Walking down the panel lined corridors of Zorn’s, adorned with inspirational messages, is almost like taking a journey back through time and that’s just fine with CEO/president Merrill Zorn, who has been working at her family’s business since she was 7-years-old.
“I worked here my entire life and started out making the tops of pot pies with Dougie, one of the main cooks back then,” said Zorn.
The only girl of six siblings, Zorn has always worked closely with her dad in running the Bethpage store and took over the business when he passed away last year. The Zorn family immigrated to America from Germany and began to run poultry farms, selling only wholesale. By 1930, the Zorn family owned and operated eight poultry farms on Long Island and one in New Jersey.
“When my grandfather opened this store in 1939, even though he was a chicken farmer, he decided to raise and sell turkeys retail,” she said. “He was told, ‘absolutely not, you cannot do that, you will lose your shirt. This is not going to work. You can’t sell retail on Long Island.’”
He ignored the naysayers and grabbed a four-by-eight piece of plywood and wrote on it, “Buy your fresh turkeys here.” He put it out on Hempstead Turnpike and that was the start of his empire.
Zorn’s of Bethpage started on 10 acres. The original store is still standing and most of the land was sold off to make way for St. Joseph Hospital and the Seaford Oyster Bay Expressway.
As the years moved on and Long Island transformed from an agrarian island to a crowded suburbia, many farms became shopping centers and housing developments as veterans returned from World War II. The store has many of the original signs and advertisements as you walk in, giving the visitor a sense of a bygone time when people didn’t lock their doors and weren’t afraid to go out to a show or dinner or a sports event.
Tradition is important to Zorn, along with giving back to the community and valuing the work of her staff. Recently, the marquee outside the store congratulated Frank Saccio for his dedicated service for 50 years, underscoring Zorn’s belief in tradition.
“The family tradition and my staff are the most important to me,” she said. “It is important to keep up the tradition of who we are, and staying true to our roots, keeping our recipes to five or seven ingredients, all natural and not cutting corners. My staff is so important to me. I want them to come to work happy.”
In an era when food is processed and filled with chemicals and preservatives. Zorn has resisted going that route and keeps everything homemade from scratch. She admits that it is a lot of hard work and it is not easy staying on top of food quality and making sure the recipes are followed.
“I don’t know if our customers realize what goes into cutting celery by hand and hand peeling potatoes,” she said. “Everything here is fresh. It doesn’t even come in bagged, it comes in fresh and we prepare it. Our turkeys are all hand sliced. Our chicken pot pies and chicken noodle soup are all handmade. Whatever chicken is not used today is chilled, de-boned and put into soup.”
Giving back to Long Island is extremely important to Zorn.
“We donate food to Island Harvest every week and we were one of the first companies to do so almost when they started,” she said, adding that Island Harvest acknowledged the generous donations by putting Zorn’s on their trucks for a time. “We try to do the best for the environment. We recycle our cardboard and all of the fat from our poultry.”
She is also a big supporter of the veterans and is very close friends with a few Tuskegee Airmen and WWII veterans.
“I just think we owe so much to our veterans. I belong to the Huntington Rotary,” she said. “Veterans should not be homeless. A homeless veteran sounds like an oxymoron. How is that possible?”
Zorn’s office is filled with many awards and citations for her philanthropy and this past summer she received the Bethpage Chamber of Commerce 2015 Member of the Year for her business leadership, dedication to the community and to commemorate Zorn’s of Bethpage’s 75 years of serving Long Island.
“I am truly grateful and blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful people,” she said. “I was once told by a customer that Zorn’s is not yours, it belongs to Long Island and it belongs to us. You know what, I’m good with that.”
Zorn’s is located at 4321 Hempstead Tpke. in Bethpage and can be reached at 516-731-5500.