In 1976 Milwaukee native Steve Sazama, a.k.a. Saz, opened Saz’s State House Restaurant in a historic building nestled beside the railroad tracks on the West Side of town. Saz knew how to make his customers happy with great food and stellar service. What he didn’t know was that 40 years later Saz’s State House would be the cornerstone for a thriving operation that includes successful Catering, Festivals and retail Barbecue Products divisions.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Saz has a genuine allegiance to the community. A graduate of Christ King Grade School, Marquette High School, and a marketing major at Marquette University, it’s no surprise that Saz’s stomping grounds remain close to home. Just a half-year shy of his degree, Saz was called to the National Guard for the Vietnam War. When he returned, re-enrolling in school just wasn’t in the cards. He landed a sales job for Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. (known today as global giant 3M), where a comprehensive sales training program provided Saz with the business sense he would rely on in the adventures to come.
At night, Saz tended bar for a collection of popular local tavern owners. One relationship, in particular, influenced Saz’s personal and professional life at crossroads. A childhood friend dating back to grade school, Thomas “Pep” Palmer, offered real-life insights when Saz was just arriving on the tavern scene – lessons learned that allowed Saz to master the art of building a successful business when he joined Jerry Cohen and Tom Shepard in introducing “The Bar with No Name” (a year later, christened Major Goolsby’s).
The success Saz and his partners had in molding this sports bar into a highly-acclaimed establishment gave Saz confidence that he had a handle on what it took to provide good food, good times, and good service to the public. On March 1st, 1976, with some financial help from his good pal, Pep, Steve “Saz” Sazama opened his tavern in the historic building that remains a Milwaukee favorite today — Saz’s State House Restaurant.
Initially opened on 55th and State as a neighborhood tavern, the State House featured a unique “Round Bar”, which facilitated lively conversations and quick camaraderie. Saz’s State House added a limited menu to its repertoire shortly after opening. Saz’s own recipe for BBQ sauce was slathered on premium, fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs on Wednesday and Sunday nights, gaining the State House rave reviews and some neighborhood buzz… along with a growing collection of regular customers with a penchant for Saz’s Ribs.
By 1979, those early regulars had become raving fans, and word spread to so many that Saz needed to expand the building. With a keen eye focused on the customer experience, Saz elected to disregard the recession’s interest rate spike and, instead, invest in the comfort of his customers. The much-needed addition offered more dining room seating and a secondary bar affectionately nicknamed, “The New Bar.”
As Saz mixed and mingled with his restaurant patrons, he also formed some key relationships that would influence the future of the State House in some unexpected ways. Those conversations in the early 80s laid the groundwork for steadfast partnerships still vibrant today – Summerfest and State Fair being two of the most longstanding. By 1985, Saz’s had firmly established its presence at both festivals, showing that his team’s culinary know-how wasn’t restricted to the restaurant. As the first-ever food vendor for Miller’s first stage at Summerfest (known then as the “Miller Jazz Oasis,” now the “Miller Lite Oasis”), Saz’s was on its way to festival fame.
Naturally, Saz brought his famous ribs to the festival scene. When he noticed it would be easier to eat the ribs if he pulled the meat off the bone and made a sandwich, he decided to introduce the festival-famous “rib sandwich” to the menu. And so, Saz’s Signature Pulled BBQ Pork Sandwich was born right there on Wisconsin Avenue in the middle of the very first Winterfest.
Saz’s signature Mozzarella Marinara was added to the menu a couple of years later as Saz and his team sought ways to please the crowds with a tasty snack you could eat while holding a beer and walking the festival grounds. In a late-night chat between Saz’s Chef, Richard Nashini and his friend John, owner of the Yum Yum Tree restaurant, the conundrum was solved. Why not try a “cheese egg roll,” the duo pondered. Suffice to say, Saz’s new menu addition was well-received, spurring a frenzy of hand-rolling mozzarella madness to keep up with customer demand!
