In 2017, Joseph Zalke ’60 returned to University of Detroit Mercy’s McNichols Campus for the first time in 50 years. While he came back to share his passion and experience with students in the College of Business Administration, he found himself enriched by the visit.
“I was exhilarated by the dynamism of the students that I had the pleasure of meeting,” he said. “Their genuine interest in how they plan to use their Detroit Mercy education to go forward in their lives was truly impressive.” Zalke especially enjoyed his time with the graduate students in the school’s leadership program: “It was a humbling experience for me. I’m grateful for the opportunity, and I am committed to return if needed, to pass on what I can to coach those who seek assistance.”
Since that time, Zalke has strengthened his relationship with the University in many ways and solidified it with a $1-million gift to the Student Union renovations. The student lounge on the garden level will be named in his honor.
“I have given to the University over time,” he said recently as he sat in the lounge, which is not yet complete, “but I realized it’s time to step it up. It’s not about the naming of space, that’s immaterial, it’s about giving back something that was given to me in the 1950s.”
Zalke grew up in a Polish enclave in Hamtramck, the son of factory workers and the grandson of a butcher. His mother stopped school after the sixth grade and his father after the 10th. But they had high hopes for their son.
“They always said ‘you would go to college,’” Zalke remembered. “My dad had this vision that education was the future.” He chose what was then University of Detroit and lived at home and commuted while he worked as a grocery store bag boy. There was a time he thought it was all too much and talked about leaving the University. When Zalke told his father that, his father did not talk to Zalke until his son stopped talking about leaving.
He grew to love the University and, in particular, the ways of the Jesuits.
“I really enjoyed going to the school and I got pretty active here with a lot of clubs, the business fraternity,” he said. “I really felt at home at this University and embraced its philosophy. I believe in what they do and I have this spiritual connection with this organization.”
Zalke says the Jesuit influence is vital to his success in the food industry, where he was president of InnovAsian Cuisine, a sales, marketing and product development company specializing in selling Asian frozen food products to supermarkets, food service and industrial accounts.
“The one thing you learn and you have to learn or, as the Jesuits call it, discern, is what your strengths and weaknesses are,” he said. “My success in the food business is because of my knowledge of what goes on in the store.”
Zalke started his food service career at Kroger as a bag boy and continued to work his way through various positions throughout high school and college. He was on track for a merchandising executive training program, but opted to go into sales and marketing instead.
Those plans were put on hold while he served in the Navy in the early 1960s.
After three years in the Navy, he went to work at Scott Paper Company Consumer Products and moved on to both RJR Foods and New England Fish Company, gaining experience in sales management. In 1980, Zalke started his own company, representing several seafood processing companies in sales to retailers and commercial restaurant chains. Ten years later, he sold the company to Nichirei USA and began working with them to expand North American operations. In 1999, when Nichirei left the U.S. market, Zalke and a group of investors purchased a part of it and began InnovAsian Cuisine Enterprises, Inc.
Zalke and a partner expanded InnovAsian Cuisine’s business throughout North America, and became the leading producer and marketer of frozen Asian multi-meals in the retail supermarket segment, he said. In 2012, Nichirei Foods made InnovAsian Cuisine a subsidiary and the business continued to grow.
“It was pretty much on trust, friendship, integrity and honesty that we established our business,” Zalke said. “You cannot violate any of those relationship tenets and succeed in the long term.”
“The richness of a Jesuit education, albeit unknown and underappreciated at the time, installs a construct of values that become one’s navigators,” he said. “Self-awareness begins to take shape; the courage to penetrate and mine uncharted areas for new opportunities to expand life’s dimensions; love of fellow man and openness to new cultural experiences with people regardless of ethnic origin, location, race or creed; and the courage to pioneer without knowing the outcome are features of the Jesuit spirit and are embedded in us.”
“My message to any student, young or old, and irrespective of academic discipline, is to understand that knowledge is only attained by immersing oneself into their work, community and home,” Zalke said. He added that it takes sacrifice, transparence, risk-taking, integrity and a willingness to fail.
“There is no handbook or manuscript that can prepare oneself to clearly navigate for the vagaries of life,” he said. “In the end, it will require a belief greater than oneself that transcends the materiality of life. When I look back, from where I came to what I have done, I have to pinch myself. All the stars aligned in terms of the right motivation, the right partners and the right suppliers. I have been very lucky.”
Zalke will be on hand today to help the University celebrate the grand opening of the new Student Union. The event begins at 4 p.m. on the plaza on the south side of the building.