By Melinda Toy, Product Marketing & Communications Manager

It doesn’t matter which Milwaukee summer festival I’m attending –  whether it’s Summerfest, one of the many ethnic festivals, or even State Fair – one of my  goals always revolves around getting an order of Mozzarella Marinara from Saz’s.  The wonton-wrapped, deep-fried cheese sticks, and zesty Italian sauce have been one of my favorite summer indulgences for as long as I can remember.

And indeed, they’ve been a favorite for thousands of other fair and festival goers since owner Steve Sazama invented his iconic “cheese eggrolls” back in the 1970s.  Five years later, Steve followed the success of Mozzarella Marinara with the introduction of the now equally popular menu item: sour cream and chive French fries.  The popular fries are served with a proprietary dipping sauce made from fresh buttermilk and asiago cheese.

From their Wauwatosa restaurant to Summerfest, State Fair, every Milwaukee ethnic festival, and too many catered events to name, the Saz’s name is one of the first Milwaukeean’s think of when it comes to food.  But the path from jack-of-all-trades to successful restauranteur has been a 40-year journey for Sazama – and a fascinating one at that – culminating most recently when Saz’s was awarded the 2016 Walkers Point Association Business of the Year 


Early Years

After high school, Steve began studying business administration at Marquette University; however, his education plans were put on hold upon him entering the National Guard. Steve truly was searching for what he wanted to do…selling music, then copy machines, and then taking a stab at bartending.  

Steve took his first bartending job in 1971 at Pep’s Bar but a few short years later he found himself at Major Goolsby’s, the popular watering hole in the heart of Milwaukee’s sports venues. In his three years behind the bar there, Steve literally began to build his own future clientele among the many sports celebrities and sports writers that frequented the bar.

By March of 1976, Steve made the leap from bartender to restauranteur with the opening of Saz’s State House on State Street in Wauwatosa.  Soon word began to spread about Saz’s BBQ pulled pork sandwiches and ribs, and before long, Saz’s restaurant was on its way to becoming one of the area’s top casual dining spots.

As Saz’s reputation grew, the restaurant caught the eye of Summerfest as it sought out food vendors for the young festival.  It didn’t take long for Steve to come up with the now famous Mozzarella Marinara or cheese eggrolls as a finger-food to accompany the pulled pork sandwiches and rib dinners Saz’s was selling at the festival.  “Our cheese eggrolls have always been hand-rolled,” Steve explains.  “But the volume required for Summerfest soon became more than we could handle in-house, which is why were able to move production to another Wisconsin firm – Riverside Foods in Two Rivers.”

Growth – from sports to weddings − came quickly

By 1981, Saz’s popularity had grabbed the attention of Wisconsin State Fair Director, Billy Grinder, who brought Saz’s now-famous pulled pork sandwiches and tasty BBQ sauce into the fair’s local vendor food offerings. Today, Saz’s is the largest vendor at both the Wisconsin State Fair and Summerfest.  (They go through six semi-trailers of French fries for those popular sour cream and chive fries every summer!)

It wasn’t long before Saz’s was in-demand to cater parties and tailgate events at County Stadium, and later, the new Miller Park.  That led to an increase in other catering business, including weddings and other private events.  When the Pabst Brewing Company closed their local brewery, Miller Brewing took over their State Fair location and Saz’s took over the food service.  Today, in addition to running the new Saz’s Miller High Life Pavilion, the company also marks their 24th year as sponsor of the Racing Pigs at the fair.

A short time later, Saz’s customers were finally able to buy the company’s BBQ sauce in their local grocery store.  The intense popularity of the sauce led to Steve’s  decision to bottle and sell it commercially. In keeping with his desire to work with other Wisconsin companies, the sauce is made in East Troy, Wis. by Contract Comestibles, the company who also produces Saz’s house dressing and assists with new product research.

