RESTAURANTS

Joe wants you to Sample that: One C.R. man is on a mission to help local restaurants gain fans

Elias Elias boxes up to-go orders Monday at Pita'z Mediterranean and American Cuisine in Hiawatha. Pita'z has been donat
Elias Elias boxes up to-go orders Monday at Pita’z Mediterranean and American Cuisine in Hiawatha. Pita’z has been donating meals to local hospitals and nursing home staff, and Joe Sample has stepped up to help deliver them. (Rebecca F. Miller photos/The Gazette)
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When Joe Sample started posting photos of his takeout food stops in the days after Iowa restaurants were ordered shut down to dine-in service in March, he didn’t think much of it. He just wanted to get some good food while supporting restaurants.

“I have a lot of friends in the food business. My wife worked at Elevate Salon and Emil’s Deli, so she’s not working right now,” he said. “I felt it was a great way to support local businesses.”

But then a new Facebook group dedicated to promoting curbside, delivery and takeout food options in Cedar Rapids sprung up — this week, it had more than 15,000 members — and Sample started sharing photos there. The 46-year-old Cedar Rapids resident quickly found himself having a new experience — going viral.

In a pandemic, that phrase could have negative connotations, but this was the positive kind of viral spread. The kind where hundreds of people liked his photos and commented on them. Then a Cedar Rapids T-shirt maker, Ivory Pearl Designs, started selling “Be Like Joe” T-shirts and other people started showing up to order takeout in the shirts. Soon, restaurants were asking if he would come take a photo at their restaurant.

“I just started it to have fun and posted a few fun pictures, and then I started having restaurants reach out to me,” Sample said.

He decided to dedicate his stimulus check from the federal government to the effort. Sometimes, he said he hits up more than one restaurant a day.

“I’ve hit close to 60 restaurants,” he said.

He’s leaned into the enthusiasm and found ways to play up the efforts. One day he dressed as Oscar the Grouch while visiting’ Oscar’s Restaurant in Hiawatha. On another day, he and one of his daughters bought plastic pig noses to wear on a stop at the Blind Pig in Cedar Rapids. He wears a Superman costume to some stops.

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“I was totally surprised at how viral it went,” he said. “Now I’m just trying to keep it exciting.”

In his day job, Sample is a salesman for American Building Components in Mount Pleasant. He normally spends a lot of time on the road, selling metal roofing, siding and steel frame structures around the Midwest. These days, he’s working from home, making sales over the phone instead. He said going out to get carryout is a chance to see other people and get out of the house.

“It brings some normalcy to my life,” he said.

He has two daughters at home, age 9 and 15, and one son, 22. When he’s not eating out, he likes to spend time outdoors with his family, fishing, camping, hunting and coaching soccer. He admits his last name is a bit on-the-nose for his newest hobby.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Is that really even your real name?’” he said with a laugh.

Sample was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, which fuels his desire to support his town.

“My dad had Sample Pharmacies when I was growing up. People helped support us, so I figured it was the least I could do, to support other local businesses,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is, we want to keep them here. There are so many great restaurants in Cedar Rapids, and we don’t want to lose half of them. I’m going to try to keep going with this until they open the places back up, as much as I can.”

He also has helped do deliveries of donated meals to area hospitals and long-term care facilities. That effort started when his younger daughter’s Girl Scout troop had dozens of boxes of unsold cookies and few options to sell them once the pandemic hit. Sample’s family purchased them and sent them to staff at Mercy Medical Center. Since then he’s dropped off boxes of pita, hummus and gyro meat from Pita’z Mediterranean and American Cuisine, trays of cinnamon rolls from Oscar’s and other places.

“People seem to be very supportive in Cedar Rapids,” he said.

He gave a lot of credit to the Cedar Rapids Facebook group, which was started by Lindsay Leahy, Brooke Murphy-Fitzgerald and Shannon Hanson. Others like it have sprung up in Marion, North Liberty and Iowa City.

“I think this has opened a lot of people’s eyes; it has given people an opportunity to try new things,” Sample said. “I’ve seen more restaurants on here than I’d ever tried before.”

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He’s also started to promote nonprofits like the Freedom Festival. He is helping sell the $5 commemorative buttons — even though the 2020 festival was canceled, the buttons will help support the organization’s operations. And he helped with a Big Brothers Big Sisters fundraiser, an effort which inspired him so much he signed up as a volunteer.

He said he hopes his efforts, and others like it inspire others to support the community.

“Keep supporting local, do your best to stay healthy, and when restaurants open back up, keep going to them,” he said. “They’re going to need our help for a long time to come.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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