President Barack Obama touts Issaquah businesses

August 24, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria founder Joe Fugere (right, in black blazer) listens as President Obama talks to small business owners in Seattle. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (left) also attended the discussion. Contributed

The restaurant President Obama mentioned in a Seattle speech about small business last week: Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria in Issaquah.

The lender the president referred to a few sentences later: the former Issaquah Community Bank.

Granted, the president did not mention either Eastside business by name during brief remarks in Pioneer Square. But the anecdote described the difficulty Tutta Bella founder Joe Fugere faced as he attempted to open the Issaquah restaurant.

Fugere joined a handful of other small business owners for a face-to-face meeting with the president as Obama cruised through Seattle to raise money for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.

During the meeting inside Grand Central Bakery, Fugere said the group encouraged the president and Murray to ease access to small business loans and push Congress to pass a jobs bill.

“He could not have been a better listener or a more affable, witty, intelligent individual,” Fugere said.

The setup for the meeting started the previous week, after Fugere received a call from a Murray aide asking if the senator could use Tutta Bella for a news conference.

Then, the White House called.

“I thought at first that it was a solicitor, because when it comes up on your cell phone, it’s just a bunch of zeroes,” he said.

The caller had good news and bad news: Though the president could not make a stop at Tutta Bella, Fugere had been selected for the still-secret roundtable discussion.

Fugere and the other small business owners had to keep silent for security reasons as the White House finalized plans and the Secret Service conducted background checks.

Fugere could not sleep Monday night — too excited, he said. Inside the bakery, he felt star struck as Obama strode in and started shaking hands.

“My mother says hello and that she voted for you,” Fugere said as he greeted the president. “I’m in deep, deep trouble if I don’t tell you that.”

Cameras clicked and photographers shouted questions for the next few moments. The president told Fugere and the others to relax and smile. Then, the media gaggle departed, and the business owners had 30 minutes alone with Obama.

“The message we wanted to give to the president and Congress was, ‘Get money to these community banks, so that they in turn can lend to small businesses,’” Fugere said.

The entrepreneur credits Bob Ittes at the former Issaquah Community Bank for offering a loan after regional banks passed. The bank and other community institutions merged to form Bank of the Northwest in February; Ittes serves as Issaquah community president.

“That’s what’s fun about being a community banker,” he said. “You know your customers and you know your community. It’s not just numbers on a sheet of a paper.”

Fugere stood next to Obama in Pioneer Square as the president recounted the story.

“Joe Fugere” — the president asked if he had pronounced the surname correctly — “put everything on the line: his savings, his 401(k), even a second mortgage to open his first pizzeria,” Obama said. “With a little hard work, it succeeded, and he opened two more.”

Fugere founded Tutta Bella in Columbia City in 2004, and then opened pizzerias in South Lake Union and Wallingford.

The local restaurant, along Northwest Gilman Boulevard, opened last summer and employs about 50 people.

“After the crisis hit, he sought a loan to open a fourth, because business was good,” Obama continued. “But at bank after bank, Joe heard no. The same big banks whose reckless actions nearly brought down the economy told Joe that loaning money to a restaurant — even one as successful as his — was too risky. Finally, a community bank invested in Joe, and his fourth restaurant has been his most successful opening yet.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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