Breaking Bread With The Zaro Family

On an unseasonably warm winter Saturday, Michael Zaro, a friendly, bearded young man in jeans and bare feet, welcomes me to his Colonial-style home in Bedford. I’m ushered into the kitchen, where his wife, Agnes, is feeding lunch to 4-year-old Benjamin and his little sister, Sydney, 1½. As Aunt Zoe perches Sydney on her hip and takes a taste of banana-chocolate-chunk pound cake (“I try to convince myself it’s breakfast food,” she says), Benjamin is ready for dessert. The tousled blond-haired cutie, clad in a green Ninja Turtle t-shirt, happily accepts a Zaro’s black-and-white cookie from his mom—though he doesn’t seem too eager to share it with Great-Uncle Joe.

The history of this family’s fourth-generation business reads like a classic American success story. In 1927, founder Joseph Zarobchik—Ben and Sydney’s great-great grandfather—sailed to Ellis Island from Eastern Europe and started what is now known as Zaro’s Family Bakery in Newark, New Jersey. In the 1950s, his sons, Philip and William, took over and, in 1977, they opened the first of the company’s four current Grand Central Station stores. Though Philip passed away in 2004, two of his three sons—Stuart, 64, and Joseph, 58 (aka Great-Uncle Joe), who are co-presidents—run the company together with Stuart’s sons, Michael, 38, and Brian, 34, who are vice presidents in charge of manufacturing and retail operations, respectively. 

The late Philip Zaro—father of current co-presidents Stuart Zaro and Joseph Zaro—at one of the company’s stores in 1959.

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Though the company’s main factory is in the Bronx, all the Zaros have strong ties to the county, making it truly a Westchester brand. Philip and his wife, Dorothy, moved to New Rochelle in 1958, and it was there they raised their sons, Stuart, Joseph, and Andrew. Dorothy, who is now 93 and resides in Harrison, still goes to the factory for her favorite raisin-walnut bread. 

Today, Stuart and his wife, Keri, live in Armonk, where they raised their five sons, and Joseph and his wife, Nancy, recently moved to Greenwich after spending 30 years in Purchase and Harrison while raising their own three sons. Andrew, a Manhattan resident and the only brother with daughters, works in the financial sector. 

A household name in the New York Metro area—1.5 million people pass by its retail outlets daily—Zaro’s has 11 stores in its busiest commuter hubs, including a new location in Lower Manhattan’s Fulton Street Transit Center. Famous for its delectable baked goods, like black-and-white cookies, bagels, and challah, Zaro’s bakes all its products at its 40,000-square-foot plant in the Bronx. Each week, more than 50,000 pounds of flour and 4,000 pounds of butter are used, and about 44,000 bagels, 2,000 black-and-white cookies, and 1,500 challah loaves are sold. It’s products are sold nationwide and are available locally at Mrs. Green’s, Stew Leonard’s, Whole Foods, and Balducci’s. 

On this sunny day in Michael’s living room,  I settle into a deep, modern, gray couch to chat with him, Brian (his wife is Zoe of the banana pound cake), and Joseph; Stuart is away in LA visiting his youngest son. The brothers are close, and I’m struck by how polite and respectful they are of their uncle. It’s clear that this is a family who enjoy one another’s company; in fact, Michael and Joseph had just cycled 15 miles together earlier that morning through Bedford and Armonk, something they do regularly. As Stuart would tell me later: “Our family is tight.” 

The laughter-punctuated conversation focuses on growing up in the family business. “My father worked a lot,” says Joseph, “so I enjoyed going to the factory with him.” Brian recalls assembling boxes and helping to move bags of sugar from the warehouse to the factory floor in between grabbing warm cookies right off the rack. When Michael adds how much his mom loved picking at the crumbs on the top of their chocolate babka, his uncle is quick to playfully correct his terminology by telling him that the crumbs are technically called “streusel.” 

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“Zaro’s is all about the stories,” reflects Joseph, recounting the story of a friend who says she learned math by having to return change to her mom every time she was sent to buy a loaf of rye bread at a Zaro’s store in the Bronx. Another Bronx native, US Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, even mentions in her memoir that her first part-time job was at a Zaro’s store close to her home.

To what do the Zaros attribute their success? “The hands-on philosophy that we apply to the day-to-day operations,” says Michael, “whether it is a family member behind the counter helping customers with cups of coffee or working in the factory braiding challah.” Indeed, about 70 percent of their roughly 400 employees have worked for the company for between 10 and 40-plus years.

According to the Zaros, there are many positives associated with being part of a family business, including “being able to work with your family members on a daily basis,” says Brian. Yet it’s well documented that family businesses come with their own challenges and thus are notoriously difficult to maintain through generations. According to the Harvard Business Review, about 70 percent of family businesses fail or are sold before the founders’ children can come on board; just 10 percent still exist by the time the grandkids are ready. 

Flour Power: Though the temptation to regularly sample their scrumptious merchandise must be overwhelming, (L to R)Michael, Brian, Scott, and Richard Zaro manage to refrain, opting instead for regular visits to the gym.

Clearly, the Zaros are bucking that trend.  “There needs to be communication, and everyone must have his or her niche,” says Stuart, “and there should be minimal conversation about business outside of work; you need to focus on being a family.” 

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One challenge unique to their industry is the presence of all those calorie-laden baked goods. Yet, each of the Zaros look very fit. They all hit the gym regularly, and Joseph—who loves Zaro’s bagels—cycles and snowboards. Stuart, who favors the babka and black-and-whites, never brings anything home from work. Michael, an avid cyclist and babka and cheesecake fan with a major sweet tooth, limits himself to bringing home one item each Friday. And Brian, a toasted-everything-bagel-with-scallion-cream-cheese man, says his temptation has lessened over the years.

But even after four generations, this family is far from done. It has a strong bench with the addition of Stuart’s son, Scott, 30, who’s involved in marketing and promotions on the retail side, and Joseph’s son, Richard, 26, who focuses on implementing new retail technology. There also will be continued expansion of its branded wholesale division selling to upscale markets, both in the tri-state area and elsewhere, and the opening of more retail stores. With even just a little luck, we can expect the fifth-generation Zaros to eventually take their turn at the plate—provided, of course, that Benjamin doesn’t stick with his current vocational ambition to be a professional Ninja Turtle.   

Laurie Yarnell of Rye, a former longtime Westchester Magazine features editor, writes frequently about local notables, like Georgina Bloomberg and Joseph Abboud.

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