Al Zone fondly recalls so many after-school visits with his grandfather to the Elmwood Park Zoo. Now, after many business lessons learned on the football ﬁeld and an ongoing career in catering, he is leading the zoo through enormous growth and improvements, particularly stunning because it had been set to close just before he took over as CEO of the Norristown (Pennsylvania) Zoological Society.
“I want to tell stories,” he said of the zoo’s reinvention, and he wants it to serve as “a community partner and a community center” as it helps lead the Montgomery County seat’s revitalization.
Area residents already feel connected to Elmwood Park: they average three or four visits a year, contrasted to the one visit every three or four years that the Philadelphia Zoo experiences.
Zoo staffers increased that allure by making it the world’s ﬁrst autism-certiﬁed zoo (early hours, quiet areas, sound-canceling headphones) and the nation’s ﬁrst pet-friendly zoo (tested for three years with staffers’ dogs).
A $150 million master plan calls for expanding from 16 acres to 64, increasing its animal count from 115 species to nearly 300 and building a veterinary hospital for exotics. That’s on top of growth marked since his May 16, 2012, start date, going from 114,000 visitors a year to a million, 1,400 members to 60,000 and $1.5 million in revenue to $20 million.
Zone, who’s 44, grew up in close-knit Norristown (“everybody knew their neighbors”) and traces his heritage to four Sicilian grandparents. Growing up Italian involved “culture, art, history, family, cooking and music,” he said. “Even though I don’t speak Italian, it was just beautiful listening to my grandparents. Every Thursday, they would put up the boards and make pasta.”
To grow his business, his grandfather Albert Anthony anglicized the spelling and pronunciation of his Zona surname. His father, Albert Anthony Jr., tried to avoid the banking confusion that he had by naming his son Albert Joseph. Citing the negative connotation of “growing up in the ‘Fat Albert’ era,” Zone calls himself Al, but his 16-year-old son sticks with Albert (James).
Zone played basketball, but after breaking his ankle in 10th grade, he chose a “less-intense” sport: football. He had the build (6 feet, 238 pounds), skills and drive to get a full scholarship to California University of Pennsylvania, where he was an outside linebacker. He thought he wanted to be a teacher but quickly switched majors, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration, magna cum laude.
He tried out for the Tennessee Titans and the Hamilton (Ontario) Tiger-Cats.
“Everything I use in business today I learned on the football ﬁeld,” he said. “My whole management style is more of a coaching style.”
After graduating from culinary school, he set up a catering business at Jeffersonville Golf Club in Norristown. When expanding, he asked his father to retire early, attend culinary school and help him run Zone’s Catering. His son also helps. The multicultural menu features some family recipes, like his grandmother’s garlicky meatballs. “My sapin is food as fashion,” he said. “People eat with their eyes.”
In 2008, he added the zoo’s food stands and catering. When he learned the zoo was deep in debt, he and father offered to help, ﬁ rst pro bono, then with him as interim business manager, interim director and CEO, following a staff appeal to him to apply. “They wrote letters. They wanted me,” he recalled. “If you asked me years ago if I’d run a zoo, I’d tell you it’s crazy, but I have to tell you it’s addicting. It’s so passionate here.”
There’s a strong link between catering and CEO’ing. “Everything you do in business is catering,” he said. “Everything you do in life is catering. You cater to your family, the people you work with. If you look at catering as the food on the plate, you have missed the whole meaning of the word. Everything we do here in the zoo experience is catering. We cater to every one of our guests.”
IF YOU GO
Zoos trace their lineage to animal collections started centuries ago by royalty, and many today still “have a stigma of just being animals in cages,” Al Zone said.
Not the Elmwood Park Zoo, one of just 238 facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, out of 30,000 worldwide. “The mission of the Elmwood Park Zoo is to foster an appreciation for wildlife and the environment that will inspire active participation in conservation,” according to ElmwoodParkZoo.org.
Collection highlights include giraffes, zebras, bald and golden eagles, jaguars and red pandas. Some species represent signiﬁ cant conservation success stories, such as the American bison, peregrine falcon, bald eagle and American alligator. Other species are managed to create future successes.
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