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He Came to L.A. in a $15 Car in '27, and He Has Cooked Up Quite a Life

December 17, 1987|PAMELA MARIN | For The Times

"My brother and I came out to California in an old Dodge we bought for $15," said Leo Zendell, smiling, pausing briefly for effect-- a car for $15!-- then rattling along through stories that twisted and forked like country roads until they delivered Zendell to the present.

"Make it short, Leo," Lilyan Zendell gently urged her husband.

But even shortened, with whole decades lost to detours, Leo Zendell's life--81 years so far--made a scenic ride.

A retired grocery store owner, Zendell began supporting himself at age 13, when his mother died "and the family broke up," he said. After years of working in factories in the Midwest, Zendell and his brother bought the Dodge and headed west.

It was 1927. Leo and Gus Zendell took the southern route, slept in the car most nights, fixed the buggy themselves when it broke down and wore out a set of tires en route. "Of course, there weren't any highways back then," Zendell said, "so we just took our time."

Once they got to Los Angeles, Zendell wasted no time finding work: He opened the phone book to the grocery store listings--his family had worked in markets when Zendell was a youngster in Lafayette, Ind.--and caught a streetcar to the neighborhood Ralph's.

"I walked in, and there were 10 or 15 guys waiting to get jobs," Zendell said, remembering. "They gave me an application, and when it was my turn, I went in and Mr. Ralph (son of the founder, George Ralph) was sitting at this table. He read my application, but he didn't seem to be paying much attention. Then he looked up at me and just stared.

"I'd written on the application that I'd like to be a manager," Zendell said, his lively eyes widening. "That was my goal. Mr. Ralph said to me, 'You couldn't possibly be a manager at this stage of the game--my men work 10 years before they're made manager!' "

"I said: 'My intention isn't to be a manager when you hire me, but that is my ambition. That's what I want to be.' He looked at me hard, and I think he saw a spark of something. He said, 'OK, young man, when would you like to go to work?' I said, 'Right now, sir!'

"And that's how I got my first job in Los Angeles," Zendell said. "I went to work for Mr. Ralph that day."

Forty years later, the young man with spark and ambition owned his own markets, eight in all, in Los Angeles and Fresno.

Zendell retired in the '60s after suffering a heart attack and now lives comfortably in Leisure World in Laguna Hills with his second wife, Lilyan. Although a recent operation has kept him from the weekly deep-sea fishing trips he enjoyed for many years, Zendell lives an active life, cooking for family (16 at Thanksgiving, including his two grown daughters, Lilyan's son and their families), entertaining friends and neighbors, and voyaging daily to local restaurants for lunch. And, of course, Leo and Lilyan Zendell go to market every day.

"Lil is a fabulous baker and a terrific cook, too," Zendell said, looking at his wife affectionately. "I just put a few things together."

Each week, Orange County Life features a man who likes to cook and a favorite recipe. Tell us about your candidate. Write to Guys & Galleys, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa 92626. LEO'S SALMON CROQUETTES


1 large can (16 oz.) pink salmon (remove skin and bones)

1 egg

1 medium onion, grated

1 large carrot, finely grated

1/2 cup cooked rice

2 heaping tablespoons mayonnaise or salad dressing

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs

1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese

2 teaspoons margarine


Mix salmon, egg, onion, carrot, rice, mayonnaise and pepper until blended well. Form into five or six patties.

In a mixing bowl, combine bread crumbs and cheese. Roll each patty in bread-crumb mixture, then place on lightly greased cookie sheet. Place small dab of margarine on top of each pattie.

Bake patties for 15 minutes in 375-degree, preheated oven. Turn patties with spatula and add another dab of margarine; cook for additional 10 minutes. (Patties can be broiled instead of baked. If broiling, cook 7-10 minutes per side.) Serves four.

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