Frontdoors Magazine January 2021 Cover Story: A Heartfelt Mission
Jennifer Moser and the Mastro family join forces to help the American Heart Association
Jennifer Moser is a woman on a mission. Or set of them. To raise funds for an important cause. To support her clients. To homeschool her children during the pandemic. To chair perhaps the Valley’s highest-profile social event of the year.
Any of these missions — much less all of them — is challenging in any year. But in 2020, Moser, a well-known PR executive, set out to chair the 61st Annual Phoenix Heart Ball in tribute to her father, whom she lost to heart disease when she was 27.
Talking about the loss still brings her to tears. “It was sudden,” she said. “He didn’t know.” Moser’s dad never got to meet her husband or see the birth of his grandkids, who are now 7 and 8.
So Moser was excited to chair the Heart Ball in his memory, knowing full well what an undertaking it would be. Though there are Heart Balls in other states, Phoenix’s is the only one run entirely by volunteers. But having served on the committee for a decade, she knew what was involved, and felt ready for the job. “When I was asked, I was honored and decided to take it on.
It’s a very important cause to me,” she said.
To serve as honorary chairs, she tapped her clients and friends, Jeff, Dennis and Mike Mastro. As a partner of Rose + Moser + Allyn public relations, Moser has represented the Mastro family’s restaurants for years. She and Jeff, the CEO of Prime Steak Concepts and co-founder of Steak 48, Steak 44, Ocean 44 and Dominick’s Steakhouse, share an easy rapport and lob jokes back and forth like siblings. So all of the pieces were in place for the 61st Annual Phoenix Heart Ball to be one for the ages.
And then COVID came.
“When COVID first hit, we looked at it as a little blip,” Moser said. But as the weight of the pandemic became clear, Heart Ball became one of the first events to reschedule. “We wanted to keep the traditions, because tradition is important to Heart Ball, so we went ahead and pushed it back an entire year,” she said.
And so, what was supposed to be a one-year commitment stretched to two, complete with a whole lot of pivoting. The Heart Ball committees started to do more COVID-related messaging, spreading awareness that heart disease remains the number-one killer in the United States.
Also pivoting were the Mastros. Though they have enjoyed phenomenal success for years — having built the Mastro’s Steakhouse brand up to include seven restaurants, selling it in 2007, and going on to create seven more white-hot dining destinations across the U.S. — last year served up challenges unlike any before.
“It’s been a hell of a year,” said Jeff, who serves as CEO of the company while his brother Mike is president of development. “Some of our stores in Chicago stayed closed for almost four months. Then we opened our Philly store on Sept. 8, after a huge delay, and they closed us down a couple of months later. But we’ll get through it. I feel like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Despite the tough times, the Mastros’ commitment to the Heart Ball never wavered. Like Moser, they feel a close connection to the cause. Dennis Mastro, the family patriarch, had a quadruple bypass years ago. “He was hiking a mountain and felt something,” said his son Jeff. “He never had a heart attack, but he went to his doctor. Two days later, they had him in for surgery.”
Jeff calls the surgery “the greatest thing that ever happened” because it spared Dennis the fate his father suffered at the same age. “My father’s father had a massive heart attack at 57. I was like, 12 or 13. It was very traumatic.”
Because of that bypass surgery, Dennis has gone on to enjoy his life and his family. “My dad is the greatest dad that you can have,” Jeff said. “I’ve learned so much from him.”
Not only do Jeff and Mike have heart disease on the paternal side of their family, but it runs on the maternal side as well. Their mother’s father died of a massive heart attack in his mid-50s. “So me and my brother have that going for us,” Jeff said sardonically.
Kidding aside, Jeff knew his family history put him at risk and underwent a health transformation when he was 38. He can recall the catalyst clearly. “My wife and I were out watching our buddy do an Ironman,” he said. “We’re eating our Egg McMuffin and hash browns while he was on his bike doing a loop. Then on the second loop, we were eating a slice of pizza. It hit me. I said, ‘This is ridiculous. This guy just swam two miles. He’s on, like, a 100-mile bike ride and then he’s gonna run. What am I doing?’”
The next day, Jeff went for a jog and he hasn’t stopped since. He’d done more than 30 marathons and taken off 100 pounds. “I started running, and thank God I did. That’s the only way I’ve been able to keep all the weight off, because running is a hobby now,” he said.
His three sons inspire him to keep his running laces tied. “I have three boys. I’m trying to stay alive for them and trying to educate them on doing the right stuff,” he said.
Family has been the secret ingredient to the Mastros’ success since Dennis moved his brood from Las Vegas to family-friendly Phoenix in the late 70s and purchased a tennis club. There, he converted a clubhouse to the legendary beef-by-the-pound restaurant, What’s Your Beef, where diners could walk up to a window and have a steak cut to order in front of their eyes.
Jeff and Mike grew up in the business, working as dishwashers, bussers and cooks. Jeff went on to earn his law degree before partnering with his brother and dad on Mastro’s steakhouses. However, in the new venture, it’s just Jeff and Mike, each serving roles that play to their strengths. Jeff, who practiced as an attorney for a few years, is analytic, while Mike is more creative. “We’re different, which is good. It’s a family business and my brother and I have had, like, one argument in almost 30 years. We understand how the other person works,” Jeff said.
Over the years, the entrepreneurial brothers have tweaked their restaurant concepts to coincide with the times. Increasingly, that means offering diners more options that align with heart health. “We have that great American steakhouse menu, but we also have seafood and salmon, Chilean sea bass. We have all sorts of vegetables, crab and shrimp cocktail,” Jeff said.
“When people come in, they have options. If they’re on a diet, trying not to eat carbs, or just want to eat fewer calories, it’s very easy to do.”
Lifestyle shifts like these can add up to significant health improvements — a message that Moser also wants to get out. “I’ve learned so much about heart disease and health by being involved with the Heart Ball. Not just about stroke and heart attacks, but about how easy it is to adjust your own lifestyle,” Moser said. “I’ve tried to eat a little bit better than I used to and get out and walk more.”
Like Jeff Mastro, she’s taking care of her health for her children while trying to educate them about taking care of themselves. “It starts with the kids. Educating kids young and teaching them this lifestyle is really going to change our future,” she said.
Which is why Moser declared the theme of her Heart Ball to be Remembering Hearts: Past, Present and Future. “It’s remembering those that we’ve lost in the past, like my father. It’s taking care of ourselves in the present day and doing what we can to live longer. And it’s teaching our loved ones and children how to take care of themselves so that they have a longer future,” she said.
With this all in mind, Moser and the Mastros are looking to the new year in the hope of celebrating the Heart Ball together. “The evening is a celebration of everyone’s hard work and thanking everyone for donating throughout the year. It’s a dinner with dancing and visiting — I think everybody misses that right now. So we’re hoping to have that, though I’m sure there’s still going to be precautions in place,” Moser said.
And so, Moser continues her unprecedented two-year chairmanship of the Phoenix Heart Ball, trying to fundraise in a pandemic to honor her dad, be here longer for her family, and teach her children how to live longer for their children. She wants to spread awareness that all of the funds donated to the Phoenix Heart Ball stay in Phoenix, so the American Heart Association can continue to educate, make changes and save lives.
“That’s my mission,” she said.
Save the Date
The 61st Annual Phoenix Heart Ball
Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021
Info and tickets at rememberinghearts.org