What began as Joe Whitty’s unrelenting pursuit of a dream to open one little restaurant of his own has now blossomed, beyond his or anyone else’s expectation, into a multi-million dollar business.
Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the phenomenal growth of Happy Joe’s is the character and the unchangeability of Happy Joe himself. “I was not unhappy with who I was,” he says, “and so I wanted to make sure that none of this changed me.”
Joe Whitty was born in Minot, North Dakota, on September 10, 1937. Joe was one of five children born to Lawrence and Roberta Whitty.
Joe graduated from Des Lacs High School in 1956. That same year, at eighteen, he leased a drive-in restaurant in town and ran that successfully for two years. “The year I closed the drive-in restaurant, I took a job in a bakery. I had just gotten married that year.” That began a series of jobs in the CO Bakery chain that lasted nearly ten years.
In 1966, Joe moved to Davenport, Iowa, to take a job operating the Super Value Bakery on 4th Street. Three years later, one of the nuns at Mercy Hospital talked him into reopening the bakeshop at the hospital. Later he became the dietary director at Mercy.
It was while he worked as a supervisor and manager of Shakey’s Pizza, in the late sixties, that Joe thought about combining pizza and ice cream. It was an unlikely combination that did little to inspire enthusiasm in the owner of Shakey’s. Joe spent a while in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he operated three stores for the owner of Shakey’s.
When he returned to Davenport, Joe was determined to pursue the idea opening a different kind of restaurant that would be family-oriented and also kid-oriented.
“Some of the bankers thought this idea was funnier than others,” Joe says, recalling the series of turndowns that he experienced. Eventually, the Figges of Davenport Bank saw some merit in the idea. Jim Schrader and I drove to Des Moines and talked to the Small Business Administration. They agreed to lend me the $30,000 I needed. We opened the first Happy Joe’s in the Village of East Davenport on November 16, 1972.
After the restaurant had been open only a month, Joe began a custom he has continued every year. “We closed the parlor for a day and gave a Christmas party for about 180 handicapped kids that year.”
Not long after the restaurant opened and the unusual Happy Joe’s concept was beginning to blossom, Joe Whitty’s world was turned upside down. His wife Sandy was diagnosed as having leukemia. Sandy died at the age of thirty-four in November 1974. Joe and Sandy’s four children, two boys and two girls, ranged in age from eight to fourteen.
In May of 1976 Joe married Nancy McGrath, whose husband Bob had died around the same time as Sandy. The Whitty and the McGrath kids – there were five of the McGrath kids – played no small role in bringing the two together. Julie, Joe’s older daughter, and Carolyn McGrath, were friends at Assumption High School.
As the years passed and the Whitty children completed their educations, they have one by one joined the Happy Joe’s organization.
Larry, the oldest, now serves as President of the Corporation. Tim, Joe’s younger son, served as President of Store Operations and has moved on to other ventures. Julie, Joe’s oldest daughter, worked for several years as Personnel/Payroll Supervisor and now works as an occupational therapist. Kristel, Joe’s youngest daughter, is the Advertising and Marketing Director for Happy Joe’s.
She writes, directs, and appears in many of the Happy Joe’s commercials for radio and television.
With Joe’s children taking over many of the day-to-day responsibilities of the company, Joe has more time to get out in the community. He is a strong supporter of Partners in Education and speaks to many schools and civic organizations about the important link between business leaders and schools. Joe believes every child can be successful if he or she has the proper support, love, discipline, and guidance provided at home and at school.
“Business has been so good to me that I want to do things for people,” he says.
His philanthropy is often directed toward the handicapped, the afflicted, and in general toward people whose lives need an uplift or momentary flash of happiness.
Joe’s entire orientation as a businessman is built on a solid foundation. He seeks out and engages the residual happy child in all of us. He has been enormously successful in doing that because he has a deep sense of who he is and where he’s been, and also because there are discernible elements of a small happy child inside of his own grown-up body. He has the creativity of a child who has not yet been “socialized” or taught the many things that cannot be done.
Although semi-retired, Joe continues to be involved in the decision-making processes at Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream. He also continues to be involved with Junior Achievement, Partners in Education, and The Handicapped Development Center. Annually Joe sponsors a group of twelve students from the Bettendorf Elementary Schools, two from each school. They meet once a month in the Board Room at Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream to discuss world events, what’s going on in the class rooms, how to be a good and contributing citizen in the community, and anything else the students wish to discuss. Joe Whitty continues to make a difference in the lives of our young people.