by Francie Hartsog-Slaughter
It was a cold, January evening in 2019 when my husband, Kevin, and I drove from Davidson to show a vacant apartment in downtown Statesville. It was also my 51st birthday. We decided to make our business trip to Statesville a celebration too. The couple loved the 800 sq. ft., two bedroom apartment and were happy for the couple.
We had a bit of time to kill before dinner, so we decided to check out “Red Buffalo”, the new brewery in town. Any time a new business opened in town, we would be excited. We knew if the small town continued to grow, it would only make our two walkup apartments more desirable. Over time, we went from liking Statesville, to loving Statesville. We often discussed setting down roots here, and looked at houses from time to time. It was exciting to see houses in the downtown area being restored and although real estate prices were going up, it only confirmed our prediction. This town was on the move!
The sun was setting and it was too early for the Saturday night crowd. We chose a table near the front door and were discussing the creative decor over our ale. After a long week of work, it was nice to finally sit down and relax. I sometimes refer to Statesville as a “sleepy little town” because even though there is always a lot going on, people are not high strung. Citizens of Statesville seem to enjoy walking down the street, stopping to say hello if they see someone they know. From the beginning, I got the impression the journey was as important as the destination. If you’ve ever been in Charlotte on a Saturday night, people walk like they are running from a fire. I love going to the city to see a play or a Sunday afternoon baseball game. But a country girl from West Virginia usually wants to return to a slower pace in life. This town was the perfect combination of both worlds.
It wasn’t long before a man close to our age hurried through the room like he was on a mission. When he saw us, he immediately came over to our table to welcome us. After pleasantries were exchanged, we invited him to pull up a chair. It was nice to be welcomed by the owner. I was so impressed! While we chatted, it hit me! Joe Bondi was not a native! I take great pride in detecting accents, in the same way “House” took pride in detecting disease. My instinct told me he was from the north. I’m proud to say it only took me ten minutes of keen observation and detective skills. He was from Buffalo.
While I was quietly observing, Kevin and Joe were becoming fast friends. First, Joe gave Kevin a tour of the brewery. Then Kevin suggested to Joe they go for a tour of our vacant apartment. Some women would have felt slighted, but not me. I respect male bonding.
The two returned talking excitedly about “restoration” and “future projects”. I was almost sorry to annouce it was time to go. I had salmon at The Twisted Oak on my mind. Joe invited us to return after dinner and told us about the band playing. Kevin, a connoisseur of live music was intrigued. I could only offer a “we shall see“. Unfortanately, we were tired after dinner and birthday dessert. We headed back to the suburbs no longer talking about if we moved to Statesville, but when.
In July, 2019 Kevin and I were actively looking for a house. Our real estate agent, Brittany Marlow, was doing her best, but my husband tends to be picky. Actually, he has x-ray vision and can spot structural damage or bad wiring through walls. It just so happened one of our apartments became vacant and it hit me! Why not move into our apartment while looking for the “perfect house“? The house was on the market within a month and by October we were offician citizens of Statesville. One November evening we ventured out and found ourselves at Red Buffalo. Joe was standing behind the bar and looked up as we came through the door. He smiled so big and said, “Hey guys! It’s been a long time! He looked at me and said, “Oh! You’re the birthday lady!” I was so surprised he remembered us, but was more surprised he remembered it had been my birthday when we met. We found seats at the same table we sat at the previous year. The place looked great and we found ourselves commenting on all the changes made since our first visit. Joe came over, this time greeting me with a hug, and Kevin with a handshake. The first thought in my head was, “He has turned southern!” I believed this because southern people hug and sometimes kiss on the cheek. I didn’t know he grew up in a big Italian family. If I had known, I would have realized the warmth of Joe’s personality was a part of his cultural upbringing, just like mine. Joe filled us in on the improvements to the brewery and even shared plans for expansion. We were so happy for him! He told us he was more involved in the community and was serving on some committees. Before I could help myself, I said, “You must be very well liked to make your way so quickly!” He looked at me and smiled. “Why do you say that?”
