Jersey Shore entrepreneur an unusual success story

It took Joe D’Esposito forty years to get his hands on the family waffle maker.

The machine was a family treasure with a lot of history. In the late 1940s, D’Esposito’s grandmother, Angelina D’Esposito, used it to sell waffles and ice cream on Coney Island boardwalk, a once-thriving amusement park on the southern tip of Brooklyn. When the commercial waffle maker she used began to break down, she handed it over to an electrician to create a design of her own. The outcome was a uniquely shaped waffle maker that produced waffles in the shape of a hot dog, so the waffle could be wrapped around scoops of ice cream like a cone.

Realizing a potential business opportunity, D’Esposito wanted to make modifications to the machine so he could eventually retail it to the public. It wasn’t until he turned forty that his father caved and finally surrendered the only waffle maker remaining from the years his mother worked on Coney Island.

“‘Oh, you’re not gonna put it back together,’” D’Esposito said, imitating his father. “I’m a clockmaker and a jeweler and that’s all I do is take stuff apart and put it back together all day long.”

There is nothing D’Esposito can’t fix. The Renaissance man’s interests range from undertaking to clockmaking, leading him down an unlikely path as a businessman and entrepreneur. His ventures, of which include a restaurant, a gas station and a jewelry store, may seem entirely scattered, but D’Esposito’s magnetic personality and anything-goes mentality is the anchor that holds them together. It was only a matter of time before a concept like his latest shop, Coney Waffle, was opened.

In 2013, after D’Esposito modified and patented the new waffle maker, he and longtime girlfriend, Lorene Zalick, were invited to sell waffles and ice cream at reputable seafood festivals around New Jersey. The response was so tremendous that, at the insistence of friends and family, the duo opened their own sweet shop on the Jersey Shore.

“Some people just have a head for business and some people don’t, and he has it,” said D’Esposito’s older sister, Diane D’Esposito. Like many of D’Esposito’s family members, she lives close by and drops in to Coney Waffle just to spend time with the family. “I think he got it from my grandmother.”

Coney Waffle opened on the Belmar, New Jersey boardwalk in the spring of 2016 and became an instant hit with locals, with lines often stretching out the door. The menu features the original waffles and ice cream, but was expanded to include over-the-top creations like “Freak Shakes” for $18, which are milkshakes piled high with everything from cotton candy and lollipops to cupcakes and donuts. Other treats like homemade fudge and marshmallow cereal bars are sold behind the counter.

The shop looks like an indoor carnival and a Candyland board game that came to life. Murals of Coney Island attractions cover the red, pink and white-striped walls, most notably the famous Steeplechase Funny Face and sunbathing mermaids, reminiscent of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. A handful of colorfully painted picnic tables with carnival designs are placed inside the store, and a patio with thermoplastic tables are outside to enjoy desserts in the warmer months. The atmosphere of the shop is nostalgic, but modern enough to attract a younger crowd with phrases like #ShakeSlayer, the name of another extreme milkshake, written in black ink across the wall. The smell of baked cinnamon wafting through the air from the secret waffle recipe makes it nearly impossible to walk out without making a purchase.

Coney Waffle was a completely different concept than any of D’Esposito’s other businesses, but then again, each of his shops have their own distinct identity. It was yet another venture to just sort of fall into his lap.

D’Esposito grew up in South River, New Jersey as the youngest of four siblings, and developed a strong work ethic at a young age by sweeping floors at his father’s car dealership. He spent a lot of time learning everything he could about cars, and eventually was even able to build one of his own. He was fully prepared to take over the dealership until his father sold it just before he graduated high school.

With no future plans in sight, D’Esposito pursued jobs in many different fields. After high school, he fulfilled his obligations in the Navy as a mess specialist, went to college for funeral services, bought and operated a gas station with his brother Michael, and that’s just the beginning. After he “mastered the operation of running a gas station,” he looked for his next adventure, which came during a vacation to South Carolina with a friend.

