FutureHeights will celebrate John Zagara on July 29

John Zagara

The Zagara family name was synonymous with quality grocery stores in the Cleveland area for more than eight decades. In late 2022, John Zagara made the difficult decision to retire from the grocery business, but the impact he and his family had on the community will be long remembered. This month, FutureHeights will honor John Zagara as Person of the Year at the nonprofit's annual benefit.

John Zagara's grandfather, Charles (Pa) Zagara, was an Italian immigrant and WWI veteran who settled in Cleveland after he returned from the war. Bricklaying turned to bar ownership post-Prohibition—a business Zagara expanded into a neighborhood bodega.

Zagara transitioned a print advertising business in Sav-Mor into his first larger-scale grocery in 1936. Throughout the 1940s, Zagara expanded the Sav-Mor brand of stores outward from Mount Pleasant, with the help and support of his sons, Tom, Joe, and Frank. 

Frank Zagara helped take the helm of the family grocery business in 1962, after the passing of his oldest brother, Tom, at 41. John Zagara described his Uncle Tom as “an astute businessman," noting that "the aggressiveness that he had in building the business subsided a bit [with his death], and they were just trying to take care of what they had.” 

During his high school years, John helped out at the family stores, then attended Syracuse University where he studied business and accounting. After college, he stayed in New York, working for the accounting firm Price Waterhouse as an auditor, and later for MasterCard.

In 1988, the Zagara business expanded to Cleveland Heights, taking over the space formerly held by Gale’s Bi-Right on Lee Road.

John did not originally plan on returning to the family business. When his older brother, Frank Jr., fell ill and passed away, John helped run the stores while his father and mother grieved. “You kind of make these sacrifices out of love, and not so much glory,” said Zagara.

After taking over as president of the company in 1996, Zagara solidified the deep roots and connection his business had with the community. Of his father, John said, “He was embedded in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. He always understood there was no business without community. . . . Becoming part of the neighborhood, I learned that from him early on.”

In Cleveland Heights, John Zagara made connections through the Cedar Lee Special Improvement District; he was a large stakeholder in its inception and in its development as a community of businesses.

As the business district develops further, Zagara said, “I want to see continued connection with the consumer and the community—to keep developing what they need. It’s not always easy, because we don’t have a master plan like a developer would. This is independent businesses coming together trying to complement one another.”

Join FutureHeights in honoring John Zagara at its annual benefit, A Summer Night's Dream, on Saturday, July 29, at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes. Guests will partake of live music, dancing, delicious bites and libations from some of the Heights' finest establishments, plus live performances and art from local artists. FutureHeights promises surprises around every turn. To purchase tickets, or become a sponsor, visit https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/summersnightdream, or call 216-320-1423. 

Emily Bean and Jason Hallaman

Emily Bean and Jason Hallaman are the owners of Mitchell's Fine Chocolates, in the Cedar Lee Business District.

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Volume 16, Issue 7, Posted 9:50 AM, 06.27.2023