No one would come out and tell Joe Hixon they wouldn’t hire him because of his disability. So, he was never 100 percent sure if his visual impairment or learning disabilities were reasons he was being passed over for an opportunity, but the mere possibility was just the fuel he needed in order to create one of his own.
When Hixon decided to walk away from the relative stability and steady paycheck of full-time employment in February 2015, he had no idea it would culminate in Fat Joe’s Pizzeria on Grand Avenue in Wausau.
“I told my wife, ‘I’m going to quit my job today,’” Hixon recalled of that wintry day. “She asked me what I was going to do. I said, ‘I have no idea.’ ”
Hixon had worked in construction and roofing in the past, and he’d been a maintenance supervisor, but none of it was something he felt would make him happy for a career.
That construction background helped when he came upon the former Pizza Hut building at 1716 Grand Ave. across from Pine Grove Cemetery. Built in 1969, the building had sat empty for several years, but Hixon was able to do much of the renovation and prep work himself, setting himself back less than $15,000 before opening his doors in September 2016. “I always had a desire to be in business for myself,” he said. And with two daughters, now 13 and 11, he knew he had an entrepreneurial example to set. “I found it fulfilling managing people, but you end up having to fulfill someone else’s ideology, and maybe you only agree with a (small) percentage of it.”
So, unlike many entrepreneurs who already have an established side hustle when they decide to turn into a full-time business model, Hixon’s slate was relatively clean. “
What are you good at?” he recalled asking himself. “Both of my kids said, ‘Pizza.’ ”
The mention of the food brought back memories of Hixon’s childhood trips to Long Island to visit his paternal grandparents. Those summer vacations and holiday excursions were never complete without a trip into the city for authentic New York pizza. “
I always had it as a little kid,” he said. “It was just different.”
So, with pizza now on the brain as a potential business startup, he set out to wake up the echoes of those childhood recollections and the special connection they forged. “
I played around with recipes to try to recreate that,” he said. “I made adjustments, played with different flours. Then, one day I found the right combination of cheese, saltiness, crust ...”
He began sharing his discovery with friends, and while Hixon’s business side wanted to test market his pizza, his more sentimental side hoped those who consumed his concoction could incorporate it into memories of their own. “
There’s something special about cheese, tomatoes, and the right crust,” he said. “It’s like a perfect marriage.”
It’s just such a strong relationship he strives to forge with his staff. Hixon has five employees, all part time, and hopes to add a few more so he can open for lunch. Fat Joe’s opens at 4 p.m. now, but Hixon has his eye on the lunch crowd. “
Things are OK now,” said Hixon, who turns $170,000 to $180,000 in sales. “But we need to get open for lunch to really make this viable. We need a couple of people to work a day shift from 10 to 4.”
Hixon has tried all of the standard online job-recruitment resources but has found that many of his best employees come as recommendations from other current or past Fat Joe’s staff. It’s all a testament to the type of culture Hixon has sought to establish. “
I’m passionate about creating an environment,” he said. “If you give a 17-year-old high school kid more responsibility than they’ve ever had, they’ll flourish.”
If that sounds like a slight shift to the paradigm of many business owners, it would be consistent with Hixon’s prioritization of experiences over profit, in the name of personal growth. “Before, I worked for money to buy things,” he said. “Now, I pay myself next to nothing and I’ve never been happier. If you do things right, mo