Last year, MOD received a very special letter about a very special customer. It told the story of Isaac, a young man who formed a powerful bond with the MOD Squad in Naperville, Illinois, and who tragically died by suicide.
“MOD was Isaac’s happy place. A place where he felt loved and accepted, without question. A place where, when I knew he was there, I could exhale knowing he was in a good place,” wrote Jenn Pedley, Isaac’s mother.
This story of heartbreak and hope is the inspiration behind our very first “Impact Pizza” — a partnership with The Jed Foundation (JED) to raise money and awareness of mental health and suicide prevention.
Eric Kowalski, the general manager of MOD in Naperville, witnessed firsthand the connection Isaac shared with his team. We sat down with him to learn more about the community of caring he created at his store…
Tell me a little about your connection with Isaac. How did this all start?
My MOD location is right in the middle of a bunch of schools. I have a college basically a stone’s throw’s away. I have a middle school within walking distance, and I have two big high schools right near me. And I’m always keeping an eye on school calendars so I don’t get my butt kicked with a large group if there’s a half day. Well, apparently the middle school calendars were not online. One day, all the sudden we had 35 little guys in our store — the line was to the door and we only had a couple people working.
My team is running around and taking care of business. We’re all screaming out the normal MOD “Hellos!” It’s not something we get back a whole lot. Well, it just so happened that with the whole restaurant packed, we all yelled “Hello!” and one voice yelled it back — just clear and loud and happy. So, I looked out there and one kid with a big smile waved back to us.
And of course, that kid was Isaac.
From then on, it was more and more of a friendship almost every day. Isaac came in all the time with friends from his current school or with visiting friends from when he used to live in Michigan or his brother Asher who works for me now.
Visiting MOD turned into a daily routine for Isaac and something me and the team counted on every day. He was kind of our unofficial spokesman. He would get introduced to new hires as the mayor of MOD.
Did you ever think a simple “Hello” could create such a friendship?
No, I really didn’t. When I first interviewed with MOD, I said, you know “I’ve been MOD before MOD was around.” I was working in other restaurants being wild and crazy and outgoing. And it just so happens that is the MOD business model. It was something definitely in my wheelhouse.
But it wasn’t until I got to MOD that I realized I wasn’t correct at all. I wasn’t MOD before I worked here. I was outgoing and my customers knew me — but having a purpose behind everything you do and taking care of your team and your customers — that was something special.
It’s not just a simple “Hi.” It’s a “Hi, I’m happy to see you. I care that you’re here. I don’t care because at the end of this you’re going to pay me. And I don’t care that you’re here just because I’m paid to be here. It’s because we’re two people walking on the Earth.”
What impact did Isaac’s life have on you and your squad at Naperville?
This has really solidified that we serve pizza with a purpose. We can do more, and it doesn’t have to be just a customer-employee relationship. As much as it hurts to talk about that day and those events, people can learn from it. I’ve been in restaurants for 20 years and it has definitely shifted my views.
We’re looking even more now to take care of each other, and take care of our customers. Isaac forced us to look for those opportunities or to make them happen. We have other kids that come in to the store, they do their homework here and have MOD stickers all over their backpacks and skateboards. That’s the power of Isaac resonating through my whole team and creating that “not just because it’s on the mission statement” culture.
What can we all do to fight stigma around depression and mental health?
“It’s OK not to be OK” is a cheesy line that’s 100 percent true. If something’s wrong you can voice out that something is wrong. It doesn’t make you less of a man or less of an adult — you aren’t weak. And now you see more and more that there are avenues to get that help.
There are team members that want to help you, friends that want to help you, family that wants to help you. I’m a big, 6’4”, goofy tattooed guy, but I have to ask people for help. We can’t be Superman all the time and neither can anyone. Superman can’t be Superman all the time!
Once we let people talk, and support them, and celebrate when they talk about it — it’s just going to open the door more and less tragedies will happen.
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Learn more about the work we’re doing with The Jed Foundation here.
If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available. Text START to 741741, call 1-800-273-TALK (8225) or visit jedfoundation.org/help.