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Family Time with the Jessen's at Visalia Tazzaria

May 28, 2015 02:39PM ● Published by Brandi Barnett

Coffee for Starters

June 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Jacki Potorke

“My whole career is 30 years of basically going from construction to kitchen, back and forth,” says James Jessen, owner and chef at Visalia’s Tazzaria. Like his restaurants, James built his career “from the ground up … from dishwasher to prep cook to busboy,” he says.
   
In 1986, James worked for a concrete company that transferred him to Visalia. That was his last real job, he jokes, and two years later, he opened Main Street Café and Deli and launched his career as restaurateur.
   
James sold the café after seven months, “did two more restaurants, then basically went into property development.” A decade later, he combined his love for coffee and construction and patented a concept for drive-thru lighthouses, calling them Tazzaria.
   
“Tazza meaning cup in Italian, and ria place. The place of the cup,” explains James. He and his investors sold two units before, “well, 9/11 wiped us out,” says James. His investors backed out, and James was left with the patent and a name.
   
Not long after, James stood outside the Main Street coffee shop, Java Jungle. “Basically,  with the last of the funds… I asked if they would sell.” Java Jungle’s owners agreed, and a week later James moved in and renamed the place Tazzaria.
   
Now James only lacked customers. “Dead” is how he describes those first years. “It was really tough,” he says. “Really, really, really tough.”
   
Though James immersed himself in its culture, coffee proved a difficult business. And the few customers who came still called his cafe Java Jungle. Just when James needed customers most, Michelle came through his door – not to buy, but to sell.
   
“She’d come in selling her Bacci Bars” – a homemade granola bar – “but I wanted to have coffee with her,” says James. “So I’d buy her inventory, even though I had no use for it.” Week in, week out, James bought Michelle’s inventory. “That’s how we started dating.”
   
Michelle didn’t know it then, but today she says with a laugh, “He had no use for them because he had no business… He’d buy everything, and I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is super busy.’ I found out later they weren’t even being sold.”
   
“Thankfully, she gave in before I went broke,” James says. “In the end I got the bar and the girl.”
   
It might have been coincidence, but Michelle and James’ relationship and ultimate marriage marked a turn in Tazzaria’s fortune. That relationship provided Tazzaria with what had been lacking: family.
   
“Home. Tazzaria is our home,” says Michelle. If James and Michelle aren’t working behind the counter or cooking in the kitchen, you’ll find them sitting on the patio, eating with family, employees, customers – every one of them, friends.
   
“Our customers, when they become loyal, they are so loyal,” says Michelle. “Really, our customers became family, too.”
   
James says the same of his 32 employees. “Oh, staff, they’re not like family. They are family,” he stresses. “They do everything: we work through holidays together, we fight, we make up.”
   
As their family has grown, so has their business. They purchased Visalia Coffee Co. in 2011 and operated the business under the same name. “But we did get smarter because we didn’t drag it on this time,” Michelle says, referring to their attempt at running a second coffee shop.
   
Five months later, the Jessens renovated Visalia Coffee Co. and reopened as Pizanos, a wood-fired pizzeria. “We wanted to do one thing and do it really good,” explains Michelle, “something that stayed within our core concept, but different from Tazzaria.” That core concept: “ingredients simple, clean, as organic as we can get,” she says.
   
Simple, fresh ingredients and a family-oriented atmosphere have been a successful combination, one that has allowed the Jessens to expand. They helped start Quesadilla Gorilla, which is now under different ownership, and last fall they opened PHD, a brewpub beneath Tazzaria. Just this March, the Jessens purchased Glick’s Old Fashion Meat & Deli, and will soon open Eighty/20, a gourmet burger joint in what was formerly Mike’s Camera.
   
While they’re following the keep-it-simple mantra, James also admits, “we take something so simple and then make it complicated.” Eighty/20, which refers to the optimal lean-to-fat ratio of a burger patty, won’t serve only gourmet burgers, but also homemade ice cream and handcut fries. The meat will come from Glick’s, but the rest of the produce won’t travel much farther, either. They plan to source their food locally “as much as we can,” says Michelle. “All our lettuce is grown for us, and the breads are baked in town.”
   
Basically, they’re keeping it all in the family, which is the same as keeping it here in Visalia. And other than attributing their success to good food and family, the Jessens say it has a lot to do with stubbornness. “That’s the only reason we made it,” says Michelle. “We’re both super stubborn.” Stubborn enough when it counted: when Tazzaria’s original idea didn’t pan out, when James bought Bacci bars for customers he didn’t have, and when coffee’s future seemed black, the Jessens stuck it out. Visalia, and its residents’ appetites, are the better for it.

Tazzaria • 208 W. Main St., Visalia
(559) 636-1618 • www.tazzaria.com
Pizanos Wood Fired Pizza • 129 E. Main St., Visalia
(559) 732-6333 • www.woodfiredpi.com
Glicks & Co., 604 W. Murray, Visalia
(559) 732-6439 • www.glicksandco.com

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