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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

Profile: Stephen Zolezzi

A Voice for County Restaurateurs

Food and Beverage Leader

Stephen Zolezzi Stays On-Call

For Local Pubs and Eateries

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Staff Writer

ecades ago, the crowded San Diego harborfront fish markets fascinated a young Stephen Zolezzi, who often helped on his dad’s fishing boat.

After they docked, close to where Seaport Village is now located, Zolezzi would enjoy the bartering and the bustle.

“There was always lots of stuff going on with the crew,” he recalls. “Lots of people working and trucks coming in, watching the guys butchering the big fish It’s exciting stuff when you’re a kid.”

Zolezzi recalls this as he sits in his Mission Valley office, where he works as executive vice president of the Food & Beverage Association of San Diego County.

a former restaurateur, Zolezzi recounts a comment that suits the industry: “If you can deal with 25 disasters in one day, at least, you should consider getting into the restaurant business.”

His job follows the association’s goals: Keep members safe, legal and help them to make money.

The latter can be a challenge. “There’s nothing given away in San Diego,” Zolezzi says.

Zolezzi has talked to people who have come from other cities and opened establishments in San Diego.

“Their response is, ‘If you can make it in San Diego, you can make it any place in this country,'” he says. “San Diego is a tight market. It’s very competitive, it’s very price-conscious and it’s not very forgiving. You need to make sure you have your act together from Day One. You can’t afford to make many mistakes.”

Zolezzi stepped away from the daily crunch a little more than four years ago but continues to relish the business and its intricacies.

“The restaurant industry is very demanding,” he explains. “It is a lot of little things that add up to the end product that’s presented to the customer, and so those details take a lot of energy.”

Political Ties

In his position, Zolezzi often advocates political issues for local bars and restaurants. A week might include a conference call with a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., about the tip tax relief bill introduced last year, or talking to Cambridge, Mass.-based Polaroid Corp. about potential driver’s license technology that could combat fake identification cards.

Zolezzi takes part in national and local organizations, from the National License Beverage Association to the San Diego Crime Commission and the San Diego Employers Advisory Council.

He also runs classes for management certification and responsible alcohol service.

One of the most important jobs is being there for the association members’ immediate questions. The calls can be about labor issues, such as the new overtime law, or a run-in with some of the policing groups.

With the craziness of the restaurant business, owners tend to be so busy with their establishments it’s tough to track how new laws affect them.

David Cohn, of the locally based Cohn Restaurant Group, runs several establishments Downtown and in the Hillcrest area and appreciates the job Zolezzi does. “This is the kind of business that takes 80 hours a week,” Cohn explains. “Whereas in other businesses, it’s easier for people to get out and network and know the community, understand agencies and such, restaurant people tend to be in their restaurants taking care of guests.

“It’s important to have a voice out there who can do those things that you’d like to do if you had the time.”

Mark Gorski, president of the county’s Food & Beverage Association this year, says Zolezzi is the reason he became involved with the group. “He’s a pleasant man to be with and he likes to get things done.

“He’s easy to talk to and very helpful; he’s willing to go out of his way to do anything he can to help you in his business, because he has all the experience in it,” says Gorski, owner and general manager of the Ocean Beach bar Bullfrogs. “He’s the kind of guy who likes to spread the knowledge around, which is nice.”

An Insider’s View

The fact Zolezzi had his own restaurant is also important, according to Cohn. Zolezzi understands last-minute problems, such as a cook or server not showing up for work, Cohn says.

“It’s huge,” he says. “He’s the kind of guy who knows you don’t call restaurants at noon.”

Besides his childhood fascination with his father’s fishing business, Zolezzi’s restaurant roots run deep. At age 13, Zolezzi began working at his cousin Joe’s deli in Pacific Beach. He washed dishes, mopped floors, sliced cold cuts and stocked shelves. He ground meat, waited tables and later did some cooking.

Coming from a close-knit family, the job was his first step into the “real world,” he recalls.

In the midst of it all, his cousin became a mentor, Zolezzi says. The restaurant had opened just a few months before Zolezzi began working there, so he learned about starting a business.

At age 18, soon after his high school graduation, his father’s health problems pushed Zolezzi to open his own deli and support the family. In May 1965, Zolezzi’s Italian Delicatessen and Restaurant opened in Hillcrest. It eventually moved to a nearby location and became a white-tablecloth establishment, Stefano’s.

He later helped found the Hillcrest Business Association and other programs to augment the area’s business.

Located a block from a telephone company with 900 employees, lunch business was strong. Soon after Zolezzi turned 21, he began to develop the deli’s retail, including an extensive wine collection for which he and some others in the local industry traveled to Napa and other spots in California’s wine country.

He also started several other establishments in Hillcrest, including the French bistro La Pettit Caf & #233; in 1977 and Columbos Bakery in 1982.

During a short-lived venture into a second Zolezzi’s on India Street, Zolezzi met his wife, Katherine. This year, the couple will celebrate their silver anniversary. Their daughter, Ellen, 22, is studying theater at the Boston Conservatory, and their 20-year-old son, Christopher, is at Mesa College, preparing to transfer to a university architectural program.

Dedicated To The Job

Thinking back to his restaurant’s early days three decades ago, Zolezzi recalls a lot of hard work. He didn’t have the time to pursue school. Working 16 to 18 hours daily and making the restaurant profitable taught him plenty.

“That’s the work ethic I developed and have maintained to this day,” he said. “That’s the way I tackle the challenges of the Food & Beverage Association.”

Those challenges began in 1994, when the Food & Beverage Association sought a reorganization. Zolezzi, who had been elected to its board of directors, agreed to become the group’s part-time executive director for the interim. Tiring of the hectic business, he sold his restaurant and began to work for the association full-time, as its only paid executive.

“It was really a matter of timing, and of circumstances that all fell together,” he recalls.

Zolezzi spent 1995 essentially rebuilding the association, establishing its services and reputation. He needed to develop reasons for members to join. At the time, there were less than 70 members, he says.

Now, 550 restaurants, bars and clubs belong to the group, and Zolezzi hopes for more of them after its upcoming membership drive. And he’s pleased to be involved with this business.

“From the time I started working for my cousin in Pacific Beach, as I developed there, I really knew at that point that this was an industry that I wanted to be in for the rest of my life,” Zolezzi says. “I really do enjoy working with the public. I enjoy the kinds of things that this industry has to offer as an industry and also the relationship back to the products.”

He mentions working with family members in the produce and fishing industries, and the friends he developed during trips to wineries.

“The people who are in the (food and restaurant business) tend to be very genuine, hard-working people. Developing those ties with people like that , it’s a great industry to be in. It’s challenging, but it’s a great industry to be in.”


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