DECORAH — A downtown Decorah institution has come to an end.
After 40 years of serving and employing generations of Northeast Iowa families, Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream, located at 105 E. Water St., made its last pizzas and sundaes last week.
It’s an emotional time for the Madrigal family who’s operated the business for four decades. But Mary Ann, who opened the restaurant with her late husband, Manny, understands it’s time for her son, Jon, who now runs the business with his wife, Marcia, to try something different.
“All good things come to an end,” Jon said.
Jon started working at Happy Joe’s in Davenport, where his mother also worked, at the age of 16. The Madrigals moved their family to Decorah in 1979 when Mary Ann and Manny bought the Decorah Happy Joe’s franchise.
It was one of the first franchises in Decorah at the time, Jon remembers, and there were only about four other restaurants in town. Happy Joe’s had an old-time ice cream parlor feel with red velvet wallpaper and employees dressed in striped uniforms wearing straw hats. Girls wore short skirts with aprons and red and white saddle shoes. The uniform policy became less restrictive over the years.
Mary Ann said she’s glad they chose the Decorah franchise.
“Oh yeah — we loved it. I never knew that people could be so friendly until we moved here. Davenport was a bigger city. Everybody spoke to us here,” she said.
Jon and three of his seven siblings worked for their parents. Jon’s future wife started working at Happy Joe’s before they married. Jon had a mustache in those days, and Marcia refused to wear the skirt the female employees were supposed to wear, opting for pants instead.
It wasn’t long after opening that coffee clubs began taking up residence at Happy Joe’s in the mornings.
“The coffee guys started coming in. Then a few years later, the coffee women started coming in. Everybody from Anundsen Publishing would come. We were always full in the morning with coffee drinkers,” Mary Ann said.
It wasn’t their intention to run a coffee shop, but Mary Ann said she and her husband were always there in the restaurant at that time of day anyway.
“They just kept to themselves. They were a bunch of good guys,” Mary Ann said of the coffee groups.
As the years went by, Jon gradually took over the business, but his parents remained a constant at Happy Joe’s. Jon and Marcia have three daughters who spent much of their younger years in the restaurant when they weren’t in school or participating in sports.
“It was a good place to raise our kids. They got to see their grandma and grandpa all the time,” Marcia said.
“They learned how to work. All three of them have great jobs today,” Jon said.
The Madrigals employed several people from the same families over the years.
“There were a lot of brothers and sisters. It was fun to work with them,” Mary Ann said. “There were a lot of good stories … sometimes siblings would disagree and get on each other’s nerves,” she said laughing. “We always had a good group. They were the best.”
Jon’s sister, Andrea, said the employees enjoyed getting together for activities such as canoeing and Christmas parties.
For many employees, working at Happy Joe’s was more than a job.
“We’re on our second generation of employees — their parents used to work here,” Marcia said.
“Manny and Mary Ann were like grandparents to me. I learned a lot of responsibility from them,” said Matt Amundson, who worked for the Madrigals for more than 10 years, starting when he was a sophomore in high school.
“I loved my job — as a young kid, it was like the best job you could get, working for them,” he said.
Amundson, now a fifth grade teacher at the Decorah Middle School, said he started making pizzas, then delivering them and finally made pizza dough.
Amundson said he remembers making dough in the mornings while Manny started getting things ready for the day, always taking time to visit with his employee.
“He’d sit there and make sure everything in my life was going well, sharing stories, and asking what my plans were for after work. He showed how much he cared about me,” Amundson said.
“He made sure I was staying on the right path,” he said. “He was always there to listen.”
Amundson also became close with Jon through the years, and would often stop in to chat with his former employer and thank him for the lessons he’d taught him in the restaurant.
“I learned how to approach people in the community and work with people. They were great examples,” Amundson said of the Madrigals.
“It’s going to be missed … I have a special spot for Happy Joe’s,” Amundson said.