Craig McEwen, Published July 04 2009
Zorbaz turnz 40
23-year-old entrepreneur Tom Hanson started selling $3 frozen pizzas and 25-cent tap beer from a vacated beach-front candy shop on Little Detroit Lake.
“I called this place Zorbaz at the Beach,” said Hanson, named after the 1964 movie titled “Zorba the Greek.”
This summer, and nine restaurants later, the Minnesota pizza chain is celebrating its 40th birthday.
During those four decades, Zorbaz has employed more than 3,000 people, Hanson said.
How many pizzas has it served?
“In the millions,” Hanson estimates. “Everything is made from scratch – quite an evolution,”
Today, the flagship restaurant offers 50 types of pizza with 25 different toppings and 96 tap beer varieties.
Zorbaz’ landing on Detroit Lakes’ popular mile-long beach, home to family-oriented resorts, motels and homes, caused a neighborhood ruckus at the time.
Zorbaz catered to and attracted young clientele in search of fun, often more than neighbors wanted to tolerate.
“People felt it was too noisy, too many young people causing problems,” recalls Hanson. “They weren’t used to having a lot of activity along the beach.”
Remember, this was the same year that 450,000 young rock fans gathered near Bethel, N.Y., for the historic, four-day Woodstock Festival.
Six years after Zorbaz opened, the Detroit Lakes City Council voted to revoke its 3.2 beer license.
The late Kent Freeman, then city mayor, vetoed the revocation and Zorbaz persevered.
Today, Zorbaz restaurants in Detroit Lakes, Perham, Pelican Lake, Otter Tail Lake, Cross Lake, Gull Lake, Park Rapids and McGregor employ 450 people. Six locations are open year around.
“I remember the first Fourth of July that we sold 100 kegs in one day. That was the summer of 1976,” said Hanson.
Mexican food was added to the menu in the 1970s, he said.
“I’m Scandinavian. Zorbaz is Greek. And we serve Italian and Mexican food,” said Hanson. “Pizza is still No. 1.”
Finding a niche
As a young 1960s college student, Hanson frequented The Green Door, a popular Detroit Lakes pizza joint.
Its eventual closure created a void and an opportunity that Hanson couldn’t pass up.
He acquired the vacant candy store down the beach. “I threw an oven in it, a two-keg beer tap, opened the doors and held my breath,” said the former Detroit Lakes High School speech teacher.
Hanson, now 63, graduated from Detroit Lakes High School in 1963 and in 1968 from Moorhead State University, where he majored in communications and political science.
“I never had a business course in my life,” he said.
“We really hit our stride when Playboy cited Detroit Lakes and Zorbaz as one of the top three summer party locations in the country,” he said.
It happened in the mid-1970s, said Hanson. “That summer it was like a dam broke.”
A city landmark
Current Detroit Lakes Mayor Matt Brenk was one of Hanson’s high school students.
He was then too young to patronize the pizza shop, Brenk said.
“As I got older, we used to go to Zorbaz a lot. It’s been a great asset to the community in terms of bringing people down to the beach area,” Brenk said.
Detroit Lakes native Linda Mallow and five hungry kids fill a restaurant table.
“They wanted pizza. So I said, ‘Let’s go to Zorbaz,’ ” said Mallow, who remembers at a younger age, pulling up by boat to pick up pre-ordered pizzas.
“In high school, picking up a pizza and eating it on the beach was fun, too,” she said.
Her son Ben, 12, orders the 4-20, a double-baked burrito filled with chicken, bacon, lettuce and cheese.
“It tastes good,” he said. “And it’s pretty big.”
The 4-20 is a special burrito that’s not on the menu, said waiter Ben Magnusson.
“It’s a local favorite,” he said.
Parked outside the Detroit Lakes Zorbaz is a restored 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28.
It’s the same age as Zorbaz and will be given away in September to celebrate the pizzeria’s birthday.
Richard Milhous Nixon became the nation’s 37th president that year.
“And I got married,” said Hanson. “There were a lot of things that happened in 1969. It really was kind of a watershed year.”
Readers can reach Forum Business Editor Craig McEwen at (701) 241-5502