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50 years later: The story of how Zorbaz came to be

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Tom Hanson, founder of Zorbaz, inside the very first Zorbaz in this 2013 file photo. The popular restaurant is celebrating 50 years in Detroit Lakes this summer, 2019. (Tribune File Photo)

Back in the summer of 1969, Tom Hanson launched Zorbaz in a former candy store on the Detroit Lakes city beach.

At that time, he was a 23-year-old drama and debate teacher and coach, and Zorbaz was only open in the summertime, when school was out.

Under his leadership, Zorbaz grew to 11 locations, all on different Minnesota lakes, and the majority of them open year-round.

Hanson was 70 when he died in August 2015, after a nine-year battle with throat cancer. In an interview with the Tribune a few years before his death, he talked about the philosophy behind his pub.

“I called it Zorbaz at the Beach,” he said — 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.”

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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.

The menu has expanded a great deal since then, as have the number of locations. 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, who had worked as a cook in Hanson's California establishments.

Over time, they added more and more Mexican dishes to the menu, and their pizzas also became known for using all fresh ingredients, made from scratch on site. They also peppered the menu with Zs, serving "zaladz" instead of plain "salads."

The drink menu expanded as well, from a couple of tap beers to a full-service bar that included hundreds of varieties of beer and ale on tap. 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 30-plus years, 13 more Zorbaz restaurants opened around Minnesota, though only 11 remain in business today. Hanson stepped back from actively running Zorbaz in 2006, but the business remains in the hands of the Hanson and Jansen families to this day.

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