Joan Neeno

My day job is being the co-owner (with my husband, Richard) of Lark, Lark Market and the soon-to-open Sandwich Bar. I’m also a marketing consultant and a writer.

Richard has always been an uber foodie and I was mostly along for the ride. About 2011, I started doing restaurant reviews for the Janesville Gazette, covering a five-county area. I quickly saw how lacking the area was when it came to restaurants that weren’t supper clubs or bars that served food. That’s not to say those places weren’t serving good meals, but there wasn’t a lot of variety.

Richard and I went back and forth about whether we wanted to open a restaurant—it’s a crazy business and certainly one of the worst possible ones to go into. But then we had a number of early deaths of our friends and family. Too many friends weren’t doing what they wanted to with their lives, so we said, “Let’s just do this.”

We bought our first building in downtown Janesville in 2016. That was certainly early days for downtown—things were pretty rough. The building we bought had been empty for 10 years, none of the mechanicals worked and it was a mess.

But we put a lot of time and money into it and by 2017, we were able to open our first restaurant, Lark. The reception was very positive and since that time a couple more restaurants have opened downtown. I like to think we paved the way for others to feel more confident.

Downtown Janesville was doing some great things, and we knew we wanted to open a couple other restaurants here so in August 2019, we bought the Janesville Floral building. It’s a much larger space than Lark, and included two store fronts and a beauty salon, plus a second floor and a small mezzanine. You can even go to the Rock County Historical Society and they have loads of information about the building.

We were just starting to work with the architects when COVID hit. The shutdown order came on St. Patrick’s Day. We knew Lark wasn’t the kind of restaurant that could easily do takeout, so we decided to empty the coolers and close down. We hoped it wouldn’t be for long—but it ended up being three months.

Meanwhile, we were sitting at home with no business, no tenants, and all this real estate—I was freaking out a bit! It occurred to us that there was something we could do that wouldn’t cost much and would get some people back to work: a market. We figured people would get sick of their own food and cooking for themselves and we could handle heat’n’eat meals for them to warm up at home, plus some interesting food brands that weren’t offered elsewhere in Janesville.

Opening Lark Market allowed us to fill in some of the holes—retail has been very positive for us. We learned how to create an online store for the Market and Lark started doing online takeout when we reopened last June.

We also got back to work on our sandwich shop. It’s inspired by a restaurant in New Orleans, Turkey and the Wolf. If all goes as planned, we’ll be open end of April/early May. Our tagline says it all: “Damn fine sandwiches. Okay beer.” Come check out the food and the murals of our food idols by Brooklyn muralist Jeff Henriquez (for a sneak peek, pop out to their Facebook page).

The last piece of our current restaurant plans is a pasta/pizza restaurant, which would be in a building between Janesville Floral and Lark. We envision this as being a family place where parents could come in with their family and have a pizza and a glass of wine or a beer. Patrick DePula of Salvatore’s has been just great about offering advice.

Last, but not least, I recently joined the board for Downtown Janesville Inc., a group of business owners, city leaders, and individuals interested in promoting our downtown, and lead their marketing committee. I’m really excited: Janesville has a lot to offer.

My most memorable caffeine is a combination of learning to drink coffee—no matter the quality—and having my first cup of good coffee.

My first job out of college was being a news reporter for the Wausau Daily Herald. At that time in my life, I wasn’t a big caffeine person. But at every house I went into, I was offered a cup of coffee. I didn’t want to be rude, so I always took it and drank it.

But then one day, I went to Ginger Alden’s house. She was a community leader back then, primarily in the arts, and now she’s the director of planned giving for Wisconsin Public Radio. Ginger made me my first really good cup of coffee. I remember thinking, “Where have you been all my life?” That’s a taste memory for me. Reporting and coffee will always go together.

My current caffeine of choice is typically a Colectivo Blue Heeler with some Splenda and skim milk.

My favorite place for caffeine is our screened-in porch that faces our backyard. Richard and I sit there and read our digital papers with our coffee.

The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with was hard to pick! I had some more “noble” ideas, but then I decided after this year, I’d pick someone fun. My choice is Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. I’d pick her because she’s in my business and she changed careers later in life, like I did. She makes her job look effortless. I’m sure she’d be fun—and probably spike her coffee too.  

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: making democracy work better for everyone.

I think about this a lot. During this last year there were so many ways the government helped us survive. Unemployment for our staff. PPP and EIDL loans. Grants. Together, that aid kept our business afloat and state, local and county government officials really tried to help us. Now, we’re hiring again and growing. It wouldn’t have happened without that help.

That’s what government should be like. I’d like to see us getting back to the idea that government service is a noble thing that exists to solve problems and help people, rather than a zero-sum game. I think if we drank more caffeine and came together with the right intention and really listened to each other, we could make democracy work better — not perfectly, but better. I see it happening locally, so why not at a state and federal level?