In the mid-80s Saz’s expanded it’s Wisconsin State Fair presence with the addition of Saz’s Ribs at the corner of 2nd and Badger Streets. In 2007 the location became Saz’s Leinie Lodge – featuring Saz’s Ribs, Leinenkugel’s and great music.
In 1989, Saz joined up again with Pep Palmer to open Saz and Pep’s Depot in an old train station in Waukesha, a successful venture that extended into 1994.
The love for Saz’s unique taste was building, and people starting looking for ways to bring Saz’s food into their lives in addition to the restaurant and summer festivals. Responding to requests for tailgate delivery to County Stadium, Saz and his team packed a truck with some signature ingredients and a grill and got to work. Word spread, and orders started pouring in for other events – a husband’s birthday party here, daughter’s graduation there, a retirement celebration or wedding or work event down the street. In 1990, Saz’s Catering was officially born, with a dedicated staff and equipment to service any off-site catering need in the Milwaukee area. Saz chose Joe Brueggemann to head up the Catering Division. Joe was Saz’s Chef at the Depot Restaurant and had proven to be organized and creative, and people enjoyed working with him. Joe’s uncanny attention to detail paired with his vision for the business and keen eye for the big picture have proven to be an undeniable force for Saz’s Catering and Saz’s Hospitality Group as a whole.
With a handful of opportunities to get a taste of Saz’s, and a solid fan following, it was only natural that people would start asking for that secret-recipe sauce “to go” as a jump start to their home cooking. Again responding to the public demand, Saz’s Original BBQ Sauce made its way onto grocer shelves in May of 1992. The sauce was a hit with shoppers and the following year Saz’s Sassy BBQ Sauce, made with Jalapeño peppers, joined Saz’s Original on grocers’ shelves.
After only a couple of years in business, Saz’s Catering was gaining ground and, certainly, notoriety. The 1992 Presidential Election Parties in Washington D.C. featured Saz’s as the only representative from Wisconsin and an expansion into the facility at Western Lakes Golf Club are just a few of the highlights from these early Catering years.
On the festivals side, Saz’s was offered additional opportunities to break out of the concessions arena. Taking over all events in the VIP private event areas on the Summerfest grounds, as well as running the historic Pabst Pavilion at Wisconsin State Fair (now known as Saz’s Miller High Life Pavilion), Saz’s Catering was beginning to outgrow its location due to increased business once again. Upon recommendation of Father Warren Sazama, Saz hired Curt Kluth to head up the growing festivals division. Curt is still overseeing the division, along with Saz’s son Casey.
In 1995, Saz’s Catering moved into a new building, branching off with its own corporate identity. The move allowed the team to reach a greater number of clients and service more events than ever before due to the expanded production space. The State House followed suit in 2002, adding on 900 square feet of private event space – The State Room – to accommodate events like rehearsal dinners and business meetings in a room dedicated to the cause.
In 1998, several more products made their way onto local shelves for retail sale including Vidalia Onion BBQ Sauce, Ready-to-Reheat Racks of Ribs, and frozen Mini Mozzarella Sticks and Natural Cheddar Curds.
In 2009, Saz’s Catering earned the coveted title of “Official Barbecue Partner of the Green Bay Packers”, also taking the reins to the Tailgate Tundra Zone (TTZ), an outdoor, climate-controlled, tented entertainment venue at Lambeau Field. The State House joined forces with Saz’s Catering to offer the TTZ Luxury Motorcoach to fans who want to travel in style with their favorite barbecue to their favorite team’s games.
Saz’s Catering also made a splash on the golf scene. Years ago, Saz’s Party Deck at the PGA Tour’s US Bank Championship at Brown Beer Park Golf Course and Saz’s Brown Deer Club at the Greater Milwaukee Open (GMO) got things rolling. Today Saz’s caters social golf outings hosted at Western Lakes Golf Club, including Saz’s Annual Golf Outing, for which all proceeds are donated to Variety – the Children’s Charity of Wisconsin and the State Fair Park Foundation, organizations with longtime connections to Saz’s Hospitality Group.
