PUBLISHED BY LONG ISLAND BUSINESS NEWS
Written By David Winzelberg September 7, 2018
Merrill Zorn was barely out of Kindergarten when she began helping out at her family’s food take-out and catering business.
At the time, the Zorn’s complex in Bethpage took up 10 acres and included a sprawling poultry farm, processing plant and a bustling retail store. The lone sister to five brothers, Zorn learned the business from the ground up and after most of her siblings eventually flew the coop and went on to other careers, she’s carried the family’s legacy into the new millennium.
Now some 50 years after she first got behind the counter, the plucky Zorn is embarking on a multi-million dollar project that will bring Zorn’s of Bethpage into the 21st century and preserve the long tradition of a Long Island institution.
Zorn’s new 8,000-square-foot building will contain a retail store and commercial kitchen with all new equipment. It will also feature some dine-in seating, something its customers have long been clamoring for. The existing store will remain in operation during the construction of the new building which is slated to open in the first quarter of next year.
The new building will occupy Zorn’s last acre, as most of its property has been sold off for other uses over the years. Most of the family’s original 10 acres on Hempstead Turnpike were whittled down decades ago after some of the land was sold to build the Seaford Oyster Bay Expressway to the east and what’s now St. Joseph Hospital to the west.
Zorn is selling three of the remaining 4 acres to Honda City, which will be moving its automobile dealership from its current location down the road. Despite its smaller overall footprint, Zorn’s will retain all of its 65 employees, some of who have worked for the company for more than 20 years.
“Really I’m starting from scratch,” Zorn says of the business’ transformation and consolidation.
Zorn’s is a classic coming-to-America success story. A few years after her grandfather Peter and her great grandfather Josef emigrated from Germany in the 1920s, the Zorns began raising chickens and turkeys and by the 1930s, the family owned eight poultry farms on Long Island and one in New Jersey. One of the larger ones, a 360-acre turkey farm in Hauppauge, later became the Stonebridge Country Club.
In 1940, Peter Zorn began selling turkeys out of a cement-block building on the Bethpage property. Ten years later, the current retail store was opened and customers started flocking there from all over the Island.
There haven’t been live birds or other animals at the Zorn’s Bethpage site for many years. The poultry farm ceased operations in the 1970s and the small zoo/farm that was a favorite of area youngsters closed in the 1990s. Since then, Zorn’s has procured its chickens and turkeys from contracted farms.
While most of the fourth generation of Zorns are no longer in the food business on Long Island, Merrill’s brother Peter Zorn continues to run Zorn’s of Bellmore on Merrick Road, though she said the two businesses are owned and operated separately.
Other family members have been active in the new Bethpage project. The demolition and excavation at the site was led by Zorn Industries, a company owned by cousins, Kevin and Michael Zorn.
“That was incredibly personal to me,” Merrill Zorn said. “It was hard to watch and take part in the removal of our buildings. However, making this a family affair and keeping my family involved in doing the work made it much easier.”
And while the new Zorn’s of Bethpage undergoes its major transformation, the store will retain its recognizable blue-and-white branding and Zorn says customers can expect the same familiar fresh favorites, including its hand-cut salads, hand-peeled potatoes and skinless fried chicken cooked in cholesterol-free soybean oil.
“If it’s not in your kitchen, it’s not in our food,” Zorn likes to say. “We do things the hard way.”
Over the years, that attention to detail and adherence to original family recipes has endeared Zorn’s to its loyal legions of patrons.
“Everyone loves Zorn’s. It’s a destination,” said Francesca Carlow, president of the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce, who is especially fond of Zorn’s creamed spinach. “It’s a flavor of Long Island that’s been around for a very long time.”
Linda Armyn, senior vice president for corporate affairs at Bethpage Federal Credit Union, which is financing the Zorn’s construction project, said Zorn’s has been a family tradition for so many Long Islanders.
“The Bethpage farm and store holds many memories for me and my family throughout the years,” Armyn said. “We are happy to be a part of Zorn’s past and future.”
She said Zorn’s catered the credit union’s VIP tent at this year’s Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach feeding nearly 3,000 people on Memorial Day Weekend.
“They are also very generous and community minded,” Armyn said of Zorn’s. “They regularly work with Island Harvest to ensure food is not wasted and given to families who need it.”
In fact, Zorn’s has donated more than 33,000 meals to Island Harvest over the last five years, according to the food bank’s CEO Randi Shubin Dresner. She added that Zorn’s has been involved with the nonprofit since the 1990s.
“Merrill Zorn and the team at Zorn’s are really dedicated to the community and the partnership that we share is very meaningful and touches many lives,” Dresner said. “We believe that they are a great example of how a company can give back.”
Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino called Zorn’s “one of Long Island’s most iconic and popular” takeout and catering businesses.
“Everyone loves Zorn’s and a picnic is not complete without a bucket of their famous fried chicken,” Saladino said via email. “I wish them well in the construction of their new building and I know they will continue to be an important fixture in our local community for years to come.”
Meanwhile, in the midst of the changes to her business, Zorn pledges to remain true to tradition.
“I’d like to stay as original and authentic as possible,” she said. “A customer once told me ‘Zorn’s is not yours. It belongs to Long Island.’”