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Cooking Up A New Life


Sandor Zombori was on a mission. On a single winter night in 1993, he visited 14 of Manhattan's finest restaurants. Zombori ordered only an appetizer and water at each, but he watched everything. At some restaurants, the bottle of water thudded slightly as it landed on the table. At others, the collision was softened by a pad beneath the tablecloth. When Zombori returned home, he bought pads for each of the tables at Sandor's European Cuisine, his tiny but formidable restaurant in Seagrove Beach on Florida's Gulf Coast.

For Zombori, "good enough" doesn't exist. His restaurant, and his life, are proof. Since fleeing communist Hungary in 1970, he has had many successes, yet has never hesitated to reinvent himself in pursuit of the independence that every entrepreneur yearns for.

Zombori opened Sandor's in 1995 and quickly gained a following among vacationers looking for food a bit more sophisticated than the offerings at the local fried fish joints. At Sandor's, they found Tuscan white truffle tortelloni with aged asiago and white truffle milk and Chilean sea bass marinated in ginger and sake. Nearly 10 years later, the restaurant was named one of the state's best by Florida Trend magazine. Zombori's recipe for salsify soup has appeared in The New York Times.

But Sandor's is notable for more than just its food. In an industry where half of new restaurants fail in their first two years, and margins for the successes are only about 10%, Sandor's is an anomaly. Last year it brought in $500,000 with 60% profit margins.

Zombori has succeeded via a combination of culinary skill, bootstrapping tenacity, and contrarian business thinking. Most other chefs would have handed off the actual cooking to subordinates by now, but Zombori still prepares every meal himself. Most restaurants must turn their tables several times each evening just to break even, but patrons at Sandor's own their table for the night. And there are only 20 tables at Sandor's -- Zombori recently removed five, fearing that quality might slip.

In theory, anyone with an affinity for sleep deprivation and back-breaking work could do what Zombori did: leave a comfortable job at 44, work 16 hours a day, handle everything from wine purchases to garbage disposal, and work in others' kitchens gratis. In reality, it takes an extraordinary individual to maintain such resolve. Zombori, 61, says his motivation may not be so unusual. "I have a tremendous fear of failure," he says. "I know I cannot fail if I do not allow myself to fail. It's a matter of will."

DARING ESCAPE

Zombori's obsession with food began during a childhood in which it was scarce. Born in Szeged, Hungary, he spent 11 years in an orphanage after his parents were jailed as political prisoners. On his own at 18, he landed a spot on Hungary's Olympic judo team. But his status as an elite athlete didn't keep him from being sentenced to three months in a hard labor camp when he was found with a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, a Life magazine, and a six-pack of Coca-Cola. After his release, Zombori was desperate to leave Hungary. He and a friend endured 13 days of crawling through minefields, swimming across rivers, and hiding in coal trains to reach Austria. "I was either going to escape or they were going to kill me trying to escape," he says.

Once in the U.S., Zombori got his first break from fellow Hungarian George Lang, who gave him a job washing dishes in his New York restaurant Hungaria. Zombori learned English, volunteered to go to Vietnam as a Green Beret, and became a hardware engineer for Digital Equipment Corp. Still, he longed to open a restaurant of his own. "It was always in the back of my mind, the ultimate dream of the little boy who could never get enough to eat," he says.

In 1983, in the midst of a lousy meal at an Italian restaurant in Pensacola, Fla., Zombori decided the time had come. "It was one of the worst meals of my life, but the place was packed. I knew I could do better," he says. Newly married, Zombori kept his job at Digital while using $100,000 of his savings to open a pasta-making business. After three years of working both jobs, he walked away from Digital. He opened his own Italian restaurant in Pensacola, despite his father-in-law's prediction that he would soon go bankrupt. Zombori's place, called Pannonia Cafe, quickly moved into the black.

But a spaghetti-and-meatballs joint wasn't Zombori's true ambition, and he's not one to settle. He enrolled in Paris' Cordon Bleu, spending 14 months apart from his wife, Mary, who was expecting their first child. "That was very rough on all of us, but it was something I knew I had to do to take the next step," he says.

That next step was Sandor's, in Florida's booming South Walton area, where Zombori found a vacant building across from the beach. "I thought it would be a wonderful place to raise a family. It was a small building in a small community where I could know everyone. I desperately wanted to belong somewhere, and I knew this was it," he says. He borrowed $250,000 to buy the building and spent another $50,000 fixing it up. By the time Sandor's opened in March, 1995, Zombori had invested about $6,000 in each table. Zombori crafted a menu he describes as "French techniques with international flavor and no boundaries," incorporating Hungarian, Asian, and Moroccan influences.

Five months after Sandor's opened, Hurricane Opal struck. Sandor's was spared, but the area sustained major damage. With few customers, Zombori closed for the off-season. A call to a professor at the Cordon Bleu led to a chat with Eric Ripert of New York's Le Bernardin. Soon Zombori was working for him -- for free. "I was incredibly lucky to encounter someone like Eric Ripert, who taught me so much about fish," he says. Zombori worked as a busboy and saw how the world's top waiters treated customers. He learned how to buy fish and cut it most economically. Chefs taught him how to make elegant but simple dishes. "All the time, I am soaking it up, like a sponge, trying to learn as much as I can," he says.

Business at Sandor's was just picking up when the 1996 Olympics came to Atlanta, and many Atlantans stayed home rather than visit Florida's beaches. Sandor's barely survived. As it was, Zombori, his wife, and their two daughters were forced to live in the office in the back of the restaurant and in an RV parked outside. "That was one of the most humbling experiences of my life," Zombori says. "For many years I didn't worry about living through tough times, but now I was responsible for three people."

"LIVING MY DREAM "

After the Olympics, Sandor's rebounded quickly. Since 1997, revenues have grown by 30% a year; the average check is $100 a person. Zombori still runs a tight ship, employing only two waiters and a dishwasher while greeting every guest. And every winter he closes up shop to spend a few weeks in New York, working unpaid for a chance to learn from top chefs. Says Ripert: "I have never met anyone so driven -- not just to succeed, but also to keep raising the bar on himself."

Finally, Zombori is learning the value of his own time. He recently spent nearly $15,000 for an oven that lets him make dishes with long cooking times without having to hover over the stove. "I hate to spend money," Zombori says with a laugh, "but I've finally started to realize that something that allows me a little time to rest is a good thing."

Zombori knows what his obsession has cost him. "My family is my life," he says. "They understand why I'm away so much, but it's still hard sometimes." Most days his daughters Sara, 14, and Rebecca, 12, stop by after school for lunch with Dad. In January, for the first time, Zombori plans to skip his New York trip and take his family on a cruise.

He's also considering sharing his culinary skills at a local college. "Perhaps it is time I start giving something back, because I feel so lucky to be living my dream," he says. He has already started repaying one life-altering act of kindness: More than 30 years after he began working for George Lang, Zombori has hired a young Hungarian man to scrub pots and pans and is helping him get his U.S. citizenship. The two like to talk about America, and in those moments, Zombori always sports a big grin.

By Keith Dunnavant


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