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Subway owner and ex-Wolverine Cory Zirbel delivers a dose of normalcy to front-line workers

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

The enormous orders come in daily and former Michigan offensive lineman Cory Zirbel is happy to keep his Subway restaurants running while delivering hundreds of meals each day to local hospitals, and police and fire department first responders.

Cory Zirbel unloads lettuce at his Royal Oak Subway store on Monday.

Zirbel and his wife, Jakki, who own several Subway restaurants in Metro Detroit, began to raise money a few weeks ago to deliver food to those on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve also been called on by a locally generated Facebook group, FLAG (Front Line Appreciation Group of Metro Detroit), which is ordering food from 30-plus restaurants to supply healthy meals for hospital workers all over the area.

The Zirbels created a $5 special – a six-inch sub, chips and a cookie – and they've been delivering hundreds of meals a day in two of their Royal Oak locations. Zirbel delivers at all hours, usually two to four hospitals daily. Last week he delivered 700 sandwiches to Detroit Receiving Hospital.

“Just from playing college football, coaching college football, you understand the grind,” said Zirbel, who played at Michigan 2005-09 and then joined former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez’s staff at Arizona. “I don’t know how to say, ‘No.’ People keep calling me and calling me, ‘Can you do 200 tomorrow morning? Can you do 300 for tonight?'

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“The satisfying joy we get when I go to the hospital – and I’m not kidding when I tell you that every single delivery I’ve had, I am met by nurses or nurses’ assistants, whoever comes to meet me for this food – these people are smiling ear to ear. They’re giddy, they’re thankful and they’re grateful, because their life is chaos. Their life is hectic. The fact that bringing this little box of food to them changed their whole trajectory of that night is more satisfying than anything we’ve done in a long time.”

While Zirbel is pleased to be bringing a small bit of normalcy to the days of the front-line workers, the scene is always a bit unnerving.

“I pull up and they’ve got those biohazard tents set up outside the emergency room,” Zirbel said. “And the doctors, the nurses are in there with biohazard suits, and they’ve got crazy masks. It’s like something out of movie.

“And I’m not kidding when I say I get a little bit sketched out, nervous, pulling up. I can’t imagine what those people are going through who are going into those hospitals and working. The reward for me, it’s worth its weight in gold. It’s an awesome, awesome feeling.”

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Zirbel injured his right knee while at Michigan in 2008, the first year Rodriguez coached in Ann Arbor. He became a graduate assistant was a quality control staff member in 2010 and a year later worked for the UM athletic department. He joined Rodriguez on his staff at Arizona as an offensive grad assistant. Zirbel has a passion for coaching, but with a growing family, he wasn’t sure it offered enough stability. His wife’s father had these Subway shops back in Michigan and was looking to sell, and that became a reasonable option.

“Things got a little rocky in Tucson and we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Zirbel said of Rodriguez’s tenure there. “We got pregnant with our first daughter, we have three now, and we really started thinking, ‘OK, is coaching really the life that we want?’ I was a GA at Michigan for 10 months when Rich got fired, so I got fired 10 months into my first job, and I was getting ready to get fired again four years and two months into my second job, so I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve been fired twice in five years and moved twice in five years. Do we really want to follow this path?’”

They moved to Rochester Hills and took over the Subway shops and have expanded to a new store in Royal Oak on 11 Mile. With the multiple orders and requests from FLAG, the Zirbels have been able to keep a few of their stores open while being able to pay a small crew of employees.

Cory Zirbel looks out the window from his Subway store in Royal Oak.

Zirbel hasn’t had a day off since March 13. Because hospital employees work in shifts, deliveries are requested at 7 a.m., 2 in the afternoon and around 7 p.m. If a hospital requests a 7 a.m. delivery, he works late the night before to get the sandwiches made. He has had calls in the afternoon for deliveries of nearly 300 sandwiches later that night and doesn’t leave this all to his employees.

“I’ve got to show my face and make the subs,” Zirbel said.

Of course, the hospitals make sure those who prepare the meals are properly protected. Zirbel said he and his wife are “neat freaks” so this hasn’t been an issue. Hospitals request that those handling food for them wear gloves and N-95 masks. He planned to add sheets of plexiglass in his stores for added protection for his employees and customers. Once Jakki posted on Facebook that they always wear gloves and masks, their order requests rocketed.

“Our sales were down, we were thinking about closing,” Zirbel said. “Then we had such a tremendous response that now it’s our turn to help give back, too. They help keep us afloat, well shoot, let us help out and feed more people.”

With three daughters, 5, 4 and 1, at home, Zirbel has strict orders from Jakki that when he gets home he does everything he can to disinfect. He has a bottle of 91 percent alcohol he sprays all over his clothes, and then he removes his clothing and shoes in the garage and goes straight to the mudroom shower. Then he puts on new gloves and takes the dirty clothes and washes them in the machine, then throws the gloves out in the garage trash.

“It sounds crazy, but unfortunately that’s the norm,” he said.

Zirbel has managed to do some football coaching since returning to the area. His friend, Brian Lewis, who was a graduate assistant at Michigan under Brady Hoke and was a student equipment manager when Zirbel played, was Plymouth head coach and had Zirbel working with the offensive line the last two years. Lewis is now the Howell head coach and the 90-minute drive is a bit out of range for Zirbel, so he’s going to sit out this fall.

He is fine with that. Besides, he takes his football playing and coaching experience and applies it to running his Subway restaurants.

“We run our stores like a team,” Zirbel said. “They get so sick of hearing me lecture about the team and teamwork and unity.  But that’s what makes us go. That’s what keeps us going.”

Even more now.