Bob Lebamoff isn’t the same man he used to be. And he thanks God for that.
In the early 1990s, the Fort Wayne native spent endless hours working in his father’s restaurant, The Elegant Farmer. Lebamoff was focused so completely on providing for his young family’s future that he neglected its present.
The wake-up call came in a surprising request from his wife, Janet. She stopped by the restaurant to ask Bob to come along to meet their daughter’s kindergarten teacher before the school year started.
I said, School? How old is she?’ the repentant father recalled.
Lebamoff knew then that the all-consuming restaurant life wasn’t for him – despite his hotel and restaurant management degree and his parents’ hopes that he’d one day take over The Elegant Farmer, which specialized in steaks, seafood and prime rib.
Instead, the 1981 Wayne High School graduate wanted to be a daily part of his kids’ lives. When his wife was later diagnosed with terminal cancer, every day with his family became even more precious.
Lebamoff, 50, went on to own four small businesses and launch a nonprofit foundation. Each new venture has been in response to his family’s needs.
Bottle & Bottega, a local franchise business, is his latest venture. After living with so much sadness in recent years, Lebamoff welcomes the opportunity to operate a business that brings people together for a fun night out of making art and sipping wine.
Lebamoff is a serial entrepreneur, but he isn’t responsible for every local venture that bears his Macedonian surname.
The law office? His cousins own that. The liquor stores? A different set of cousins owns them.
The extended family was so large that Lebamoff grew up calling every adult aunt or uncle because the titles were accurate more often than not.
The second of three children, Bob Lebamoff was the only one who took an interest in their father’s white-tablecloth restaurant. As a teenager, he washed dishes, mopped floors and carried out trash there.
I liked to hang out with my dad, and he was at the restaurant all the time, Lebamoff said of the business that was on Coliseum Boulevard between State Boulevard and Lake Avenue.
When Lebamoff’s parents offered to pay his way to Michigan State University if he majored in hotel and restaurant management, he agreed. It didn’t matter to him what he majored in as long as he got to play baseball.
But after he spent three years as a walk-on member of the Spartans, Lebamoff realized he’d never be good enough to go pro. He left the team during his senior year to focus on classes and then landed a job in the Chicago office of Laventhol & Horwath, a national accounting firm that later filed for bankruptcy.
He and Janet, who earned an accounting degree from Central Michigan University, got married and left Indiana for life in the Windy City. It was exciting but expensive. Janet wanted to be a stay-at-home mom who planted a backyard garden and attended her children’s sporting events. So after a couple of years, the Lebamoffs moved to Fort Wayne for its lower cost of living.
The Elegant Farmer allowed Lebamoff to earn a good living for several years, but it took over his life. When he decided six years later to leave to spend more time with his young family, his father understood.
Bob and Janet Lebamoff launched the Newsletter Exchange, a custom newsletter provider to apartment communities, out of their home. The couple worked well together and enjoyed the freedom to attend their daughter’s and son’s activities.
Becky Cook, Janet’s best friend, marveled at how close the family was.
They were hooked at the hip, she said, adding that the family spent Friday nights with pizza and a rented movie.
Even so, Lebamoff focused on the future. Self-discipline often drove him to delay playtime.
Cook recalled seeing him work into the early-morning hours to meet deadlines. Janet sometimes woke up at 4 a.m. to finish typing newsletter articles so the women could keep their plans to go shopping at nurseries for the petunias that would brighten the hanging baskets on the Lebamoffs’ front porch.
Every day counts
That all changed when Janet was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Suddenly, Lebamoff wanted to make the most of every day she had left.
So much for long-term thinking. So much for putting off until tomorrow, he said. I told her, Whatever you want to do, wherever you want to do it, whenever you want to do it, I’ll be there.’
They sold the newsletter business to its largest competitor to free up more time. The couple went on spontaneous picnics when she felt up to it. When she didn’t, they curled up at home with Jeter, the family’s bichon frise.
And they spent time with their children, who were 12 and 16 when the cancer was found.
At some point, Lebamoff needed to give his wife space to recuperate from aggressive and painful treatments, so he bought Strike Zone Training Center, a baseball and softball training facility that offers travel teams and private lessons.
The business brought Lebamoff back in touch with baseball but, more importantly, provided a way to bond with his son. Lebamoff had noticed that Alex was rushing home every day after school to spend every minute he could with his mom. In the meantime, his childhood was passing him by.
Janet, who was given three months, managed to live 50 months after diagnosis. She was 49 when she died in November 2010.
She won. She won, Lebamoff said. His faith tells him she’s in a better place, where his family will be reunited one day.
Before she died, Janet extracted a promise from her husband: He wouldn’t go back to working full time until their son graduated from Concordia High School and their daughter earned her degree from Anderson University.
Labor of love
Dave Krites bought into the Strike Zone, and the two invested in an online specialty popcorn and Amish foods store, Amish Mart, in a bid to learn more about online marketing.
They figured they’d experiment with the small operation to learn techniques for marketing Strike Zone online.
Boy, did we find out how complicated the Internet is, Lebamoff said, adding that they never did learn much from the company, which Lebamoff still owns.
Last year, he sold Strike Zone to Krites.
In the past few years, Lebamoff has been approached by some kids who confessed they were struggling with a parent’s cancer diagnosis. Some parents even asked him for advice on keeping life as normal as possible for their sons and daughters.
Those conversations – and his own experience – led Lebamoff to start a nonprofit in his wife’s name, the Janet I. Lebamoff Youth Sports Foundation.
The organization typically goes by her initials: JIL, pronounced Jill.
Cook said there could be no better tribute to her best friend, who loved baseball.
Lebamoff spent the last year fundraising for the nonprofit, but that resulted in donations of $500 here and $500 there. He hasn’t yet landed a substantial donation that will allow the organization to expand programs.
To me, that’s my life now, he said. I may go broke trying, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
Fun at work
With his son now a college freshman, Lebamoff has gone into business with a childhood friend, Robin Winans.
They bought the local franchise for Bottle & Bottega, which has the tagline Art uncorked. The business allows amateurs to spend an evening painting under the direction of an art instructor while indulging in food and drinks.
Bottega, an Italian word, means an artist’s studio or shop.
The franchise is throwing pop-up parties in various local restaurants, including a benefit for Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control on April 25 at Ziano’s in Chapel Ridge. One benefit has been scheduled for the JIL Youth Sports Foundation, and Lebamoff would like to plan more for that and other nonprofits.
A retail storefront, where customers will be welcome seven days a week, is in the works. Plans also call for adding craft beer and various soups and sandwiches to the wine offerings.
Bottle & Bottega franchises in other cities attract people celebrating birthdays, baby showers, bachelorette parties and other occasions. Some co-worker groups even create murals as a team-building exercise, Lebamoff said.
People who have participated in the classes have told Lebamoff things like I can’t believe I did this and It’s better than I thought.
This doesn’t feel like work to Lebamoff, who said he just shows up and lets customers have a good time.
Lebamoff sees a $35 evening of painting – plus the cost of food and drinks – as a viable alternative to a TinCaps or Komets game for dating couples.
Because similar businesses exist – this is the third in Fort Wayne alone – Lebamoff spent more than three months looking into which model he liked best. The serial entrepreneur chose a franchise setup that was a proven business model.
Full disclosure: The whole venture has felt led by divine guidance. Lebamoff discovered that Bottle & Bottega is headquartered in Lake View, Ill., within weeks of helping his daughter move to that same Chicago suburb for her first post-college job.
How does a non-art guy get into the art business? Like that, he said. I’ve turned into a short-term thinker and a short-term planner.
And, in his case, that’s a good thing.