NEW LONDON — Two brothers with a strong sense of loyalty to each other — and some pretty wild tales to tell — are pursuing a new endeavor, a coffee shop in Union Station.
Java Joe’s Grab & Go is named for the younger brother, Joe Colaluca, a former marine in his 60s. He’s a mechanic who worked on cars and now likes building motorcycles.
The older brother, Fortunata — who goes by “Lucky” — is a kind of visionary who sees possibilities beyond the present circumstances. In the 1960s as a young teenager he left Connecticut for Hollywood where he began to work on cars.
But not just any cars. Lucky began by sweeping floors for George Barris,“ King of the Kustomizers,” the creator of the Batmobile and a slew of custom vehicles for TV and movies.
“I was at the front of the building looking in. I did go in and he hired me, just like that,” said Lucky. He was 15 at the time.
Lucky stayed at Barris and worked on a bunch of custom cars, eventually becoming friends with celebrities like Bob Hope. When Joe was a teen, he joined Lucky and worked at Barris for about 8 months.
“He made a golf cart shaped like Bob Hope’s face,” said Joe, who stood near the coffee shop counter wearing a fedora, a black leather vest, overalls and a dark apron. “He made Elvis Presley’s greyhound bus into a mobile home and did Sonny and Cher’s pair of mustangs. I remember them all.”
Lucky, sporting a soul patch, a beret and a white apron, leaned back in his chair at one of the cafe tables, crossed his arms over his chest and nodded — remembering.
“The golf cart – I did one for Elton John, too,” he said.
Lucky worked on a number of Barris’ projects, which led to an invitation to Dick Clark’s first bicoastal simulcast of New Year’s Eve. It was probably 1974, Lucky said, and the west coast event was on the Queen Mary where the performers were Al Green, Billy Preston, Helen Reddy and Three Dog Night.
“I brought three custom cars down there to the simulcast — one was George Barris’ personal car. I think we filmed it in November, but it ‘was’ New Year’s Eve,” he laughed. “When I watched it on New Year’s Eve, you couldn’t tell.”
Ferraris, Corvettes and motorcycles
The brothers’ love of all things mechanical began in childhood.
“My dad owned a gas station in Norwalk, Connecticut. For a birthday gift, he gave me a midget race car and I used to race it on the weekends. I was always tinkering,” said Lucky.
He’d always loved cars, but Lucky was also entrepreneurial from an early age.
“I had a paper route, I was maybe 8 years old, but I would shovel my customer’s driveways when it snowed and in the summertime, rake their leaves and mow their yards. I always had my own money, always,” he said.
Of all the cars he’s driven, the Ferrari is his favorite.
“It fits me perfect — perfect! Just the seat the way it is — everything about it fits me. Much better car to drive than a Lamborghini. I hate Lamborghinis — they drive like a truck. They’re hard. They don’t ride as nice,” he said.
For Joe, it was Corvettes. He pointed to his license plate from Florida, displayed on the front counter of Java Joe’s.
“It’s from my Corvette. It was a ‘78 Corvette I picked up down in Florida for a couple of thousand dollars,” he said. But I’m more into building motorcycles now. I’ve been a mechanic all my life – I take after my dad, mechanic and cook.”
The brothers talked about how their father left the gas station and eventually owned a number of restaurants and a bakery in California, where, at one point, Joe had a job delivering bread.
But at 17, Joe joined the Marine Corps and was stationed at Camp Pendleton and overseas. When he came back he earned his high school diploma and eventually moved to Lakeland, Florida for 13 years. Even though he loved it there and wanted to stay, the weather and supply chain issues brought him back to Connecticut.
“They got four hurricanes in six weeks in Lakeland — it was the only place that got hit with all four hurricanes. And by December you can get all the work you want but you couldn’t get all the materials — I worked with aluminum — so I came back here,” Joe said.
Restaurants and recording studios
While working in California, Lucky noticed a club across the street from Barris’ garage, called Dante’s.
“Dizzy Gillespie would play there, and I said, you know, when I get out of building cars, this is what I’m going to do — I’m going to open a club. And that’s what I did when I came back here — I bought the Bank Street Cafe,” Lucky said. It was 1982.
After listening to a number of acts, the first band Lucky hired at the club was Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, who became the house band.
“Then I noticed a couple of years down the road that all these bands I hired always brought a CD or an album or something, so I said, you’re my house band, how come you don’t have a CD or an album?”
The band said they needed a recording space — so Lucky rented Long View Farms Studios in Massachusetts.
“Anyway, so yes, now I’m producing records,” Lucky said. “I’m producing the first CD and album for Sugar Ray and the Bluetones.”
But his career as a record producer stopped there, and around 1992 Lucky sold the club.
“So I’ve done a little bit of everything,” he laughed.
Later, around 2006, he opened Lucca Wine Bar & Grill on Bank Street, where Noodles and Rice is now. He said he completely gutted the building when he built the restaurant.
“I envisioned exactly what I was going to do with it and everybody said the same thing – this is like right out of New York, this is not anything from around here – it was pretty good,” Lucky said.
Joe worked for Lucky at Bank Street cafe and later became the bread maker at Lucca.
“That’s what I did, and then I retired — until December 1 when we opened [Java Joe’s],” said Joe.
New routines, future plans
At the coffee shop in Union Station, Joe arrives at 5:30, makes the coffee and readies the muffins and croissants for opening time at 6 a.m. Lucky comes in at 11 a.m. or noon and takes over for Joe.
“It’s great. Thursdays are Joe’s day off, so I work a double on Thursdays. And Sundays are my day off and he works a double on Sundays,” Lucky said. .
Business has been good. Plenty of customers — there are lots of people taking the train or the bus, said Lucky.
And lots of regulars stop in for the specialty coffee, Joe said.
“One guy comes in for a blueberry coffee and two croissants everyday. People come in for the blueberry coffee because they know I make it. But tomorrow I’m going to start making coffee-cake-flavored coffee. I go with what customers want,” Joe said.
The space behind the counter is big enough for one person to work, but not two.
“I thought Lucca had a small kitchen until I worked here,” Joe laughed, “The two of us don’t fit in there, we bump into each other.”
But Lucky is already thinking about bigger ideas, perhaps adding a nightclub in the unoccupied space behind the coffee shop.
“Probably something along the lines of a little bistro with live entertainment, a little jazz. If I was to do that I would do it like the Bank Street Cafe, with jazz,” he said. “Maybe down the road — it all kind of comes about as it comes about.”
Lucky admitted he is a guy who continually sees future possibilities all around him.
“He is,” Joe agreed. “He is.”