Adam Cadre, a Brooklyn-based writer, got hooked on Zachary’s while a Cal student: “Zachary’s Pizza is not merely the best pizza in the world. It is the best food in the world,” he said. “I’ve made a point of stopping at Zachary’s anytime a road trip has brought me anywhere nearby, or sometimes even not so nearby. Just last fall I found myself in the Tahoe area and thought, ‘Hmm, same state, that’s close enough,’ and bam, it was onto I-80 to cross California for some pizza. Its combination of flavors and textures – the crunchy, crackery crust, the chewy cheese, the sweet, juicy, cork-sized tomatoes – gets me pricing plane tickets.”
All you have to do is check out the hefty crowds that spill onto the sidewalks or the colorful posters drawn by appreciative fans that liven the walls to know that Zachary’s is winning the battle for stomach share in the stuffed pizza market. For the past 18 years husband-and-wife Zach Zachowski and Barbara Gabel have delivered a combination as unbeatable as sausage and pepperoni: heartwarmingly good pies dished up with a friendly, unbuttoned attitude.
“It’s not a restaurant business that has a lot of prestige, but we don’t care about that,” Gabel said. What they do care about is simple: “Doing one thing and doing it well.”
They have done just that since swinging open their doors of their first eatery in the not-yet hip Rockridge neighborhood in Oakland on July 25th, 1983, the anniversary of when they first met. Gabel and Zachowski emigrated to the Bay Area to introduce local foodies to Chicago-style pizza. Gabel put to work her business degree and restaurant experience, hiring the staff and managing the dining room. Zachowski, a cook since the precious age of 8, sweated every ingredient in the recipes he hoped would appeal to the California palate.
“There was a lot of experimentation,” he said. “I filled a lot of dumpsters with dough. I took a lot of time finding the right tomatoes, the right sausage makers, the right cheese. It was a big learning process.”
Even today Zachary adheres to the same exacting standards, paying special attention, for instance, to how changes in cows’ diets from summer grasses to winter grains affect the way cheese melts. From the start, business took off like a roman candle. Two expansions and another store later on Solano Avenue in Berkeley, Zachary’s has risen to the pinnacle of pie-making in the Bay Area, winning countless awards and reader polls.
That, in spite of some major inconveniences: the restaurant only takes cash, doesn’t deliver and an average wait on a madhouse Saturday night can run 90 minutes or more. None of its patrons seem to mind. The dining room is stuffed practically from open to close. In fact, Zachary’s has so many hardcore groupies that it has never had to spend one cent on advertising.
“I wish I owned Zachary’s Pizza,” gushed Wendy Levy, a restaurant who runs another Oakland restaurant, Autumn Moon Cafe. “It’s a gold mine.”
Zachary’s has all the ingredients that make independently owned pizzerias successful.
First off is the consistent quality of the pizza. A Zachary’s pizza starts with a layer of flavorful dough in a two-inch-deep pan. Next comes a hearlt helping of cheese and fresh ingredients like spinach and mushrooms. Topping the pie is another thin layer of dough and chunky sauce brimming with seasoned tomatoes.
“I spent a year in the Chicago area, visited all the classic pizzerias ... and Zachary’s trounces them all,” Cadre said. “The formula’s the same ... but the execution in the Chicago establishments falls short of Zachary’s standards: their crusts aren’t as flavorful, and they top their pizzas with plain old tomato sauce instead of the glorious chunks of perfectly stewed tomato that tops Zachary’s stuffed pies.”
Community involvement is another big selling point. Zachary’s holds pet adoptions outside its College Avenue store, gives food to charitable organizations and has made a practice of hiring Tibetan refugees. “When we heard about a Tibetan resettlement program looking for people to offer jobs or lodging to Tibetans being resettled here from political persecution, we thought, ‘We have jobs’” Gabel said. “We saw it as a good thing for our business. A lot of our crew is young and perhaps doesn’t know how tremendous the freedom is that we have here. We thought it would be good for our staff to hear their stories.”
That kind of familial approach sums up Zachowski and Gabel’s relationship to staffers: very mom and pop. When in January 23-year-old Cal student and Zachary’s employee Brad Evans died in a house fire in Oakland, Zachowski and Gabel closed the restaurant early to hold a memorial service for his family, friends and staff. They also placed a memorial plaque in each restaurant.
“(Losing Brad) reminded us how lucky we are to have eachother,” said manager Megan Arganbright. Barbara and Zach were amazing in how they let us grieve the way we needed to.”
Zachary’s knows taking care of its employees, who in turn take care of its customers, is just good business. Pay is at the high end for the industry and longtime employees, from dough-slinging pie makers to the cheery wait staff, are eligible for benefits, namely health and life insurance coverage and a 401(k) plan.
Manager Kevin Suto, who has worked at Zachary’s for 16 years since he was a high school senior, was able to buy a house in San Leandro with his wife, Amy, also a former Zachary’s worker. She stays at home with their 3 ½ year old daughter, Healey.
It is largely in the experienced hands of these managers that Gabel and Zachowski now leave the day-to-day operations. Semi-retired, they drop in several times a week but are now taking more time for themselves. Zachowski, in particular, is pursuing another hot passion: racing Porsches.
Even after all of these years, they still occasionally top their day by taking home a Zachary’s pie. “We pretend we don’t own the restaurant and that we’re just customers, and we go home and eat a pizza and watch a movie,” Zachowski said. “And you know, if we weren’t the owners, we’d probably be regular customers.”