Operating an independent restaurant isn’t the easiest way to make a living. But the Draganowski family has managed to make it look that way. Among the family’s business holdings are a resort, three Italian restaurants, and a fourth restaurant in the works.

Ultimately, that success boils down to people, said Joanne Palzkill, one of the three Draganowski siblings who founded Draganetti’s Ristorante off of Clairemont Avenue on the edges of Altoona and Eau Claire.

“If you take care of your people, the rest comes,” Palzkill said.

Of course, having a great pizza recipe helps, too. An old family recipe for homemade pizza is exactly what got the Draganettis started back in 1981.

At that time, about the only places to get a pizza in town were spots owned by franchises. Not many local establishments were selling homemade pizza.

“It felt like we had found a niche,” Palzkill said. So she and her siblings, Claudia and John Draganowski, purchased what was then Buono’s, a gourmet Italian restaurant just off Clairemont Avenue.

Palzkill recalls that Buono’s had good food but was fairly expensive.

The Draganowski siblings thought they could do better.

Restaurant origins

However, the Draganetti story really begins long before that restaurant opened in the Chippewa Valley. The real origin involves Kasimer Draganowski, and when he moved his wife, Clara, and five children (the two youngest, including Palzkill, hadn’t been born yet) from Chicago to northern Wisconsin with the goal of opening a resort.

“My dad had this vision of making a better life for the family,” Palzkill said.

The year was 1951 when Draganowski bought the private residence that had been the Chicago police Ccommissioner’s summer home near Barnes.

“They sold everything and moved up there,” Palzkill said. “(My dad) was kind of rustic like that.”

Turning a private residence into a resort proved to be a lot of work. In fact, Clara Draganowski continued working in Chicago during the winter to help make ends meet. But Kasimer Draganowski was determined to make a name for himself using the family’s recipe for homemade pizza.

Along the way, Draganowski and his family opened a restaurant in Rice Lake called Drag’s, where the family further developed its reputation for homemade Italian cuisine. Both Drag’s in Rice Lake and the resort, The Enchanted Inn, remain in business today, and their customers can still find pizza cooked according to the family recipe.

A family business

That tradition is exactly what fueled the founding of Draganetti’s.

“I’ve been in the restaurant business since I could see over the table,” says Palzkill, second youngest of the Draganowski children. But after high school she wasn’t so sure a restaurant was where she wanted to spend her future, so she came to Eau Claire to attend college. “I had an interest in accounting, or at least I thought I did,” she said, laughing.

Palzkill graduated in 1981, the same year she and her brother John and sister Claudia opened Draganetti’s, and did work in finance for a while. But it wasn’t long before she decided to return to her roots.

“Stepping away from restaurants made me realize how much I enjoyed it,” Palzkill said. In any case, she certainly doesn’t regret her education. Not only was it a positive experience, but it gave her skills she continues to use in the family business.

From the start, each of the three siblings had areas of the business where they focused their attentions. Claudia worked in the kitchen, John in the bar — along with performing any general maintenance that was required — and Palzkill took care of the administrative work, keeping the books and developing the restaurant’s marketing efforts. Those roles still endure, though Palzkill doesn’t work in-house as much as her siblings.

Changing things up

Where she works isn’t the only thing that’s changed over the years.

When Palzkill and her siblings first opened their first restaurant, it wasn’t even called Dragnetti’s. It was called Drag’s II, tying the restaurant to the family establishment in Rice Lake that is still owned and operated by another Draganowski family member, Jerry. That restaurant was simply called Drag’s, a family nickname.

“We pretty much duplicated the menu there,” Palzkill said. “Really that wasn’t such a great idea.”

Establishing a customer base for a new restaurant is always a challenge, and those first few years that Drag’s II was open were tough ones. The restaurant was open for lunch then and the siblings thought they could rely on name recognition a bit more than turned out to be the case.