Saz enjoys supporting Milwaukee area athletics – pro and semi-pro, as well as community youth. Whether it is attending games, running shuttles to Brewers, Bucks and Marquette Basketball games, sponsoring Admirals Hockey, or giving a young baseball player a healthy high-five and an order of mozz sticks on the house for having the game-winning hit, Saz supports athletic endeavors, as does his organization as a whole.
In 2010, Saz’s took over catering operations at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, operating as Sazama’s Fine Catering. Sazama’s general manager, Keith Aspinwall, and his talented team, provide a wealth of fine dining expertise and an affinity for upscale event planning for weddings and events held at the stunning venues at the Marcus Center. The unique variety of spaces, from the spacious Bradley Pavilion to the more intimate Green Room, and outdoor areas including The River’s Edge Patio, Fitch Garden and Peck Pavilion, provide ideal venues as Sazama’s creates the perfect atmosphere to accompany its gourmet cuisine.
Today, Saz operates his business as Saz’s Hospitality Group, consisting of six separate entities:
- Its flagship restaurant, Saz’s State House, offering neighborly service with a classic menu, timely specials, and fun events nudging locals and Milwaukee’s tourists alike to gather ’round The Round Bar
- Saz’s Catering, servicing casual and formal events for a variety of clients from Green Bay to the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago
- Saz’s Catering Lake Country, based inside of Western Lakes Golf Club and also providing off-site catering to clients as far west as Madison
- Sazama’s Fine Catering, operating exclusively for the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, providing exceptional service for all event styles
- Saz’s Barbecue Products, currently offering a line of seven retail products available in over 200 local retail establishments and online
- Saz’s Festivals, operating at over 20 festivals annually, with recognition as a premier food vendor offering a number of signature items including the festival-favorite Sampler Combination Platter (Mozzarella Marinara, Sour Cream & Chive Fries, and Leinie’s Beer-Battered Wisconsin Cheese Curds), rated #1 at the Wisconsin State Fair and Summerfest year after year
Moving into 2016 and beyond, there are some big changes on the docket. While business growth is nothing new for Saz’s, an expansion of this scope is something fresh and exciting. Saz’s Catering has moved its operations to the up-and-coming Walker’s Point neighborhood in April 2015. The move was exciting because it not only places Saz’s Catering in a fresh location with new opportunities, but it triples the production space for the Catering Team and houses all catering staff under the same roof. The result will be nothing short of extraordinary for a group that was previously servicing over 1,800 events annually.
Saz’s Catering Lake Country will expand its service area as far west as Madison, providing off-site catering services to clients at area venues, private residences, or corporate facilities, along with continuing to provide exclusive catering services at the championship Western Lakes Golf Club in Pewaukee.
Sazama’s Fine Catering continues its partnership as exclusive caterer for the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, providing the ultimate in gourmet cuisine and impeccable service with a staff notorious for tending to the most minute of details with unrivaled finesse and polish.
Saz’s Festivals will make its appearance at more than twenty events this season between May and October, entertaining requests for additional opportunities to spread the Saz’s love wherever it can.
Saz’s Barbecue Products division will be bringing Saz’s Signature items to more people in more places this year as demand increases and it continues as the “Official Barbecue Partner of the Green Bay Packers.”
The State House will continue to serve as the nucleus of the Saz’s Hospitality Group, retaining its classic charm and nostalgia while bringing new flavors and fun to the community that has embraced this Milwaukee tradition for over forty years now. The State House hit the big 4-0 in March; and with a milestone this big, expect the party to last all summer long with some really great specials. You never can tell what Saz has up his sleeve when a cause for celebration comes around!
With a dedication to client satisfaction that shows no signs of slowing, Saz’s Hospitality Group continues to leave its guests with more than just a taste of delicious barbecue on their lips. To our loyal guests, and to the new faces to come, a sincere thank you. And a promise, as well, that we’ll continue to provide “The Finest” in food and in service for the next forty years. Cheers!