saw people doing it, and I was working for people who were doing it. They were driving nice cars and living in nice houses, and here I was working away for them. I decided to do it for myself.

What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

When you walk over and open up the door with that key – it’s your place. You go out and clear the driveway – it’s yours. You spend your whole life getting to that point. And of course the customers – good ones and “bad” ones. I’ve always taken time to talk to my customers, and it’s fun to hear how much people love the pizza and parties, etc. But I take as much or more time to hear the complaints – those are how you learn. If somebody isn’t happy or things aren’t right – I’ll stand on my head and whistle “Dixie,” – free ice cream cones, whatever it takes to make it right. Those often become our best customers, happy customers, because you make it right.

How about the worst?

The hardest part for me was maybe working too close with friends at times. Having to hold friends to business or franchise agreements or ending up in court. That can hurt, but you find your way through it, and you have to protect your original business interest and everyone else that has invested in it.

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Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?

I had six banks turn me down for a loan to open my own place before I was able to convince someone. My friends thought I was crazy with the pizza and ice cream idea. It wasn’t until I showed up at Jim Schrader’s office at the Davenport Bank & Trust with my brass horn and yelled this huge birthday announcement for him, honking the horn, getting everyone to sing and laugh – I had no idea when his birthday was, but it got attention. The president came over and said “Good God, get this guy a loan so he’ll get out of here!” But it worked… I still had no idea if the idea would work, but we had the loan!

When we got ready to open the first Happy Joe’s, I invited a local Catholic Priest, Father Hoenig, to come bless the store. It was also at this time that I told the Big Guy upstairs that I’d take him as my partner – and I did. And I agreed that regardless whether things worked or not, I’d make sure we gave back to the community, and to those in need. When my first wife, Sandie, passed away all of a sudden from cancer – she was always right beside me in the business and such – I started pulling an empty chair up in my meetings. I’d get looks and asked who that was for, and I’d say it was for the Big Guy.

Another one of the first hurdles was coming up with a name we could trademark. I have a good lawyer friend, Bob Van Vooren, who helped us – we looked at all sorts of names with Joe in them, but were having a tough time. My then 11-year-old daughter (Julie) came down the stairs one morning and said, “If you’re going to have pizza and ice cream, and fun birthday parties, and all these happy things – why not call it Happy Joe’s?” That was it.

When the store took off, people noticed and loved the concept – I had people asking in the first year if they could franchise – I didn’t even know if I could spell franchise. But, after a nice couple had come in several times and asked me about the possibility, I told them I didn’t have the money or the agreements set up. They wrote me a check for $500 that night and said they wanted to be the first to franchise. I went out and collected every franchise agreement I could get my hands on – had a typist help me combine all the parts I liked and took it to my lawyer, who said, “Joe, this looks pretty good!”

We ran with it from there, and had franchises going in the next couple years. I had a lot of good help through it – always good help.

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Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?

When I built out the first store I had so much help from friends and other businesses. People extended bills, personal friends helped put the store together and paint and such, along my friend and lawyer Bob Van Vooren. I was so thankful for all their help, so I put their names up on the windows as free advertisements – I just wanted to give them thanks. Bob came in after I’d done that and nervously said, “Joe! You have to take my name off there – it isn’t even legal for me to advertise.” (as a lawyer). So I took the “Van” off of “Van Vooren” and figured he could get away with it. I couldn’t have done it without all of those people – and several of my friends – life long friends – came from running the business.

What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

I’ve often said if I had any more education I wouldn’t have ever opened the store – not enough start up money, the location, our crazy pizzas with sauerkraut and things, and having ice cream too. Nobody was doing that, but I said, hey I want to do this. Originally I only wanted one store – a place to support my family.

But, a little more education sure would have been helpful at times. Maybe if I had gotten to go to college I would have been able to do a few more things myself. I had to hire good people to fill the slots where I couldn’t do it.

How do you manage your life/work balance?

My family was always involved in the business. I used to tell my kids “Hey, I don’t have any money, but I do have hours, how many do you want?” The members of my family were part owners in everything we did through that – they waited tables, washed dishes, you name it. After I lost my first wife, Sandie – well, it was hire a babysitter or have them at the store! I figured it was better to have them at the store. My kids were getting checks from me as young teenagers. They also came along with me all over the country in our RV as we opened new franchises and did celebrations. We also had a lot of fun along the way – and now some of them run the company!

What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?

Joe_KidBack when I was a Shakey’s manager, you know, checking on tables, talking to people, we still had the piano and banjo players back then. I had a gal come to the door one evening and look in. She asked if we would mind if her son could come in and listen for a bit – but that her son got a little loud when he was excited – he had special needs. Well, I had plenty of regular customers who got loud when they were excited, so what’d I care!? I of course told her to come in and enjoy – I treated them great, and her son really enjoyed himself. I wondered to myself how many other kids out there were at home – not able, or whose parents were hesitant to just take them out?

As soon as I had my own place going I knew I wanted to close the shop at least one day a year, just to invite children with special needs for a party – and treat them like royalty. And we did that our first year – it was great, and became a regular part of our business. As soon as you do something good like that, people take notice – we had newspaper write-ups, which I sometimes even got questioned on. You know, if everyone did things like this it wouldn’t be so noteworthy – there’s a lesson there.

We love it. We just had 1400 children participate in our Happy Joe’s parties at the i-Wireless Center from all over. I see some of these children year to year and they are so great – some kid came up to me this year, and I’m in my straw hat, smiling – and he says ‘Look! He’s still livin’!” another told me “I’ve got a complaint Happy Joe – you need to make the parties last longer!”

We also found that workers with special needs or disabilities could often find valuable places on our teams. Many are capable, and willing, and often help attitudes that bring a team together in the store. This just started because I wanted to make sure we showed a little care to these people – those kids belong to all of us you know, not just their parents. That’s what its all about.

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Joe Whitty is also the author of “Not Your Average Joe”, a personal memoir of his life and the story of Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream. You can find out more about Happy Joe’s and the Happy Joe’s Kids Foundation at www.happyjoes.com or www.happyjoeskids.org

“Everyone has a dream. Not everyone is lucky enough to see theirs come true. Give credit to success where it is due, and always remember that with success comes responsibility. Whenever you have the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life for the better, take it! Because, ultimately, the biggest difference, you’ll discover, will be in your own life.” – Happy Joe Whitty from “Not Your Average Joe”

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Benji Nichols celebrated countless birthdays as a kid at Happy Joe’s in Decorah, and to this day enjoys a taco pizza like nobodies business. He’s inspired by Joe Whitty’s life story, business spirit, and ability to overcome.