“Well,” I answered, “Southerner’s tend to take a while to warm up to outsiders. It’s the same where I come from, and truthfully, I think Appalachian’s are worse. We are clannish, and most of us only socialize with immediate and extended family. It’s our culture.” Joe smiled and shrugged, as if he had the key to an ancient sociological secret. I continued, “I will say, however, people seem to socialize a lot more in this town, and we have made so many friends here. We are looking for a house!” I felt like we won the lottery and were moving to the Grand Cayman Islands. But anyone who has lived in the suburbs with a crazy HOA would understand. Certainly Joe looked happy! I’m pretty sure he thought we were super cool and who doesn’t want cool neighbors?
I sat down with Joe yesterday, and we talked about how our life’s journey’s brought us to our wonderful town. Although we had several conversations since meeting, I didn’t know much about him. If you know me, you know I have an enquiring mind. Regardless, Joe seemed okay with me asking questions. Our conversation revealed a lot about the mysterious man from the north. What I learned is, Joe Bondi is authentically southern, even if he is a Yankee.
It’s always neat to hear a person’s life story. What fascinated me most was listening to Joe’s philosophy of life. He left Buffalo, NY after college, and spent eight years in Japan working for the government in a food program. He studied Food System Management in college and also has a degree in Applied Behavior Science. This immediately intrigued me. Working with and communicating with people from a different culture and a different language must have been challenging for a young man in his early 20’s. He explained to me how he became involved in teaching English as a side hustle and about the techniques he used to help his students learn a new language. Joe told me about using gestures and props, and how he learned to read body language to determine if a person was happy or ready to fight. As a career behavioral scientist, I was fascinated by how creative he was. I’m not sure many young adults would have the desire or the ability to communicate successfully with people from a country with such a complex language and culture. Even people who have studied the culture formally often make many fax paus! At this point, I was getting a good sense of who the gentleman across the table from me was. I thought, “Joe is so quiet and humble. He has dedicated his life to helping others and he never talks much about himself. I would bet a Blueberry Ale most people do not know the man they know as Joe is far from ordinary.”
Listening to Joe talk about leaving Japan and taking a job in Texas, and eventually moving and spending 20 years in Chicago, I learned Joe’s resume. But more importantly, I learned the life lessons he learned which would shape him into the successful, amazing man he is today.
Joe moved to North Carolina in 2014 to join his brothers. I understand, two of my sisters brought me to NC. Joe is from a close, Italian family where Sundays were spent at his Grandmother’s house. He told me his Grandmother made “sauce” every Sunday and they would always have some sort of pasta. Turns out Yankee’s and Appalachian’s are not so different. I may have eaten chicken, potatoes, brocolli, and homemade rolls every Sunday, but we both grew up with family traditions and cooking was about culture and love.
I asked Joe why he chose Statesville and why a brewery. I expected some profound answer but instead I got, “The people here were very nice, and it is a cool town. I wanted to bring something different. I wanted to create a place where people could come after a hard day and see their friends. I wanted to be a part of this town.”
I’m pretty sure Joe could do just about anything he set his mind to. He works hard and he loves to see people happy. It’s who he is. Joe told me he has always believed 80% of your life is great, and 20% is not so great. Some people chose to pay more attention to the 20% of “not so great”. Joe has chosen to focus on the 80% of awesome. He said, “I try to apply this principle to everything I have done in my life. So far, it has worked out pretty good.” We think it’s worked out pretty good too!
Author’s Note: After our interview, there was still one burning question I was determined to get an answer to. I said, “Joe, I must know. Why Red Buffalo?” Joe suddenly seemed very serious and he looked at me with an intense stare. He said,
“Cows run away from the storm while the Buffalo charges toward it- and gets through it quicker. Whenever I’m confronted by a tough challenge, I do not prolong the torment, I am the buffalo.”Okay, he didn’t really say that. Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of The Cherokee Nation said it. I’m a writer. We take liberties.
Joe Bondi & his lovely finace, Valerie Chambers