Tom Hanson, founder of Zorbaz chain, dies at age 70

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- The man who founded Minnesota's Zorbaz restaurant chain has died. Tom Hanson launched Zorbaz more than 45 years ago in a former candy store on the Detroit Lakes beach. Back then, he was a 23-year-old drama and debate teach...

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- The man who founded Minnesota’s Zorbaz restaurant chain has died.

Tom Hanson launched Zorbaz more than 45 years ago in a former candy store on the Detroit Lakes beach.

Back then, he was a 23-year-old drama and debate teacher and coach, and Zorbaz was only open in the summertime, when school was out.

Under his leadership, Zorbaz grew to 11 locations, all on a Minnesota lake, and all but three of them open year-round.

Hanson was 70 when he died Friday after a nine-year battle with throat cancer.


Where it came from is a mystery.

“He never smoked a day in his life,” said Mike Gunderson of Detroit Lakes, a longtime friend and business associate.

Even though he became a business owner, Hanson never stopped using his teaching and coaching skills, Gunderson said.

“He was a master of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer painting the fence – make work look easy,” he said. “All his managers were taught to do their best and make Zorbaz the best.”

His business model also rewarded hard work and company loyalty.

Hanson loved life, and wasn’t afraid to live it, Gunderson said.

He and his wife of 46 years, Terry Jo, lived on Lake Melissa, across the road from the Detroit Country Club that they loved.

A lifelong promoter of golf in the Detroit Lakes area, Hanson played in 39 Pine to Palm tournaments.


He was a co-founder of the hugely popular Pizza Masterz tournament, which has been played at the Detroit Country Club since 1974. Proceeds go to maintain a nearby park.

Hanson, who wintered in Arizona, played golf several times a week, year-round, and Gunderson was usually with him, he said.

“He never let a day go by where he did not take advantage of his waking hours ... Tom’s passion was family, travel, golf and an occasional wager.”

He loved his collection of classic cars, Gunderson said.

The year 1969 was a good one for Hanson. That’s the year he got married and the year he started Zorbaz.

The favorite in his classic car collection was a 1969 Mustang Cobra that he bought two years ago, Gunderson said.

When it came to poker, Hanson was extremely skilled, and had nerves of steel, Gunderson said.

A few years back he won a $100,000 poker tournament in Las Vegas, playing mostly against professionals he knew from TV.


At one point, Gunderson said, Hanson was winning and the other players, pointing out that they were professionals and he would surely lose in the long run, offered to split his winnings and let him walk away with something.

“No way,” he said, and went on to beat them all.

Hanson also was a “tremendously generous man,” Gunderson said, who cared deeply about Detroit Lakes and was active in the community – most recently in the effort to build the Detroit Mountain Recreation Area.

“It’s a tremendous loss for our community,” said Detroit Lakes Mayor Matt Brenk.

As much as anyone, Brenk said, Hanson helped create the destination place that Detroit Lakes is today.

“I know how proud he was of his hometown and he was always willing to participate in anything that made it better,” Brenk said.

“He was a big reason that the Detroit Mountain Recreation Area is a reality. He even supported the local food and beverage tax, knowing that his restaurants would be paying a significant portion of those revenues, because he knew that some of those monies would go to fight the flowering rush problem in the lake.”

In an interview a few years ago, Hanson talked about the philosophy behind his pub.


“I called it Zorbaz at the Beach,” he said  - a reference to the movie ‘Zorba the Greek,’ which starred Anthony Quinn as “a man who was fun-loving, carefree, and would gulp life instead of sip it,” he added. “That’s what we wanted to be - a fun-loving, carefree business.”

Though the menu basically consisted of “a couple of sizes of semi-frozen pizza and a couple of beers on tap,” Zorbaz quickly grew into a popular hangout with the summer crowd in Detroit Lakes.

The menu has expanded a great deal. After a few years of running the Zorbaz restaurant in the summer and a couple of places in California during the winter, Hanson took on a partner, Rick Jansen.

“He was my cook at my restaurants in California that I started in the mid-70s,” Hanson said. “He picked up some Mexican dishes from a couple of Hispanic cooks that worked there. We also started doing our pizzas from scratch, with all fresh ingredients.”

He also peppered his menu with Zs, serving zaladz instead of salads.

The drink menu also expanded from a couple of tap beers to a full-service bar that included hundreds of varieties of beer and ale on tap.

The growth really started to take off in 1983, when Hanson acquired Babe’s Resort on Little Pine Lake in Perham, and opened a second Zorbaz there.

Over the next 30-plus years, 13 more Zorbaz opened around Minnesota, though not all of them were as successful as the first one.


“Three of them aren’t there anymore,” Hanson said in the interview.

“What we learned from the three that closed,” he added, “is that none of them were on a lake, which seems to be the No. 1 component of what our brand is today.”

Hanson stepped back from actively running Zorbaz in 2006, but it remains in family hands.

Hanson’s son Kevin is the operating partner at the most recently opened Zorbaz, in Alexandria, and his oldest son Cole now serves as CEO and owner of the company.

A celebration of life service for Tom Hanson will be from 1 to 4 p.m. Aug. 20 at the Detroit Country Club.

What To Read Next
Get Local