Zorbaz: ‘fun-loving, carefree business’ expands to multiple locations
It was almost 45 years ago — the summer of ’69, to be precise — when a 23-year-old entrepreneur named Tom Hanson opened a new restaurant inside a vacated beachside candy shop on West Lake Drive in Detroit Lakes.
“I called it Zorbaz at the Beach,” says Hanson — a reference to the movie ‘Zorba the Greek,’ which starred Anthony Quinn as “a man who was fun-loving, carefree, and would gulp life instead of sip it,” he added. “That’s what we wanted to be — a fun-loving, carefree business.”
Though the menu basically consisted of “a couple of sizes of semi-frozen pizza and a couple of beers on tap,” Zorbaz quickly grew into a popular hangout with the summer crowd in Detroit Lakes.
“We were seasonal at first,” Hanson says. “Now it’s open year round.”
The menu has also expanded a great deal. After a few years of running the Zorbaz restaurant in the summer and a couple of places in California during the winter, Hanson took on a partner, Rick Jansen.
“He was my cook at my restaurants in California that I started in the mid-70s,” Hanson said. “He picked up some Mexican dishes from a couple of Hispanic cooks that worked there. We also started doing our pizzas from scratch, with all fresh ingredients.”
The drink menu also expanded from a couple of tap beers to a full-service bar that included hundreds of varieties of beer and ale on tap.
“Something we realized years ago is that people want choices,” Hanson said. “Beer was basically the first and only beverage we served at first, along with soft drinks.
“People were constantly asking if we had this beer or that beer. We learned we literally can’t have too many choices. Today we have nearly 1,000 tap beers across our system, and people will still ask for other brands.”
The growth really started to take off in 1983, when Hanson acquired Babe’s Resort on Little Pine Lake in Perham, and opened a second Zorbaz there.
Over the next 44-plus years, 13 more Zorbaz opened around Minnesota, though not all of them were as successful as the first one.
“Three of them aren’t there anymore,” Hanson said.
“What we learned from the three that closed,” he added, “is that none of them were on a lake, which seems to be the No. 1 component of what our brand is today.”
There are now a total of 11 Zorbaz locations around the state (all but three of them open year round), the most recent of which opened just this February in Alexandria, with Hanson’s son Kevin as the operating partner.
Ironically, Zorbaz had originally opened a restaurant in Alexandria in 1983, not long after acquiring their Perham location.
That location closed a few years later, however — not through lack of business, but because the building where they were housed collapsed due to excessive snow load on the roof.
“It took us almost 30 years to get back there,” Hanson said. “We were looking for the right opportunity and location. We opened our 11th store at Alexandria in February, right next door to the original location.”
Another successful part of the Zorbaz formula through the years, Hanson said, has been live music.
“We had live music that first year in Detroit Lakes, when we had only 1,600 square feet of space and were serving 40 or 50 people at a time,” Hanson said. “We had a piano in the corner, and offered live music on occasion.”
Today, Zorbaz has “state of the art sound systems at all our stores,” he added, “which will enhance our customers’ experience even when we don’t have live bands.
“In Detroit Lakes, we have live music every Saturday night, year round,” Hanson continued. “The Detroit Lakes store probably has one of the few live band, nightclub atmospheres available in northern Minnesota year round, with state of the art light, sound and even smoke effects.”
But the biggest key to Zorbaz’ success, Hanson feels, is the people who run it.
“Full and part time, we have close to 750 employees,” he said. “They do such a great job of providing a wonderful experience for all our guests.
“Our job is to make sure our staff has all the tools for success, from great atmosphere to great food and drinks, in an exciting environment.
“Some of our mottos through the years have included ‘creating great memories,’ which I think we do pretty well, and making sure everyone leaves with a smile on their face, so we know they enjoyed it here. The quality of everything we do, and serve, is consistently good. Put simply, if people are happy when they leave us, then we’ve accomplished our goal.”
Keeping the staff happy has also been a part of that goal over the years, Hanson said.
“Saying that we recognize the importance of our staff is not just lip service,” he added. “We show our appreciation to them in as many ways as we can, from having a great work environment to holding a company party every August called the Zorbapalooza, where we close all the stores for a day and host a party for our staff at a resort near one of our stores.
“They have a great time. We treat them the way they treat our guests year round, as the most important people in the world to us – because they are.
“We almost never have to advertise for help … it’s either word of mouth, or someone on staff suggesting a friend they’d like to bring in to work for us. Our turnover at Zorbaz is about half of what the industry average is, and that’s a reflection of our managers and the way they deal with our staff every day.”
In return, the staff is committed to making sure customers always leave happy.
Hanson has stepped back from his lead role in the business in recent years, turning the reins over to his oldest son Cole, who now serves as CEO and owner of the company.
“My position now is founder, and advisor,” Tom said. “I also own The Fireside, which I purchased seven years ago.”
A lifelong resident of Detroit Lakes, Hanson decided to purchase The Fireside restaurant because he didn’t want to see it turned into a private residence, or condominiums, “which at the time was a consideration,” he added.
“I felt an upscale restaurant on the lake was a necessary component of our town,” Hanson said. “We have everything from steak and ribs to salmon and walleye, and various specials that change seasonally.”
Like Zorbaz, The Fireside was once a seasonal establishment, but is now open year-round.
“There’s definitely a place for a steakhouse-type restaurant to be open year round; it’s not just for the tourists,” he added.
One more big change that has occurred in recent years, Hanson said, is Zorbaz’ involvement in social media like Facebook and Twitter.
“Cole and our operating partners and staff have been instrumental in putting us on social media, from texting to Facebook to Twitter,” he said. “Originally we would do a lot of radio, television, newspaper and yellow pages ads. Now we’re spending 75 percent of our promotions and advertising budget on social media.”
Zorbaz also offers a line of clothing and memorabilia that has grown from its first T-shirt (custom designed by Tom Hanson himself) to include sweatshirts, jackets, hoodies and more.
“There’s probably no greater compliment than someone wanting to wear your brand,” Hanson said. “Our clothing sales have probably doubled in the past two or three years, which is also a testament to the quality of Lakeshirts’ designs.”
Lakeshirts has been the primary supplier of Zorbaz’ merchandise since it opened, Hanson said. “They’ve been a great partner for us,” he added.
But ultimately, what makes the Zorbaz experience so unique is that when guests walk in the door, they feel comfortable, Hanson said.
The pictures found on the walls of any Zorbaz store are often of their loyal customers, drawn from the restaurants’ 44-year history.
“We embrace our past, while looking forward to the future,” Hanson said.