End of An Era • An Elegy to Zorba’s Greek Restaurant & Lounge

After Nearly 40 Years, Another Saginaw Landmark Disappears Into the Mists of Memory

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles, News, Local,   By: Robert E Martin

30th March, 2021     0

When it comes to the topic of creating a contemporary culinary landmark in the tri-cities that has withstood the tests of time, taste, and shifting fashion, Zorba's Restaurant & Lounge has occupied both a unique and beloved position for nourishing the soul, spirit, and appetite of the Great Lakes Bay Region since 1982.

Specializing in Greek & American cuisine, this tidy and  non-pretentious gem, quietly  tucked into a tastefully appointed corner at 700 Gratiot St. on the City of Saginaw’s west side, has drawn, charmed and fed not only its regular customers, but also satisfied the discriminating taste buds of a notable list of celebrities over the generations, including but not limited to the likes of Robert Goulet, Shirley Jones, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett and Debbie Boone whenever they made their way to town for performances at the Temple Theatre, Dow Event Center, or Midland Center for the Arts.

But now this iconic legacy of authentic Greek cuisine and fellowship is coming to a sad end, as these vintage tin ceilings and irreplaceable embossed linen papered walls are poised to face the wrecking ball in a day or two; and after 39 years of serving the community, Zorba’s will be gone forever - left to stand only within the recess of our hearts and memory.

Owned, operated, and built upon a dream back in 1982 by its incomparable proprietor and Chief Chef, Tom Veremis, who immigrated from Greece back in 1951, since its inception  Zorba's has served freshly prepared signature recipes of Spinach Pie, Mousaka, Grecian Chicken, Saganaki (Flaming Cheese) Leg of Lamb, and the ever popular gyro to an incredibly varied clientele.

At the age of 88, after diligently preparing one-of-a-kind family recipes on a daily basis for nearly 40 years, Tom says he has been looking for an exit strategy in order to spend more time with his wife Irene and enjoy the next chapter of his life. He had hoped to sell the restaurant to new owners and train them in properly preparing his proprietary offerings, however when that deal fell through, Veremis was back to ground zero.   This year the deal went through with new owners who plan on tearing the physical structure down and constructing a new building for a Cannabis dispensary.

“My entire life is here, so this is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do,” reflects Veremis. “Saginaw has been very good to me and I love the people and the City of Saginaw, for all they have done for me.”

Given that Zorba's was one of only a handful of local independently owned & operated restaurants that had withstood the economic onslaught of the 'big-box' corporate chains, all while retaining its high standards of quality and affordability over the years, it’s loss is even more poignant.

“I came to the USA from Greece in 1951,” explains Tom. “And my dream was to someday open a bar & restaurant. I left Greece as a kid at the age of 17, after the war when it was hard times. When I got here I came by boat with no money and started working two to three jobs until very late at night. After I got my citizen papers, I went back to Greece to marry my wife, Irene. We've been married for 63 years now.”

“When I found this opportunity to open Zorba's I took it, because there was no restaurant in Saginaw serving Greek & American food,” he continues. “You had to drive to Detroit and from the first day that we opened, I would have customers come back and tell me that the food I served was better than that found in Greek Town.  They still tell me that.”

All the recipes at Zorba's were culled from his own heritage of family recipes. Even the side dishes were singular and amazing, such as their Grecian potatoes, which Tom says consists of a marinade created by him and his wife. “When my wife and I came to the USA nobody knew how to cook the type of food that we loved, so we started cooking at home.  We raised our children and perfected our recipes. We make all of our own desserts and baklava and all of our soups and salads are homemade.  We never bought anything pre-packaged or prepared.”

“What is difficult about this is saying goodbye to the community that supported me,” reflects Tom. "My workers are like my family. They are like my own blood.  They take care of me and love me, as do all my customers. When I take a day off they will say, 'Where's Tom? I hope he's not sick.'  This is why I won't go away.  And I’m not going away.  I will still be here in Saginaw, but I will be spending time and taking care of my wife and family.”

When asked what he views as the key ingredient involved with successfully staying in business with an operation like Zorba’s for nearly 40 years, Tom points to commitment.  “You need to have willpower and backbone,” he reflects. “If you love the people the people will know this and love you back. I take care of everybody equally.” 

As he reflects upon his homeland and love for the country that gave birth and inspiration to his success here in America, Tom recalls how he left his homeland of Greece back in 1951 and then revisited it again back in 2004 and 2009.

“I first fled Greece to escape the Communists,” he recalls.  “Back in 2004 I took my Grandson back to Greece to show him where Grandpa came from; and then in 2009  I went back with my wife because she has relatives, so we wanted to visit everybody. We were there for 30 days and after 10 days I got homesick to come back to Saginaw.”

“Greece was different and to me it's changed much.  The country is still the same, but the people have changed too much. They are not as friendly as they used to be. And now with the economic problems of Greece, they look at you as a dollar bill, not as Tom.  It's changed,” reflects Tom with a tinge of regret.

“But I am very proud of my heritage and all that we have achieved through hard work and struggle. I opened in 1982 and was the first of my family to come here to the U.S. There were 7 kids in my family and when I came over with my 15-year old sister, my father told me to hold her hand and treat her like a suitcase on the journey and never let her go.”

“After I married my wife and became a citizen I flew all my brothers and sisters over here. Everybody got an education and employment and are still working.  None of them have collected unemployment or welfare and they stayed with me, which is something to be proud of,” concludes Tom.

The Greeks have long held food in a position of more than nourishment. Food is a way to link people together and is associated with dancing, games and merriment. Greek cooking was at its peak during the Classical Period, with the first cookbooks originating in the 5th Century, B.C. Indeed the best of the Byzantine, Persian, and Judaic influences can still be tasted in today's most popular Greek dishes.

Zorba's was hands-down a Saginaw treasure and one of the pivotal reasons for ‘greatness’ in the Great Lakes Bay Region.  And now it is no more.

Just prior to their closing, I ordered an Old Gyro Platter at Zorbas, savoring each bite to retain it in my memory bank, recalling the first time I purchased one back in 1982.  So many memories, filling one with a melancholy that all the unique and irreplaceable local treasures that define us as a community and give us our character seem to slowly be disappearing.

Thanks for the memories and the magic, Tom.  May you stay healthy and strong. And never give up faith.

To paraphrase the philosopher Epicurus:  “Do not spoil the memory of what you have by desiring what you now have not. Remember that what you now have achieved was among the things you once only hoped for.”




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