The Accidental Restaurateur
Steve Zuccaro is a prime example of never say never, an illustration of working your way to the top, a guy who dares to be different.
All clichés to be sure (a lazy writer's device, sorry), but clichés have an origin in truth, and the story of how Zuccaro, went from restaurant dishwasher to restaurant owner (he has three) and guitarist for briefly famous Detroit pop-rock band Charm Farm
in between, is chock full of those tried and true phrases.
For one, what Zuccaro does with his Lunch Box Deli
in Grosse Pointe Park, his Burrito Mundo in Grosse Pointe Woods and Green Room in Detroit, is not cookie-cutter. The style and feel and, most importantly, the food that comes out of his restaurants grew out of a desire to break the Grosse Pointe (his hometown) mold of limited and predictable eating choices.
What stands out about Lunch Box and Burrito Mundo
are their urban feel, a hip vibe in communities that are mostly staid and steeped in tradition. The Green Room plays up salads dressed, if desired, with uncommon, homemade dressings, and sandwiches for lunch crowds of downtown office workers. Burrito Mundo turns out creative Mexican fare such as fish and shrimp tacos or barbeque burritos, while Lunchbox offers dozens of sandwiches topped with innovative ingredients and entrees (Where else can you find four different styles of tuna sandwich?). The key ingredients in all three restaurants is fresh and unexpected. All three also offer vegetarian options, not throwaway vegetarian dishes, but truly tasty ones.
"What we're doing is our take on things. That's my whole thing. I try to make sure things are more different," says Zuccaro, 40, of Grosse Pointe. "It probably just goes back to my music pedigree, being creative. I'm just not a fan of institutional things that carry on and never really change."
It was in Charm Farm's travels to other cities that Zuccaro was treated to -- and enlightened by -- the knowledge that all other places seemed to have eateries that churned out special, if not signature, meals. He wanted to bring the idea back home to Michigan and break up the monotony and monopoly of Coney Islands and fast food chains. And as a struggling musician he also needed to make more money.
"You come to Detroit, you've really got to struggle to find the different, the unusual, really good food. It's all run of the mill," he says. "The East Side especially was so poorly represented with anything cool. It's much better now. There's more creativity now, there's a couple of people bringing some culture in, but when we got started like 20 years ago there was almost nothing."
While the guitarist and his bandmates plugged away at their music, he and a friend decided good sandwiches were their ticket to, if not fame, then maybe a modest fortune.
"We were touring around so we couldn't have regular jobs and we had to figure out a way to supplement," says Zuccaro, who worked for years to take Charm Farm beyond its one hit, "Superstar
." The band was signed by Mercury Records, but dropped after its first album, Pervert
His first push for innovation came between two slices of bread. For a few years, starting in 1993, he and a friend delivered their hand-held edibles by bicycle to businesses up and down Mack Avenue, through the Grosse Pointes and into Detroit.
"We weren't just going to try and make regular sandwiches and sell them. We were were going to try and get creative," he recalls. "This was before the sandwich trend, before Jimmy Johns and all those kinds of places. It was way before everybody started eating things like pesto and hummus."
Within a few years the bikes were parked and Zuccaro was no longer renting kitchen space at local restaurants. "It was just kind of on autopilot until we got big enough, until we could get some space."
He was in demand as a caterer when he spotted the space that eventually became home to Lunch Box Deli, the corner of Mack and Cadieux. "It just got bigger and bigger. We hired a couple of people and it grew from there," he says.
In all, the restaurants employ about 25 people and Zuccaro still "gets my hands dirty. I'm there a lot. I'm kind of a control freak."
Delivery, by car, is still a big part of the business, but take-out is even bigger. Lunch Box, which turns 10 this year, is a small box with a few dine-in tables. The space is dominated by chalkboards filled with descriptions of dozens of unusual sandwiches - the Ivan Drago, Tony Danza Extravaganza, and my favorite moniker is the Eric Estrada Enchiladas.
Burrito Mundo, which is co-owned by chef Shawn Phillips, became Zuccaro's latest restaurant in 2007. Daily specials include shrimp and lime tacos, spring stew, pulled pork sliders or the popular ancho BBQ burritos (to be washed down with Jarritos, of course). The influences are eclectic bordering on gourmet.
"We have some serious fans over there," Zuccaro boasts. "Once again, with Burrito Mundo, I didn't want it to be a Mexican restaurant or Tex-Mex. It's unique."
In 2005, he purchased the Green Room
in downtown Detroit and updated it, putting his own stamp of originality on the place while trying to keep the favorites of its regulars.
"I wanted to have a place downtown," he explains. "I just found out Quicken Loans was moving 3,000 people down there. I'm ecstatic. Things were still fine in 2005. Then there were a couple of years that there was a mass exodus…they would be there one day for lunch and be leaving their jobs on Friday. I still maintained. I weathered the storm."
He put his mark on the place by updating the menu, replacing the prepackaged salad dressing with homemade and offering fresh cut vegetables in addition to his fun sandwiches.
And now as he talks about a new location for Lunch Box, revamped menus so customers have new favorites, the cliché "never say never" is there.
"I had no plans on being in restaurants ever," he claims. "I washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant when I was 15. I hated it. But once we started, I saw the potential….it's a lot different when you're on this end of things."
Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer and the Development News Editor for Metromode. She had regular pregnancy cravings several years ago for Lunch Box's Chicado sandwich and now can't get enough of the shrimp lime cilantro soft tacos at Burrito Mundo.Send your questions/feedback here.
All Photos by David Lewinski