Harry Zerbo was like many other second-generation Italians in mid-'50s Detroit. He was a World War II veteran, he worked in the cement business and he loved to play handball. But it was an out-of-the-ordinary hobby that led Zerbo to discover his life's work—founding and operating Zerbo's Health Foods in Livonia, Mich.
"Harry raised chinchillas for their fur, and he was always trying to find the best ways for them to have shinier, softer coats," says Zerbo's grandson, Ryan Adams. "He ended up giving them a supplement."
Adams isn't sure what that supplement was, but family legend says that Harry's chinchillas were well-behaved, sold first and went for the most money. This was great for Zerbo (not so great for the chinchillas), and it helped spark his interest in nutrition.
He sought advice about vitamins and minerals from a biochemist in Detroit. Intrigued by the information, Zerbo decided that supplements might help his wife, Yolanda, who was suffering from a heart condition. Her illness improved, according to Adams, and Zerbo became a true believer in the power of diet and nutrition to help people.
He began having regular meetings at his home to talk about a health product, probably something similar to a multi-level marketing product today, Adams says. The gatherings grew, inspiring Zerbo to open Zerbo's Health Foods in 1958 as a "tiny" vitamin shop, Adams says.
Many of the initial customers would come in to talk about their health, vitamins and minerals, and what to buy, and Zerbo would give them foot massages. An avid learner, he studied reflexology and other complementary health therapies.
"This man lived and breathed taking care of people, bringing them something they needed," says Clara Zerbo Adams, Harry's daughter. Harry, who passed away in 2005 at age 88, worked at the store until he was 84. The market is now owned by Clara and her children Ryan and Shannon Adams Faunt, who continue Zerbo's tradition of helping people improve their lives.
"The majority of our customers are coming here because they're having a problem, and they know about it, and they want to reverse it," Adams says. Like his grandfather, Adams is happy to help his customers each day: "I feel like I'm making a difference, and it's not just a 9-to-5 job," he says.
Adams started working in the family business after graduating from college eight years ago. Because he wanted to learn the business from the ground up, he began as a pricer. His timing was perfect. In 1997, Zerbo's completed its second expansion of the original location on the corner of Plymouth and Stark roads. The store didn't have a computerized point-of-sale system, and Adams came in to help modernize and grow the business. His family could see that health food retailing had grown well beyond the days of small vitamin shops: "It was going toward one-stop shopping," he says.
With the larger format, Zerbo's moved directly into the grocery business. "I think it was at the right time because products now are better than they were. They're better tasting, and there's more variety," Adams says.
At 11,250 square feet, the current version of the store feels spacious and clean. A long set of windows running above the shelves brings in natural light. The product selection retains its original vitamin and supplement focus, but now about half the store is devoted to food, essentially offering the same variety of SKUs as much larger grocery stores but with a strict focus on natural and organic. A separate room contains most of the store's refrigerated and frozen items.
Harry Zerbo wanted to include organic produce as early as the 1960s because he believed nutrition from food was as important as supplementation, but he ran into problems with quality and consistency of fresh fruits and vegetables, according to Zerbo Adams. "We would drive out to the airport and never knew what we'd get and if it would still be good." Zerbo's waited to offer organic food until the supply became more reliable, she says.
Another reason the store began stocking groceries was that supplements were becoming available in other stores and over the Internet. Zerbo's reduced its margins for supplements but increased profits in the grocery section and juice bar.
The 42-member staff is ready to answer questions in between managing and stocking shelves. Adams says the store averages more than 600 customers daily, so a sizeable staff is necessary. "We're making sure people are serviced. It's a specialty store, and people have questions," he says.
If the staff can't help, there's a large reference section with a reading table near the back of the store where customers can browse natural-healing books. The juice bar toward the entrance is stocked with organic fruits and vegetables. It's busiest during lunch hours, Adams says, as many local workers come in for a healthy pick-me-up.
Zerbo's also offers lectures and can accommodate up to 30 people. A recent lecture featured a naturopath from California who discussed the benefits of seaweed and plankton.
Being healthy in Detroit isn't always easy. The metro area was built for cars, not for walking or biking. "We are the fattest, most depressed people in the country because of the air quality, the water quality and lack of sunlight," Zerbo Adams says. "But we have supplements and food that has real nutrition, so people who want to be healthy anyway have that option."
Steve Taormina is standards manager for New Hope Natural Media. Additional reporting by Lisa Ganz.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 8/p. 54