“We took a road trip and we stopped at this place [where] they were doing barbecue sauce samplings,” said D’Esposito. “So we tasted a couple of the barbecue sauces and were like ‘God, I could make a better barbecue sauce than this,’ so we started making barbecue sauces.”

A friend who was a chef offered to teach D’Esposito how to properly cook ribs with his new barbecue sauces. When sampled to friends and family, the ribs were such a hit that they convinced D’Esposito to open up a BYOB fast-casual rib joint in South River, called the South Ribber. It was one of his favorite businesses to run and had a tremendous response with the public, but he eventually sold it to new owners.

The chef was not the only friend to offer business advice to D’Esposito: strong connections have played an important role in building D’Esposito’s small business empire. Most of D’Esposito’s friends are either former employees or customers with whom he continued to stay in touch with, and it’s typical for old friends to “crawl out of the woodwork” if he ever needs help. He’s easygoing and friendly, personally greeting many of the customers as they walk in. It’s actually difficult to get through a few minutes of conversation with D’Esposito without someone stopping by to say hello.

Those close to D’Esposito think his success is owed to how well he treats others. It’s not a surprise when he offers to buy lunch for every single person in one of his stores, including customers, or when he runs through traffic to help someone who broke down on the side of the road.

John Szuba, 33, worked at three of D’Esposito’s business since meeting him sixteen years ago. Szuba is a burly, bearded man with striking blue eyes who has a soft spot for children and helping people. He spent ten years in the military and now works as a registered nurse and security guard at a hospital, but he somehow manages to find free time to sling waffles for D’Esposito at the shop. He works part-time at Coney Waffle for no other reason than to help D’Esposito out and make people happy.

“He’s the type of guy that anybody would come back and work for,” said Szuba. “He likes to make sure that not only he’s okay, but he likes to make sure that his employees are okay. To this day, I can go to him for anything.”

Two other businesses D’Esposito currently owns, The South River Hobby Bike & Skate Shop and The South River Jewelry & Clock Shop, were originally owned by friends who convinced D’Esposito he could run the shop better than they could. D’Esposito took them over, diving “headfirst” into each business with no prior knowledge or experience of either one. He eventually moved the two stores next to each other so he was able to divide his time evenly between the two, and goes to Coney Waffle every night after closing.

“People are not afraid to do business with him,” said Zalick. “He’s that guy when you shake his hand, you know that deal is good.”

D’Esposito and Zalick met when she came in to buy a bike at his hobby shop thirteen years ago, and together they have a 5-year-old son named Joseph. Zalick helped D’Esposito sell waffles and ice cream when it was just a stand at the local seafood festival, and her creative vision combined with his eye for business helped shape it into the confectionary wonderland that is today.

“He’s not afraid to take a risk and to put his all into anything,” said Zalick. “[but] he has that conservative side where he can easily look at something and articulate it and say ‘I think that’s a good idea and this is why,’ or ‘I think that’s a terrible idea and this is why.’ And he’s normally right. He’s got really good instincts.”

D’Esposito thinks nothing is off the table when it comes to business.

“My philosophy on life is that nobody on this planet is that much smarter than anyone else,” he said. “If somebody built this device or item, I could certainly figure out how to fix it.”

With “so much bad in the world,” D’Esposito wants to run businesses that make his employees look forward to going to work every day.

Szuba recollected his days at the South Ribber when D’Esposito taught him how to cook. From opening to closing time, he remembered the restaurant being a place of nonstop fun, listening to movies and music, and cracking corny jokes that both men still recall over a decade later. When he first heard about Coney Waffle, Szuba thought it fit right in with the type of person D’Esposito is.

“When he needs to be stern and strong, he’s stern and strong, and when he wants to goof off, he’ll goof off.” said Szuba. “Whatever he puts his mind to, or whatever he sets his hands on, it always turns around to be something he never imagined.”