OK, thought experiment. For almost three decades, your family has owned a small cafe on a busy stretch of Jericho Turnpike in Huntington Station. During that time, the place has turned out exceptional Greek and Italian food of the sort that leads people to gush on Yelp (“I cannot say enough nice things about it"), TripAdvisor (“We have been going for years and it just keeps getting better”) and elsewhere. The number of negative reviews is vanishingly small considering how long you’ve been in the biz, and you’re selling as many gyros and Greek salads as you always have, as many chicken franceses and pennes a la vodka too. Your fan base — both eat-in and takeout — is unmatched. To a person, diners say that your restaurant is friendly, homey, everything a patron could want.
Sounds great, right?
“We are kind of at a standstill.” That’s Edmund Zarou, manager of Zaro’s Cafe, which his family has run for 27 years. And standstill is the right word, because while everything around the eatery has changed —
—I’ve been coming here probably 15 years,” interrupts Suzanne Grossmann, a Zaro’s diner who happened to overhear my conversation with Zarou. “I bring people here all the time. They say, ‘Greek and Italian, how good could that be?’ But both are to die for. Plus, I love their story.”
Zaro’s/Zarou’s story: “When we opened in 1993, there were a lot of old recipes from the Greek side of the family — we still make the spanakopita just like my great-grandmother made it. And then we had some Italians marry into the family.” Hence the dual focus.
A few puffed triangles of spanakopita, expertly prepared by Zarou’s cousin Alex Solounias, arrive. The buttery phyllo dough shatters at the mere mention of a fork, the filling bursts with fresh spinach and feta. Next comes the gyro — as good as it gets — and then the Greek salad, the irresistibly garlicky hummus.
If Zaro’s success is complicated, so are its struggles. There’s the neighborhood, for one, which has changed vastly. “I want to try and attract people my age” — says Zarou, who's 28 — “but my age can’t afford to live here. They grow up in Huntington, and then they leave.”
Then there are the payroll costs. As of the first of the year, the minimum wage on Long Island became $13, “and if that’s the minimum, they want $18. You can’t really hire anybody for less than that, unless it’s a kid. Nobody’s working for $13, not even the busboys. And restaurant work is not 40 hours, it’s 55, and the overtime on $18 is crazy.”
The minimum wage when Zaro’s opened in 1993? $4.25.
Over the years, the restaurant has gone from seven days a week to six, and now five, mostly because of staffing issues. “Our payroll has tripled but our prices haven’t. You can’t charge $15 for a gyro. Nobody would buy it.” Zaro’s gyro is $8.95.
His cafe has always been set back from the street, but now it’s behind a hedge, its unlit signage a weak competitor to that of Dairy Queen, Popeye’s and all the other fast-food places nearby, most of which didn’t exist in 1993. You have to be looking for Zaro’s to find it.
Zarou has a name for the triple threat he faces: fast, fresh and free. “They want it fast, they want amazing quality, and they don’t want to pay for it.” Haven’t Door Dash, Uber Eats and the other food-delivery services helped? Nope. They siphon off nearly 30 percent of his receipts. “Why push something that’s not going to make me money?”
Payroll taxes, insurance, utilities, the cost of meat and produce — everything is going up. Which means there’s almost nothing left over for Zarou to market Zaro’s and expand his audience.
Given all that, it’s a wonder that Zaro’s is still around. “There’s a whole bunch of small mom-and-pop shops that are disappearing,” Zarou admits. “They just can’t do it anymore.” But he’s not giving up. He can’t default on his family’s legacy, a cafe opened by his grandparents all those years ago, and under very different circumstances. “I’m not going to throw in the towel. It’s not all about money. It’s about making money in a moral and ethical way.”
And continuing to serve food that diners love. Back at her table, Suzanne Grossmann is rhapsodizing over Zaro’s tzatziki sauce. “I come all the way from Farmingdale for this,” she says. “It’s authentic, welcoming. You can feel the love.”
Zaro’s Cafe is at 135-6 W. Jericho Tpke. in Huntington Station, 631-271-4400, zaroscafe.com. Opening hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., as well as 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday, and 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.