Mrs. Ellen Zilli is the founder of Zilli Hospitality Group who, along with her late husband, Angelo, started the company over 40 years ago. Today she does daily accounting for Zilli Hospitality Group.
Mrs. Zilli was born and raised in Milwaukee and grew up on the east side off Brady Street with two sisters and one brother “I came from a tight-knit family and had a wonderful childhood,” she recalls of her childhood.
Like many families at the time, they struggled and times were hard. They moved west to Montana, but moved back after a business didn’t survive. “They came back to Wisconsin but they had nothing,” she says. “A friend was kind enough to take my family in and helped my dad get a job in the Third Ward in a warehouse.”
When Mrs. Zilli was 15, her father became ill and she went to work in an office. Then, fate stepped in. She remembers, “I met Angelo, the man who became my husband, at a resort in northern Wisconsin, and then again in Milwaukee. We married when I was 19 and started our family soon after.”
Times were good for the young Zilli family. By 1968, Angelo Zilli was running a Sentry store in Waukesha and Mrs. Zilli was at home with her four boys, ages 7 – 17. “A friend of my husband’s suggested he invest in a restaurant. My husband decided to invest everything we had into a Tasti-Freeze, which is today Zilli’s Grandview Inn in Waukesha.”
After getting over the initial surprise of this new lifestyle, the family got to work. Everyone pitched in to help. Mrs. Zilli says she grew to really enjoy it. “I just love the people,” she says. “But running a restaurant is very hard work. We endured many hardships such as road construction when they closed off Grandview and then Summit Avenue in the 1970s. But we just kept working and trying to pay the bills. Everybody chipped in. Even my youngest helped out, who was just seven.”
The family remodeled the Tasti-Freeze into Ellen’s on Grandview and made a name and reputation as a popular family restaurant.
Tragedy struck in 1977, when Angelo Zilli fell ill. He was just 50 years old, and passed away a short time later.
At that time, it was Mrs. Zilli’s son, Jim, who suggested the family try catering. “At first, I said I didn't want to do it, but we did it anyway,” says recalls. “It was hard work and we kept getting more clients, and more events, and eventually we started to hire more people and it grew.”
“Today Zilli Hospitality Group is our company, and it has grown to nearly 300 people. I love what we do, and I’m very proud of my family,” she says. “I've enjoyed seeing it grow, but it's not all ice cream and cake. We have had our disagreements, so it’s taught us all to be very disciplined and open minded to get along. It’s been hard work getting there.”
“People sometimes ask me what the secrets to success are. Here is what I tell them:
· Work hard
· Believe in what you're doing
· Believe in your family - it's very important. Spend time together.
· Whatever you try, keep at it! Don't give up. You'll get a big sense of accomplishment by doing so.
· Give something you don't think you'll like a try - I didn't think I’d like the restaurant business, but I did.”
“I’ve learned to overcome adversity over the years. There were many times when I thought we wouldn’t survive, but we did! It’s still a challenge today, but our family has always come first. We are a corporation but we’re still a family.”