For Yuval Zaliouk, life has always been filled with important sounds.
First there was the sound of orchestral music, then came a crunching sound. Two months from now in New York, his ears will ring with the sound of lasting recognition.
Three decades ago, Mr. Zaliouk, then-conductor of the Toledo Symphony, took a favorite boyhood treat — his grandmother’s almond cookie recipe — and turned it into a scrumptious and healthy biscottilike product he called Almondina as a tribute to his grandmother, Dina Nathanson.
Almondina brand cookies took off, garnering national notoriety and launching a successful business, Y-Z Enterprises of Maumee. And now Mr. Zaliouk’s cookies will put him into the national Specialty Food Association’s Hall of Fame.
An induction ceremony will take place June 25 at the association’s Summer Fancy Foods trade show.
Mr. Zaliouk, who is conductor laureate of the Toledo Symphony and for the last 29 years the CEO of Y-Z Enterprises, joins the late Richard Ransom, the founder of Hickory Farms, as the only Toledo area entrepreneurs in the association’s Hall of Fame.
In 1988, when Mr. Zaliouk started by making a couple of hundred cookies at home every few days with his wife, Susan, a former ballerina, Mr. Zaliouk said he felt Almondina would succeed. “But I didn’t see it as a 50-state national thing,” he said.
Julie Stern-Monteiro, a spokesman for the Specialty Food Association, said the hall seeks to “honor individuals whose accomplishments, impact, contributions, innovations, and successes within the specialty food industry deserve praise and recognition.”
Its 115 inductees are considered pioneers who have helped move the specialty food industry forward, she said.
Mr. Zaliouk, who ran the Toledo Symphony from 1980-89, said he knew nothing of entrepreneurship when he started Almondina.
“It was really kind of a whim to start the business, as a tribute to my grandmother, and I knew that the cookie was exceptional … and that the product was answering to the time, you know, when the health-food craze started 29 years ago,” Mr. Zaliouk said.
Yet while business was a mystery, Mr. Zaliouk understood marketing, turning the symphony from a $300,000 organization into one with a $3 million budget.
Mr. Zaliouk got his cookie into The Andersons and now-defunct Jacobson’s department stores. But he needed a bigger name, so he chose Zabar’s, an iconic New York City food and kitchen store.
“I went with the idea that, if they buy it from me, then I could call any store and say [Zabar’s] sells it,” he said.
He went to see Zabar’s managing partner, Murray Klein, “who had a reputation as a crocodile.”
Mr. Klein liked Almondina but demanded Mr. Zaliouk sell it to Zabar’s for 80 cents — half the maestro’s asking price.
From there, Almondina grew steadily until 2002, when Mr. Zaliouk got a call from highly-regarded specialty food chain, Trader Joe’s, with which he got a deal.
Now Almondina bakes 180,000 cookies and employs 25 workers at its Maumee operation. It sells to several large chains, including Giant Eagle, Publix, Sprouts Farmers Market, and various offshoots of the Kroger Co.
Almondina also is a favorite of TV food celebrity Rachael Ray, and Mr. Zaliouk has appeared on her TV show three times.
As for being lauded as a food pioneer, Mr. Zaliouk, who remains passionate about conducting, isn’t sure what to think. “I’m a winner of two conducting prizes, both very famous competitions.”
Almondina remains a family tradition and is now made by the fourth generation — Dina, Mr. Zaliouk’s mother, himself, and his daughter Tamar Markham.
Contact Jon Chavez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6128.
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