“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was among the things you only hoped for.” - Epicurus
“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” - Aristotle
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 quickly tops my own list of personal favorites. Specializing in Greek & American cuisine, this tidy and non-pretentious gem is quiet and orderly, tucked into a tastefully appointed corner at 700 Gratiot St. on Saginaw's Westside.
Owned, operated, and built upon a dream hatched back in 1982 by its incomparable proprietor and Chief Chef, Tom Veremis, 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 ranging from loyal regulars populating the Great Lakes Bay to satisfying the discriminating taste buds of famous stars such as Robert Goulet, Shirley Jones, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Debbie Boone and Doc Severinson.
To show appreciation for their 30th year of existence, Zorba's is holding a Special 30th Anniversary Celebration on Sunday, July 15thfrom 1:00 - 5:00 PM. In addition to the sumptuous food that has made them famous, refreshments, a 50/50 drawing, raffle prizes and a Live DJ will be on-hand to wish Tom and his crew another 30 years of continued success.
Given that Zorba's is one of a handful of local independently owned & operated restaurants that has withstood the economic onslaught of the 'big-box' corporate chains, all while retaining its high standards of quality and affordability over the years, to mark this momentous occasion I recently sat down with Tom in order to glean a better understanding into his background, while hopefully learning a few of the secret ingredients involved with his undeniable recipe for success.
“I came to the USA from Greece in 1951,” explains Tom. “And my dream was to some day 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 54 years now.”
“When I found this opportunity to open Zorba's I took it,” continues Tom, “because there was no restaurant in Saginaw serving Greek & American food. 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.”
While Tom's menu at Zorba's has not changed much over the years in terms of core items, his weekend specials are constantly evolving and always serve as a source for unexpected surprise, except for the quality, care, and manner in which they are prepared. “On the weekends I like to put together a little more expensive selection of dinner courses,” notes Tom. “If customers enjoy them I will bring them back; if not, I will feature something else the following week.”
All the recipes at Zorba's are culled from his own heritage of family recipes. Even the side dishes are 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 don't buy anything pre-packaged or prepared.”
“I've been here for 30 years now and people that I had coming here as kids are now coming to dine with their own kids. I can't compete with the big company restaurants, but the secret is that I will not give up. I make and buy everything local and the big restaurants try to put us out of business, but that can't. We have some good days and have some bad days, but I will not give up,” states Tom.
Having dedicated himself to his restaurant for 30 years, does Tom ever get tired of what he does, or spot any days of retirement looming ahead on the horizon? “I don't get tired of it,” he emphatically states. “I'm going to be 78-years old and if the Lord lets me I'll be here another 30 years. My customers won't let me go and I have no desire to retire. I think of my workers and helpers that have been here for 18-20 years working for me. These days if you get a waitress or water to work for two or three years you are lucky. But 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.”
When asked what he views as the key ingredient involved with successfully staying in business for 30 years, Tom points to commitment. “You need to have willpower and backbone,” he reflects. “If you love the people the people they will know this and love you back. I've got lawyers and judges coming for lunch because they love me. I take care of them. I won't give nothing for free, but I take care of everybody equally. The kids of customers will come up and give me a hug and a kiss. Why? Because I love everybody. I've been here for 30 years and would like to be here for another 30. By then I'll be 108.”
As he reflects upon his homeland and love for the country that gave birth and inspiration to his success here in America, Tom relates how three years ago he again flew back to Greece. “Five years ago I took my Grandson back to show him where Grandpa came from; and then 3 years ago 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. It 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 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.
“I also need to extend my love and appreciation to Cheri Hak. She is my right-hand and has worked with me for 20 years as waitress, bartender, office helper, you name it.”
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 is hands-down a Saginaw treasure. Few things can be more festive that treating guests to a display of Saganaki and they won't soon forget watching the server light a platter of brandy doused Kaseri cheese to cry 'Opa!' and then hear it sizzle out as a fresh lemon is squeezed above it.”
Such are the experiences that Zorba's is made of. Along with longevity.
Here's to 30 more years of top notch dining, fun, camaraderie, and providing one of the pivotal reasons for 'greatness' in the Great Lakes Bay.