Walking into Café Zola, the atmosphere is unlike other brunch spots in Ann Arbor — and that’s just what they’re going for.
Though many University of Michigan students may not be as familiar with the eatery as spots closer to campus — the cafe is near the intersection of West Washington Street and Main Street — Café Zola, part of the downtown Ann Arbor scene since March 1996, was busy with hungry customers on a recent Friday afternoon.
In an interview, manager Lucia Lagoy said the loyal, returning customers were the reason for the restaurant’s continued success. She estimated that 50 to 60 percent of all customers are returning customers, a feat achieved mainly through word of mouth rather than the restaurant’s active advertisements.
“Most of advertising really comes from word of mouth,” Lagoy said. “We don’t do a lot of print (or online) advertising. Once you come to eat here, you can’t help but talk about it and come back.”
Lagoy said the establishment only recently became part of OpenTable, an online restaurant reservation site. The restaurant is also now on Yelp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to attract new customers.
But the old customers keep coming back, Lagoy believes, for the restaurant’s unique menu. While Café Zola now calls itself as an “eclectic” restaurant, it began as a more traditional café, serving primarily coffee drinks and French pastry dishes such as crepes. The name “Café Zola” was inspired by French writer Emile Zola as the original breakfast and lunch menus were largely based on French cuisine and culture.
“The eclectic mix of food we offer sets us apart from other places,” Lagoy said.
Soon after the grand opening, co-founders and co-owners of the restaurant, Hediye Batu, from Turkey, and Alan Zakalik, from Poland, consulted with several local restaurant owners in Ann Arbor to include more dishes in their menu. The restaurant’s current menu is influenced by a variety of cultures in addition to French, including Mediterranean, Italian and Turkish.
Some of the most popular breakfast dishes are Turkish Eggs, Crab Cake Benedict, the vegetarian Artichoke Omelette, Belgian-style waffles and their crepes. The restaurant also offers a variety of coffee drinks, alcoholic drinks and fresh smoothies. Lagoy said because of the diverse nature of the menu, customers could enjoy a good range of meals.
“You can come in and have any range of meal here,” Lagoy said. “It’s a great place to come with friends and pick out a few items for everyone to share.”
Lagoy said having a large menu for a restaurant is a double-edged sword, but for Café Zola, it hasn’t been an issue. The restaurant has won the title of Best Brunch in Washtenaw County in 2014 and was a runner-up for Best Breakfast in Ann Arbor in 2014 and 2015.
“What makes our brunch menu really great is that it’s huge,” Lagoy said. “Sometimes that could be a bad thing because it’s hard to get everything right. We do it really well because there is a commitment to making sure that the ingredients and recipes are high quality.”
Lagoy also cited the high quality of the ingredients as key to the restaurant’s success. She said Café Zola uses local, organic produce not only for their dishes but also their coffee, tea and wine. Lagoy said using good, fresh ingredients really makes a difference in the final prepared dish, citing eggs that come from a local Amish farm in Dexter.
“The owners feel very strong about staying true to the quality of the ingredients,” Lagoy said. “We are providing the best for our customers. (The food) nourishes their bodies without feeling ‘ugh.’ Our egg dishes taste so good because it’s the egg itself that tastes good.”
Lagoy also noted the design of the restaurant creates a “rustic” ambience that makes the customers feel like they are not just having a meal with their party, but with the rest of the restaurant, creating a community of diners.
For that reason, Lagoy said though the restaurant is doing well, she does not want to expand the restaurant so much that it loses the rustic, cordial ambience.
“We always want to build our customer base, but we don’t want it to become so big that we lose what we’re able to offer right now and become too mainstream,” Lagoy said. “It’s a destination place for the food and the ambience.”
Medical and Rackham student Anjan Saha, who's eaten at the cafe for brunch, said he appreciated the excellent food and service despite how busy the restaurant was.
"Brunch time on Sunday is extremely busy as one would expect for a place that is held in high regard amongst many in AA," said Saha. "(I) waited at most ten minutes for my food, which was excellent. Personnel were extremely nice, warm, and accommodating. Place is perfect for group outings, brunch dates, or enjoying a nice meal alone."
In spite of the positive things about his brunch experience, however, Saha did note that the price might be too high for students.
"The only knock I have against (the restaurant) is the price, since students don't necessarily earn the largest sum of money," Saha said.