Leo Zlaket: leader, cook, community icon

LEO ZLAKET in his family market on Main Street in Garden Grove (Zlaket family photo).

If there’s one institution in Garden Grove that connected the community’s early rural days to its busy and crowded present, it was Zlaket’s Market on Main Street, a family business established in 1927.

Generations of locals made weekly or even daily stops at that small but mighty store, going in to buy meats, cheeses, soda pop and a myriad of other things.

When it closed down on Nov. 26, 2014, long-timers in town had reason to mourn. This week, Leo Zlaket, the last owner of the market, passed away, giving us all more reason to wear the black crepe in our hearts.

Leo was 77 when he died, and in that too-short life, he saw the city’s downtown change from the center of a modest agricultural town to the historic heart of an urban metropolis. In those years, he worked and led, fed us, swept up and swapped tales. Stepping into Zlaket’s was a bit of time travel, with the glowing Purex clock on the back wall and Nesbitt orange soda in a cooler near the door.

I didn’t know Leo as well as some, but nearly every encounter with him was pleasant and rewarding. We bought our Thanksgiving turkeys from him and his wife Virginia. If you needed some exotic cheese, he would find a way to order it. If you wanted to hear the latest buzz on Main Street (originally Euclid Street), well, he would have some of that for you, too. No extra charge.

He was a modest man who appreciated the ironies of life and didn’t mind poking a little fun at himself. We often exchanged non-heroic stories about our stints in military reserve units.

One that stood out was what he called “The Battle of Watts.” A cook for a National Guard unit on its way to a field exercise at Camp San Luis Obispo, his whole convoy was turned around midway and sent south to help restore order during that riot in the summer of 1965.

ZLAKET’S MARKET (File photo).

Appropriately enough for a chef, he found himself standing guard with an M-1 rifle outside a Ralphs supermarket.  As the saying goes, all gave some.

As the city changed and buying habits changed, Zlaket’s found its place in the 21st century economy getting more and more tentative. Toward the end, the market was kept open as much as a gift to the community as it was as a business.

Like his market with its neon sign and blue awning, Leo Zlaket was a gift to the community as well. He helped see it through breakneck change and good and bad times. Together with Virginia and their son, David, the family donated more money and volunteered much more time than their share.

It’s said that Leo loved Garden Grove. It’s fair to say that a lot of Garden Grove loved him back.

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted on alternate Wednesdays. Jim’s favorite sandwich at their deli was cold pastrami on rye. Can’t find one like that anywhere.


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