Café Zola, located on W. Washington St. in the heart of Downtown Ann Arbor, has been a favorite of locals and outside visitors since 1996. The menu is influenced by the taste and flavor of Mediterranean with specialties from France, Italy, and Turkey. The ambience is always charming and lively, especially on weekends. On a sunny afternoon in June, I got a chance to sit down with Hediye Batu, the owner of Café Zola to talk about her journey in the restaurant business, her roots, and her upcoming new restaurant. “I never had any intentions of opening a second restaurant”, said Hediye. A couple of years ago, Illinois-based North Shore Properties Group, asked owners Hediye and her husband Alan Zakalik about leasing space in Arbor Hills Crossing, the under-construction shopping plaza at 3000 Washtenaw Avenue. “Since they offered us a deal, I thought, why not?” said Hediye.
|Hediye Batu in front of Zola|
From a business standpoint, having another Zola on Washtenaw Ave. is a smart move. There are no other comparable restaurants in that area except for Paesano’s, an Italian restaurant, and there is no other restaurant that does breakfast, lunch, and dinner; most just do lunch and dinner. The new Café Zola will receive more traffic because customers won't have to travel to Downtown to enjoy the cuisine of Café Zola. It will be more of a family-friendly place and there will even be a children’s menu for dinner.
“There’s a host of schools in Ann Arbor like Tappan, Lawton, Pioneer, Gabriel Richard, so it would be practical for parents to pick their kids up from school and then bring them to Zola for dinner”, said Hediye.
The new bistro will be a little bigger than the original café but the menu will stay the same, and some fresh new items will be added. There will be a larger bar with mezzes, tappas and a patio so that people can enjoy the weather when it’s warm. Arbor Hills Crossing will have a combination of restaurants and retail stores such as Hot Mama: an upscale nationally recognized boutique, Lululemon Athletica: luxurious, fashionable athletic wear, Anthropologie: indie clothes, accessories, and decor, and New York headquartered Brooks Brothers: America’s oldest men’s clothing store which now carries men’s and women’s classic business attire. These attractions will make the center a very popular place for Ann Arborites. The plaza, which consists of four buildings in a space of 100,000-square-feet, will open at the end of August.
Café Zola has been a successful and popular establishment in Downtown Ann Arbor for years. What makes it great and how did it become what it is today? It was certainly not easy. In 1988, Hediye came to America from Turkey to complete her education. Once she realized it was easier to work and make her own money in the U.S., she decided to stay and put her business background to use. She quickly discovered that there weren’t many delectable eateries in the area, and she complained wherever she went—there was a need for fresh, delicious, and different food. Alan, her future husband, had always pictured starting a restaurant. His vision paired with Hediye’s risk-taking mentality drove the inception of Café Zola. Deciding on the name, Hediye always knew that she wanted wording with a “Z” because of her husband’s last name. One day, Hediye, Alan, and Alan’s cousin (a part-time owner of Zola) were on Lake Michigan, reading the New York Times, and there was a section on French writers—one of them was Émile Zola. It’s a perfect name as it is short, memorable, and French. Émile Zola’s craft is the epitome of Café Zola as it is a unique place where interesting people such as artists and poets come to have good food and cheer in an atmosphere that feels very European. Hediye and Alan decided to keep the name Zola, instead of coming up with a new name for the bistro; another smart move.
Hediye grew up in a large family where her parents and grandparents cooked foods of all sorts of flavors, textures. She felt that she and the rest of Ann Arbor needed that. Hediye and Alan are true believers in using very fresh and organic ingredients in dishes they put on their menu. They truly have selections that can please anyone’s palate whether one is a vegan, practically a carnivore, or everything in between. The best part of the menu is that brunch is served until 4 p.m. daily, which features magnificent sweet and savory crêpes like smoked salmon, ratatouille, and Normandie. Hardy omelettes like asparagus and goat cheese, southwestern, and Americana are made with organic eggs, rosemary-garlic roasted red skin potatoes and toast. Café Zola also has wonderful salads, sandwiches, waffles, and classic Turkish brunch. Hediye even put her mark on the menu with Hediye’s Choice: “Full city roast coffee, full-bodied yet lively, with hints of mango and papaya in its pungent bouquet; perfectly balanced, nutty and rich” and Hediye’s Breakfast: “Toasted bagel, filled with scrambled eggs, scallions, mushrooms, asparagus, caramelized onions, herbs and Danish Havarti cheese, served with tomato slices and kalamata olives”.
|Nutella Banana Crêpe|
Café Zola has set a terrific example for independently owned businesses and Hediye has some advice for entrepreneurs and those interested in start-ups, particularly in the restaurant business. She very honestly says, “it’s not the best business to be in. You must be ambitious, goal-oriented; you can’t be lazy; and you definitely cannot expect money right away”. It is no secret that restaurant owners are extremely busy, having to think about a dozen things at a time. You have to choose a lucrative location, talented employees who are at least as smart as you, if not smarter, you have to create a delicious, varied menu, all while managing costs—you cannot have high profit expectations. “The first weekend we were open, we ran out of food”, she said, chuckling. “The weekdays are hard; I am here every single day of the week, except for Tuesdays, from 7 a.m. ‘till 11 p.m.” Hediye manages everything by being quick, levelheaded, and fair to everyone. She devotes herself to her business selflessly, and that is one of the reasons why it has been doing so well for so many years. “During the first ten years, Alan and I didn’t take our share of the proceeds, we kept it in the business to invest”. Hediye’s Café Zola is a reflection of herself and definitely a source of her pride. She therefore feels tremendous responsible and makes sure that the food, ambience, and customer service are always first-class.
|Omelette Provençale with feta cheese|
Café Zola is a popular spot for old and young, American and foreign, but it is also attracting many business people, particularly venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs who like networking professionally, making deals, or just getting down to work in the morning. There are lots of people working in downtown offices, so Zola is a prime place to meet with people; this is why a great deal of the decisions that influence Ann Arbor’s economy may take place at Café Zola. The staff at Café Zola is always happy to accommodate customers’ needs and requests. The location and the friendliness are notable factors of the café’s success. Zola also features local artists’ works on the brick walls, a reflection of its commitment to promoting Ann Arbor’s talent and to networking.
As far as digitally marketing Zola, Hediye wants to keep the online interaction to a minimum. A few years ago, Zola launched a beautiful website, and it has a Facebook page, a Twitter page, and presence on Yelp, Urbanspoon, and Tripadvisor, but Hediye strongly believes in engaging with her customers in person. “The restaurant experience is live entertainment, and it is not supposed to be with technology”, she said. She doesn’t feel that Café Zola needs to depend on social media to reach it’s customers because customers experience first-hand what Zola is. The memories from the real-time experience stay with them, more than a social media experience would ever be able to. With the online presence, however, out-of-towners can discover Café Zola—one of the gems of Ann Arbor. There are a lot of people associated with the University of Michigan like parents, alumni, football fans, and visiting scholars who seek out Ann Arbor attractions—and Café Zola is one of them.