It’s 2 p.m. on a Friday, and Scott Brown seems way too calm. For a guy who just celebrated one full year as chef/owner of his first restaurant, Zeoli’s Italian in Clawson — not to mention his toddler son’s second year of life — he has his hands full.
Luckily, his wife and the restaurant’s co-owner, Meaghan Zeoli-Brown, is also a yoga instructor. That’s a plus because in a thoroughly hands-on business with long and sometimes lean days, the stress can be intense.
But the cool and collected 46-year-old chef is well-versed in the realities of the restaurant world. The Fowlerville native has worked in a host of Oakland County kitchens since he was a 14-year-old student at Royal Oak’s Kimball High School, starting as a dishwasher at a now-gone Ponderosa restaurant not far from his current location. He worked his way up at well-known eateries such as Mr. B’s, Max & Erma’s, Wabeek Country Club and D’Amato’s. Most recently, he was executive chef at Lily’s Seafood in Royal Oak for 13 years.
Buzz From the Beginning
So many new restaurants fail in their first year because they don’t have budgets for advertising or marketing, but Zeoli’s generated good buzz even before it opened. Brown billed his restaurant as serving healthy, modern Italian food, and he had a solid business plan in place.
Joan Horton, executive director of Clawson’s Downtown Development Authority, was happy to welcome Zeoli’s to the city’s growing cadre of restaurants and one-of-a-kind merchants, and she helped promote Zeoli’s online presence via Facebook.
“Scott is such a nice guy. He did his homework and knew what to do to start a business,” Horton says. “He was just a joy to work with.”
“We were busy right off the bat — that initial push of all the people who knew about us — but then you get into the winter with 10 inches of snow, you’re slow,” Brown says. “Everybody is slow. I refuse to close on days like that.”
He recalls one huge snow day, a Monday, when only 10 customers came in all day. “But that gave me the opportunity to go up to each one of them, thank them for coming in, braving the weather, and have good conversations with everyone,” he says. “Now, they’re regulars here.”
Zeoli’s is casually cool and industrial-chic, done up in an Italian racing motif that includes vintage racing posters and a slick Ducati racing motorcycle parked near the bar in the back.
Reclaimed-wood booths were made from Zeoli-Brown’s parents’ deck. Her dad, Phil Zeoli, built the countertops, and her sister’s company, Z&G Renovations of Ray, Mich., did the interior and exterior remodeling of what was once a grocery store. The rooms are filled with light, modern tables and cement floors; a great sound system plays the Rolling Stones and other classic rock. At the bar, you’ll find a wide selection of craft beers, wines, signature cocktails and — during brunch service — a Bloody Mary bar.
The nearly 100-seat restaurant is suitable for clubs, pizza parties and events of all kinds. The restaurant is also the clubhouse for the Detroit Desmo Owners Club and Oakland County Football Club.
“I wanted to create a space where everyone can sit down at the table and just enjoy their time together,” Brown says.
Brown has assembled an ambitious menu of what he calls “modern Italian” delights — appetizers such as fried, Gorgonzola-stuffed green olives; calamari and salmon rissoles; hearty soups and salads; burgers; sandwiches; and six types of pizza.
A well-rounded list of entrees includes steak, salmon, chicken, pork chops and several pasta dishes. While the pasta isn’t house made, all of Brown’s sauces are from scratch, pan-sauced and assembled per order.
“What I’m happiest about is the feedback we get on the flavor,” says the chef. “It’s multidimensional flavor, which is why I love Italian food because it’s multidimensional to begin with. You can have four ingredients, but it’s the best-tasting thing you’ve ever had.”
Vegans, vegetarians and gluten-free diners will find several ways to fill their bellies, and kids have a choice of four dishes that come with milk, sliced apples and a cookie. Adults can top off the mangia fest with a cannoli, cheesecake, tiramisu or lemon gelato.
So how does Brown stay so serene in the up-and-down restaurant world?
“I’m a recovering alcoholic. Sober 10 years. I’m proud of it,” he says. “It’s a well-known problem in the industry. I got three DUIs and couldn’t drive for nine years and had to ride my bike to work. I want people to know there is a way to excel in this business and not go out and party every night.
“I had a really supportive ownership at Lily’s that backed me. Once I removed alcohol from my life, I got my driver’s license back, met my wife, we got pregnant and I got a small business loan.”
Life isn’t any easier now, Brown says, noting that “you have to roll with it.”
“I’m a hands-on chef and owner,” he says. “You have to wash dishes and scrub floors. It’s about communicating with your staff and suppliers and letting them know your forecast for the week, the month — and you just have to stay positive through the slow times, knowing that these are the growing pains that every (independent) restaurant goes through.”
Zeoli’s Italian is located at 110 E. 14 Mile Road, Clawson, MI 48017. Call 248-397-8050 or visit zeolisitalian.com for more information.