“We were almost an hour south. What’s Drag’s?” Palzkill said, explaining that they soon realized if they were going to be successful, this new restaurant was going to have to build an identity all its own.

About that time the roads surrounding the restaurant underwent some serious reconstruction. When Drag’s II first opened, the bypass was not yet constructed, nor was Hamilton Avenue.

“We were remote,” Palzkill said. “We might as well have been in Fall Creek.”

One summer about three years after Drag’s II opened, the road construction in the area was so extensive the family decided it would be best just to stay closed. Joanne, John and Claudia all worked up north at the resort that summer. They also did some soul searching, trying to figure out what steps to take with their business.

“We took that time to sit back and look at what this market really needs,” Palzkill said. “We decided to listen to our customers. We realized we needed to focus on dinner.”

So that fall when the restaurant reopened it had new hours and a new name: Draganetti’s — a combination of their father’s name and their mother’s maiden name, Micaletti. “That’s when we really started to get a grip and make some headway,” Palzkill said.

The one thing that didn’t changed was the pizza: “We’ll never change that,” she said.

Expanding horizons

But Draganetti’s isn’t the end of the story. Several years ago, the family opened Taverna Grill on Mall Drive in Eau Claire. Taverna still serves the family recipe for pizza, but it has more of the feel of a sports bar and is open for lunch.

The newest addition to the family’s holdings will be Za 51, a brand new restaurant currently under construction in Altoona near Woodman’s, off River Prairie Drive. This restaurant will be more about pizza and less about other Italian food. In fact, part of the name, Za, is family slang for pizza, while the 51 harkens back to the year when Kasimer started the family business up north.

“We’re going back to our roots,” Palzkill said.

This is the first time the family is building new. Previously they’ve moved into an existing location and modified it to meet their needs. This time, Za 51 is being built from the ground up.

“It’s very exciting. We’ve never built from scratch before,” she said. But that excitement is a double-edged sword. Given how busy the other restaurants have been, there hasn’t been as much time to devote to Za 51. “The biggest challenge has just been giving it the time and attention it deserves,” Palzkill said.

Za 51 should open sometime in the middle of 2017.

Staying current

As much as the family likes to stick with the traditional pizza recipe, they are well aware of the need to change with the times.

“We don’t want to look like a dinosaur,” Palzkill said, explaining that they try to keep the menu updated to reflect current tastes and trends. At the same time as they do that, many menu items will remain the same. It’s a balancing act. “We don’t want to alienate our past customers.”

Each business also has its own website and social media page, and each caters to the varying appetites of its customers. “If you want to come in and have a big dinner, great. If you want to come in and just graze a little, great. We don’t want to be just a special occasion place,” she said.

Another change to Draganetti’s over the years was the addition of a catering component. That area of the business has just exploded, Palzkill said. In recent weeks the restaurant has been catering meals almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day. “This year (catering) has been off-the-charts phenomenal,” she said.

Today, between the three businesses currently in operation the family employs around 55 people, most of which are part-time college students.

As the addition of Za 51 indicates, the family is showing no signs of slowing down despite the youngest being in their 50s. In fact, Palzkill doesn’t seem to mind the uncertainty of the future. “Nothing is a given,” she said. Especially for an independent restaurant.

“People kind of wear out,” she said, noting that for restaurants to have as long a life span as Draganetti’s is fairly rare. But that knowledge is part of what keeps the family’s business sense sharp. It is a do-or-die market.

“Take nothing for granted. You can blow it just as easy as you make it,” Palzkill said, discussing the challenges of running an independent (non-franchise) restaurant.

Often the profit margin for such businesses is very slim: only about 4-5 percent. Despite all of the uncertainties, Claudia, John and Joanne wouldn’t change a thing.

“It’s all about hard work,” Palzkill said. “The restaurant business is a very challenging but rewarding place to make a living.”

Caleb Brown of Chippewa Falls is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a former reporter for the Chippewa Herald.

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