As the company continued to grow, Saz’s maintained a commitment to partnering with local organizations in its business and community endeavors. For more than a decade, Saz’s has teamed up with Milwaukee Admirals. Highlights of their partnership include helping to raise money for the Wisconsin State Fair Foundation by co-sponsoring the Racing Pigs and being a game day sponsor of the Admirals, including keeping the players and coaching stuff full with plenty of Saz's favorites.

By 2005, Saz’sbecame the official caterer for Summerfest, handling all food service needs for both entertainers and sponsor's VIP events. In 2009, Saz’s became the ”Official Barbecue Partner” of the Green Bay Packers, even producing their BBQ sauce in bottles sporting the Green Bay Packer logo.

In 2010, the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts came looking for a caterer. They liked Saz’s products and services, but because of the strong association of the Saz name with fairs and festivals, the decision was made to use Steve's last name, Sazama, as the company face for weddings and other upscale events. Sazama’s and the Marcus Center has since won “Best Place to Have a Wedding in Downtown Milwaukee” and is the exclusive caterer for the Marcus Center, providing food service at events 321 days of the year.


A philosophy for success

Ask Steve what keeps him energized and successfully managing so many business ventures, he’s quick to say that he avoids negativity. “If I waste energy being negative, it takes away from my productivity,” he replies.  “We have to know about the competition, but I don’t worry about them. I stay occupied with what we can do to make our business better. We control what we can control.”

Keith Aspinwall, Saz’s General Manager, echoes that philosophy. “Saz’s catering uses the word ‘Yes’, we never say ‘No’,” says Keith, whose role includes overseeing community involvement and the creation and management of special events. “Customers appreciate that we’re easy-going and have few ‘rules’ that they have to follow.”

That same energy and never-say-no attitude is also evident in the company’s more recent ventures.  Saz’s partners with Palermo’s Pizza to commercially sell their frozen grocery products, including their hand rolled Mozzarella Marinara and Leinie's Battered Wisconsin White Cheddar Cheese Curds. This fall, in addition to their White Cheddar Curds with Lienenkugel beer breading, Saz’s will be launching two new varieties of their hand rolled products—a Leinie's Pepperjack Stick and a Jalapeno Mozzarella stick, of course both items will strictly feature Wisconsin Cheese.

And, in case you thought that was more than enough for one company, this summer marks the third year Saz’s offered catering and concessions at the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis. where they served six different menus at six food locations, along with a collection of private events throughout the grounds.

“It is an exciting time in the Milwaukee [food] industry with so many restaurants opening,” Steve notes.  “Which also means we’re challenged to find good strong leaders to work with us.”

The right partners can fuel success

As their catering business continued to expand, it became clear Saz’s would need more space for those operations. Steve came to Bank Mutual in 2014 seeking financing for a new catering building.

Although he had been with his previous bank for 39 years, Steve felt the need for a banking partner experienced in dealing with the Milwaukee Economic Development Commission (MEDC) as he wanted the new building to be located in Milwaukee. 

Steve hired Dan Katt, Owner of Craft Development, to oversee the Saz’s Catering construction project.  Dan had previously worked with Bank Mutual on real estate projects that included MEDC financing and referred Steve to Bank Mutual. Dan knew that Saz’s would benefit from a partner who was enthusiastic about helping and expanding a local business.

“I’m not a person who likes change,” Steve admits.  “But Bank Mutual made it very easy for us to make this project happen and meet the opening day goals for our new catering facility.”

Steve also expressed his appreciation for Bank Mutual’s additional services during some of his busiest events, such as sending an armored truck to Bastille Days to pick up and secure a large deposit, and helping finance South Second: A Saz's Hospitality Group Property, for whom Saz’s is the exclusive caterer.

From the humble beginnings of Saz’s Wauwatosa restaurant to major sport events, fine catering and becoming an established household name, is truly a great success story. Not only for Steve Sazama, but for the thousands of Wisconsinites and people who look forward to Saz’s being a part of their family events, summer fun, and simply a staple of living in Wisconsin.