Tyler Sailsbery grew up on a farm near Waupaca where he and his family raised beef cattle and poultry, so it was only natural that he would take agriculture classes at Waupaca High School and become a member of the local FFA chapter.
However, the lessons he learned in the classroom and the leadership and speaking skills he developed as a chapter and state FFA officer led him to a career as a chef and restaurant owner rather than one in production agriculture.
Sailsbery credits his instructors - and FFA advisors - Renè Lehman and Jenifer Erb for getting him involved in helpful programs and competitions.
"It was really cool when Renè let me team teach a cooking class with her," he related. "I took the class as a sophomore, and the next year she asked if I would teach it with her and come up with different recipes.
"I loved learning about the food products, and I think I spent more time studying and learning when I had to help teach the class that when I took the class," he commented. "It was a cool opportunity for me to really dig in deep so when students had questions I had answers for them."
AN EARLY START
Getting a head start on his career in the food service industry, Sailsbery spent what would have been his senior year in high school as a full-time student in the Culinary Arts Department at Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) in Appleton.
After receiving his high school diploma and Wisconsin Food Science and Sanitation Certification from FVTC in 2004, Sailsbery was elected as a state FFA officer, and during the following year he promoted FFA encouraging other FFA members to build partnerships with community members, businesses, and their local alumni.
"I got to meet many awesome farm families and check out Wisconsin's great agriculture," he said. "I was impressed that we have such a diversity in agriculture, and that we're a leader in the production of so many food products."
Over the next couple of years Sailsbery worked at a variety of jobs, inside and outside the food industry including a stint as an airline flight attendant,
Then in 2007 he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, studying business management with an emphasis in entrepreneurship.
THE FIRST RESTAURANT
"In culinary school we learned about the high failure rate of restaurants and that made me nervous," he recalled. "I thought if I'm going to open a restaurant, it would be equally important to get a business degree."
Even with his degree in hand, Sailsbery still expected it would take several years to achieve his goal of owning a restaurant. "But I was able to work with great people who help me get started," he said, "and in 2012 we opened the Black Sheep Restaurant in Whitewater."
The full-service restaurant seats about 80 people and is located at 210 West Whitewater St. Sailsbery describes it as "not overly fancy but a nice sit-down place where people would go for a relaxing evening."
The Black Sheep is open daily from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. There's a full bar with a large wine selection and a full menu that includes cedar plank grilled salmon, homemade raviolis and a variety of lamb dishes among other favorites.
"When we can, we try to use locally grown foods," Sailsbery noted.
After working almost non stop for several months to get his restaurant up and running, Sailsbery decided to close the Black Sheep for 15 days and take a vacation.
So, on Jan. 1, 2013, he and co-workers Sarah Smith and Maggie Laughner set off on a 6,000-mile road trip across 14 southern states to eat some of the best BBQ and local foods. "We had customers suggest some of their favorite restaurants in the different states," he said.
The food experiences they had on their road trip provided inspiration for opening a food court restaurant, which features a more casual atmosphere.
Shortly after returning from the trip, Sailsbery was contacted by a representative from the Wisconsin Tourism Department who sent him a link to the reality TV show Food Court Wars on the Food Network.
The show features two aspiring food business owners competing to win their own food court restaurant. After successfully meeting a set of challenges, the winning team walks away with $10,000 and a year's worth of free rent.
"That's how we got connected with the show," he explained. "I thought there's no way we'll ever make it on TV. It will never happen, but we applied and went through a couple rounds of interviews and eventually Sarah and I were chosen to be on the show."
Taping for the television show took place over five days, and segments were recorded at the Black Sheep Restaurant in Whitewater and in Wausau. "It was crazy and fascinating to be a part of everything that went on during the taping and behind the scenes," he remarked.
A NEW RESTAURANT
When the taping was complete, Sailsbery and Smith had won the Food Court War and their own Casual Joe's Restaurant in Wausau. "Taping the show was hectic but then we had only about a month to get the restaurant ready to open, which was an even crazier and a more unrealistic time frame," he said.
However, the restaurant opened on schedule July 22, the day after the show's final episode aired. "We couldn't open any sooner because we couldn't give away who won," Sailsbery explained.
Opening day was a busy one for the new Casual Joe's Restaurant in the Wausau Center Mall. "What other restaurant can be in front of millions of viewers the night before it opens? That was huge for us," Sailbery affirmed.
Casual Joe's is managed by co-owner Sarah Smith and is open daily during mall hours. Its menu features foods Wisconsin is known for - brats, barbecue, macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, sauerkraut and more. "It's a casual restaurant where people can stop for lunch or after work and grab a barbecue sandwich," Sailsbery said.
Sailsbery is somewhat surprised by all he's achieved but not awed by his success. "I've been fortunate to work with some great people, including three who've worked in the restaurant during the winter months and operated small organic farms in the summer," he said. "I had a ton of people help me clean, paint, reupholster chairs and do other work.
"I enjoy working with a great staff and hope to provide them with better opportunities as we grow. We plan to open another Casual Joe's in Whitewater and see where we go after that," he said.