Gary Ezell expected another packed house.
On a Friday night at Joey Nova’s pizzeria in Tonka Bay, diners backed up from the pick-up register to the front door. A standing-room-only evening wasn’t unusual, nor was Ezell’s demeanor as he calmly darted from the front line where he filled a sauce tray, to the scullery where dirty dishes awaited attention, to a back room computer where orders overwhelmed the system.
The manager of 11 years—and celebrated chef—exuded the serenity of a monk while enveloped in a cacophony of clattering dishes, bellowed orders and a radio in the back galley that blasted incessantly.
But his calm exterior belied a sometimes churning interior. “His mind is always busy,” says Jack Baer. Baer, 22, works the front, cutting pizzas, boxing them and ensuring orders are completed. He’s known Ezell the better part of ten years. “We’ve tried for so long to get him to settle down,” Baer says. “If he sits down, he’ll fidget,” he adds. “You can tell he’s thinking. There’s probably ten or 12 things on his mind.”
In a decade, Ezell has transformed a sleepy strip mall pizza joint into a model for growth and success. “This little pizza out of Minnetonka has created waves within the wedding community,” Ezell says, referring to Joey Nova’s success as a caterer for large groups and subsequent foray into the wedding-venue arena.
In bucolic Hillsdale, Wisconsin, an 1800s dairy barn was converted to a wedding venue that has gained international notice.
Two years ago, Ezell and Joey Nova’s became one of only two caterers to feed as many as 400 guests at events at the Enchanted Barn. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s so worth it,” Ezell says. His reach afar not withstanding, Ezell’s impact locally has been profound. He was named the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year in 2017. One of the reasons is his great reputation as a boss: When Ezell accepted the mantle of manager, he set out to shake things up. First, he elevated employees’ job titles.
“Language is huge,” he says. “Language is used to judge and identify.” Ezell told his staff at Joey Nova’s that there would no longer be dishwashers, for example. The scullery would be the responsibility of stewards.
“The importance of every position is key,” he adds. If he learns employees are confronting addiction challenges, he swaddles them with love and concern. Some younger employees “come in raw, [with] drug abuse, broken families,” Ezell says. He works with TreeHouse, a Minnesota agency dedicated to “ending hopelessness in teens,” according to their website. With that hook-up, “They’re given an opportunity to care, because that’s our culture” at Joey Nova’s, says Ezell, who has lost employees to heroin overdoses and does everything he can to prevent more. He says, “The lives I’ve been able to pull away from the drug and alcohol scene have been just extraordinary.”
Sometimes, employees simply have a bad day. Ezell has that covered, too. “He always says, ‘If you’re having a hard day, we’ll find a job [in the restaurant] that works for you,’” says 22-year-old Madeline Skoglund. She’s worked elsewhere too, but treasures her experience at the restaurant. “I love Gary,” she says. “I love that he genuinely cares about his employees.”
Ezell’s humanitarian fingerprint can be found throughout the Twin Cities. As an antidote to cabin fever, selected patients at Childrens’ Hospital are treated to a day out of their rooms and “Pizzas for Patients” twice a year. Ezell partners with Minnetonka High School students to prepare and deliver more than 30 pizzas for the event.
And closer to home, Ezell responds to the urgent call for first responders. “When I hear [the sirens] go, immediately I’m thinking pizzas. How big is the thing?” Without a second thought, Ezell is out the door making sure the first responders are fed and taken care of. “I’ll drop off pans of pasta and pizza.” He delivers to the headquarters of Hennepin County Water Patrol in Spring Park, and often to the Excelsior Fire District, including fires that can involve as many as six neighboring fire departments.
In Excelsior, Mount Calvary Lutheran Church provides homeless families temporary housing while they search for something more permanent. At the conclusion of their week at Mount Calvary, Ezell provides meals. “We also do a custom-made cake” to celebrate their paths toward more stable living conditions, he says. When pressed, Ezell figures he’s supported more than 100 organizations that give back.
Chris Anderson oversees the Families Moving Forward program at Mount Calvary. “I don’t know how he does it,” Anderson says. “He meets them in a caring way, like you’re a fellow human being. He’s very humble. I think a lot of people have no idea all the things he involved in.”