From surf bum to SoBol founder, in The Boss
“I deal well with my target employees because I’ve been there. I know how hard it is to sit in a job and do the same thing over and over again for minimum wage. ” — Jason Mazzarone, founder of 31-unit SoBol, with son Ezekiel
Tell me about your upbringing?
I grew up in the town my parents went to school in, which is good and bad, South Shore Long Island. My mom is a big cooker. My grandparents, big cookers. My mother got that from them and passed it to me.
College wasn’t in my future, based on my grades. I went to Vermont and was a ski instructor. I went down to Puerto Rico and was there for three years, being a surf bum, doing fun things, which I can’t really tell you about. That file is marked confidential and is closed. We counted up, I had 37 jobs before I opened this company. Selling rare coins, pumping gas, each one gives you perspective.
What did all those experiences teach you?
I deal well with my target employee, the 17-, 18-, 20-year-olds because I’ve been there. I know how hard it is to sit in a job and do the same thing over and over again for minimum wage. I think because I’m not so cookie cutter, it makes me better able to understand their shortcomings better than some.
I was a floater, I was a drifter, I made mistakes, I got fired. My dad says, if I knew you were going to turn out this way, I wouldn’t have been so stressed out for all the years you were floating. But everyone has their own path.
Your mother gave you some advice that’s stuck with you?
I was 25 or 26. She said what are you going to do? You need a skill. Others in my family they had a skill but turned it into a business. I said I don’t want to be a plumber, I don’t want to be a barber. I like food. I started researching culinary schools. My mom took a lot of crap, for co-signing my loans, from my uncle and my dad, because I failed a lot. She kept putting her faith in me. She’s a high school teacher. She was supportive, but she didn’t do my homework for me, she helped me find the book, and open it. I’ve taken on some of that.
What was one of your first leadership experiences?
SoBol was founded out of my mom’s Italian ice shop back in 2013. I had come back to California, gone to culinary school, and was making acai bowls for my family at home. My grandfather started an Italian ice shack back in the ‘70s, and my mom bought it. So on August 1, 2013, I sold two bowls the first day, but I was a business owner. This was my chance; this thing was actually working. I was 27, going on 28. I’m 33 now.
How do you lead your millennial employees?
It’s not the old days. You can’t scream and yell at them, and you can’t threaten them. It’s managing them. My uncle says it best, mediocrity won’t do it anymore. You have to hold them to the standard. I tell the kids, when you’re in the store, you’re me. And so really, we spend a lot of time training our employees in our corporate stores. We set the bar very high.
Beth Ewen, senior editor, learns if it’s lonely at the top and other lessons from franchise leaders, and presents their edited answers here in each issue. To suggest a candid C-level subject, e-mail
What was the worst day ever at your business?
My business partner, Jim Kalomiris, had an accident, cracked his head open. He went down and was literally having to re-learn to speak and walk. That was an eye opener for me, as a young CEO.
My uncle always says, you have to make your business so if you get hit by a bus, your business goes on. I knew I had to grow my corporate team, so the train keeps going no matter what happens to us.
What’s your biggest lesson learned about leadership?
It goes back to treating people with respect. I make sure to come in and say hello to everyone, make eye contact, ask how their day was. I do that at every store I visit. It shows a level of respect, or humanity. Just because I’m the boss, the CEO, and it’s a minimum wage employee, when we walk out of the door we are just two humans. I think as they get into leadership positions they will remember that.