At 68 years old, the Laguna Beach resident joked that he was on the brink of retirement. When longtime ZPizza customer Anton Segerstrom told him about the space at South Coast Plaza he oversees, it offered up a creative challenge that Fanarof could not refuse.
They created the concept in 90 days — renovating the space, hiring a team and creating a menu.
It was a family affair, said Fanarof, whose wife, Claire, helped and son Joseph contributed vibrant photographs of succulents to don the walls.
"We finished the menu two weeks prior to opening," he said.
Fresh chef, fresh ideas
Fanarof reached out to the Culinary Art Institute in Santa Ana to look for a young chef to help him on the new venture.
Recent graduate Galen Duckles, 29, applied for the head chef job on a whim, never thinking he would get it.
Fanarof invited Duckles to his home, where they whipped up some food, proving that he was the right guy for the fresh, environmentally conscious eatery.
Duckles' thoughtfulness shows in the kitchen, where he creates ricotta from scratch, makes his own salad dressings and pickles vegetables.
"When you feel good about feeding people … nothing is better than that," Duckles said.
The chef also mentioned that ZCafe wants to be conscious about everything, not just the food.
He pointed out that ZCafe uses organic products, nitrate-free meats and all-natural chicken. Even the to-go boxes are made from corn.
Two weeks after its official opening, Fanarof said he "couldn't be happier with the reaction."
As for another ZCafe in the works, he said he takes things one day at a time.
25 years and more
This year celebrates the 25th anniversary of the first ZPizza location in Laguna Beach at 30902 S. Coast Hwy.
Fanarof joked that the brand has come full circle since its inception.
He originally wanted to open a healthy Mexican eatery in Laguna, but the space he found was aimed for pizza making, and after trying the first California Pizza Kitchen, he felt inspired to make "gourmet pizza for the masses."
"I was inspired by them and now they gave me a second opportunity," he said of CPK, whose fast casual concept, CPK ASAP, had held the ZCafe space before.
Growing up in East Los Angeles, Mexican food has always had a hold on Fanarof; his 1986 Mexican concept still lingers.
"Who knows?" he said. "Maybe my taco stand is next."