While most artisan food companies in New York have only been around for a few years, Keith and Pam Pollack of Ditmas Park-based Z Crackers were selling savory pies to Misters Dean and Deluca in 1981. Eventually, they wanted to add a product with a longer shelf life to their range and decided to try making upscale crackers late in 2000.
Since they'd already developed several doughs to use as crusts for the pies, Keith explained that they started with those, "rolled them out thin, put various schmears on top," and baked them crisp. Crackers from a dough made with cornmeal and bran, when topped with a little olive oil and salt, he said, "made everyone's eyebrows go up." They'll still raise eyebrows, the earthy, hand-cut crackers being just as good on their own as they are topped with cheese, dips, or spreads.
The Pollacks put a lot of thought into the package, ultimately deciding on a clear plastic box that could be reclosed properly to keep the crackers fresh and crunchy. Pam's experience as a graphic designer came in handy for designing the label. The product's name came about when Keith's French stepmother, who owned an inn, "asked for a vanity license plate that said 'The Inn.' She got 'Z Inn'—she had a thick French accent," Pam says, "We thought it was cute and definitely memorable."
While many aspects of the business have stayed more or less the same over the last few decades, Keith explains one thing that's changed as they've spent more time in the specialty-food market: while they started off developing flavors based on "what we thought we would be delicious" (an approach that wasn't necessarily off-target, since their red onion and rosemary crackers won an award for best cracker at the 2001 Fancy Food Show), they've since moved on "to what sells."
That means that because most of their customers are cheese distributors, they're working on crackers that are "more neutral and support the flavor of the cheese," like the Sea Salt and Olive Oil flavor, which Keith says is their biggest seller by far, and the newest addition to the line, Salt and Pepper, which uses Tellicherry pepper from India. While a cracker incorporating cocoa nibs got a lukewarm response from tasters and ultimately didn't get a permanent position in the line, Keith believes the idea of a salty-sweet cracker still has promise and keeps tinkering.
"We're constantly reading, cooking, and experimenting," Pam says, "It's a passion. It's our life."