The ascendancy of a Saz’s State House Restaurant, from humble beginnings to Milwaukee folklore and prominence, is a story Steve Sazama enjoys telling.
“You gotta be known for something, and we have carved out a niche,” Sazama said. “It’s an exciting time to be around the growth and improvement of the neighborhood and Wauwatosa.”
Known to family, friends and customers as “Saz,” he attended Christ King Grade School in Wauwatosa, received a High School diploma from Marquette University High School, and attended MATC and Marquette University seeking a Marketing degree.
Soon after his time at Marquette he went to work at Pep’s Place on 73rd and State, which is the current location of Colonel Hart’s.
“Pep (Tom Palmer) was very active in the community (Wauwatosa),” Sazama said. “Pep and I are grade school buddies.”
In 1973 Saz helped to open up Major Goolsby’s next to the MECCA Arena.
“When this (Saz’s) restaurant became available in 1976. Pep was nice enough to loan me the money, because not only did I not have two nickels to rub together,” Sazama said, “I didn’t even have one nickel.”
Sazama and his partners brought the success they had in creating Goolsby’s with them to the historic building that remains a Milwaukee favorite today.
“There really weren’t sports bars then. Now, which one isn’t,” Sazama said. “At that time though, there was really not much in this area. If you look at how much the east side of Wauwatosa has grown, now it has become a large part of our marketing efforts. We have the right mix of clientele; the 28- to 45-year-olds are what we are looking for.”
Saz has always lived in and around Wauwatosa. After growing up near 94th and Keefe, including the Highlands neighborhood, he currently resides in Brookfield.
“Our bar is in Milwaukee, but most of our clientele are from Wauwatosa,” Sazama said.
They now employ over 700 part-time and 100 full-time employees after starting out with less than ten. Saz’s business got started after a friend helped him out, and he has
paid that back by helping others get a jump start into the restaurant business, including Wauwatosa’s own Chris Leffler, owner of Leff’s Lucky Town.
“Saz has always been a friend and mentor, since the day I met him,” Leffler said. “He has done so much for his community and has hired so many people from Wauwatosa. During the summer, he has provided hundreds of Wauwatosa High School and college students with employment.”
Leffler was quick to point out that Saz volunteers his time with organizations like the State Fair Youth Foundation, Luke Homan Foundation and The Variety Club.
“I am so proud the way Chris has built his business,” Sazama said.
The conversation with Leffler led to the story of how Sazama lost a finger at the State Fair. It is one no one else can tell and I think it needs to be told in full.
“I’m not sure exactly what year it was. Sometime around 1990. It was the first day of the Wisconsin State Fair. The Saz’s stand was all set to go. Equipment, labor and product were all in place, ready for the crowds and the 11-day run. Just before the stand opened it was time to light the grills and fryers that produce the famous Saz’s festival foods. Only one problem. The gas cooking equipment wasn’t getting enough gas. Nothing would light. There was a bit of a panic throughout the building. Saz, myself and a few others that had some clue of what to do checked everything. We couldn’t figure it out. I was in the outdoor grilling area, when suddenly Saz burst out of the building screaming and yelling. I looked over toward him and blood was squirting up in the air and then back down his polo shirt. I ran to him and had to almost tackle him to get him to calm down. I then realized he lost the top of his pointing finger from the top knuckle, up. Soon a State Fair golf cart came by, and I was able to get Saz into the golf cart and took him to the first aid station.
At this point no one knew what had happened. We checked tables, knives, food processors and cutting boards, assuming Saz cut his finger off somehow. Then I saw the blood trail. It led right to a reset outlet on the wall. On the door to the box was a C shaped wire handle that was used to open the door to the reset. Attached to the wire handle was Saz’s finger, still fried to the wire! He apparently stuck his finger onto the “hot” transformer in the box. The electrical pulse shot through his body and burnt his finger off where he stuck it in the wire handle to open the box.
I quickly but carefully removed his finger from the handle after turning the power off. Strands of skin stretched from the handle to the tip of his finger in my grasp. I freed the tip from the box, put it in a cup of ice and ran with a big stride and very little arm action as I held the cup of ice and finger to the first aid station.
Saz was in a chair with a bloody bandage held over his head. I gave the cup to the paramedic. In classic Saz festival style, he turned to me and said: ‘Just get the keys to my Mercedes out of my pocket. They (the Fair) won’t want it parked on the grounds once the fair opens.’ I think he was in shock!”
“I was in the hospital and in the middle of the night and I hear a voice calling my name and I look up and there is Nellie (Bucks coach Don Nelson),” Sazama said. “I got to know him during my days at Goolsby’s.”
Sazama has built a strong network of friends and loyal customers and is happy to soon be retiring.
“To get successful you have to work with good people,” Sazama said. “You have to have good suppliers and good staff. It is all about relationships, and that is the way you grow. People need to know that your business and its people have integrity.”
After retiring Saz will be handing the business over to his son Casey Sazama-Schneck, who has already been running the day-to-day operation of the business in conjunction with others.
“I grew up in Saz’s kitchen and around the Round Bar, so I’ve had a front row seat for the changes over the years. It’s absolutely incredible to have watched the business grow from what it was when I was a kid into what it is today,” Casey said. “And not just when it comes to growing our physical locations across Southeastern Wisconsin, but also in recognition with our clients, guests and the community as a whole. At SHG, we always say: ‘everyone has a Saz’s story,’ and it’s really true! I’m proud to have a part in what Saz started over forty years ago and to continue his passion for the finest in hospitality for the next forty.”
Today the business includes a catering arm, a fine catering branch at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, a frozen products division, and barbecue sauce sold in over 400 retail outlets in Wisconsin. Saz’s is also the official caterer of Summerfest and the State Fair.
“It has been a pleasure working with Saz for 40 years,” Director of Group Sales for the MCPA and former Brewers employee John Barnes said. “The events and food they produce here will knock your socks off.”
They have had relationships with the Brewers, the Admirals and the Packers in the past as well.
“The Brewers have always been a big part of our business,” Sazama said. “People would order our products and pick them up and take them to the game. Then people began to ask us to bring the food to them, and that is how our catering business got started.”
The growth of the catering part of the business was very fast. When Miller Park opened catering at the park, policies changed, but Saz said that was a blessing in disguise – because when one door shut, another was opened.
Another area of growth has been the Village and State Street area of Wauwatosa. Sazama said continued civic development has been great for his business. Sazama said the customers of today value healthier food and diversity in their flavors.
Tastes and customer desires may have changed, but this restaurant has remained relevant because they have changed along with the customers.
“We had to have a patio; it’s been a great addition,” Sazama said “We have to have a patio in Milwaukee, even though half the days it’s too windy and half the days it’s too hot. But the rest are perfect.”
The Legendary Round Bar at the restaurant has a seat reserved for Saz after his retirement. Residents of Tosa and West
Milwaukee will have plenty of opportunities to stop in and enjoy his company as he lets others build on what he created.