Rob Zerban

Rob Zerban is challenging U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan for the 1st Congressional District seat.

For Rob Zerban, running for Congress against Paul Ryan is personal.

Pell grants, Stafford loans, government food assistance — those are all pieces of Zerban’s past, he says. Things Zerban believes helped propel him from the child of a single mother outside of East St. Louis, Ill., to a small-businessman-turned-local-politician who’s now running an underdog campaign for Congress in southern Wisconsin.

“This is a very deeply personal race for me,” Zerban said in a recent interview at a coffee shop a few blocks from his downtown Kenosha campaign headquarters. “I know why I was able to live my version of the American Dream — because of these programs.”

They’re programs Zerban has attacked Ryan for threatening with the slashing budgets he has piloted through the Republican-led House the last two years.

“You can look at his budget and see that this is a budget from somebody who never had experience outside of Washington, D.C.,” Zerban said.

From suburban St. Louis to the seaZerban’s life experience began in Belleville, Ill., a suburban city across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, where Zerban was born and reared, the youngest of three children of parents who divorced when he was very young.

Zerban’s mother, Roberta, was an assistant to a physical therapist and struggled to pay the bills, Zerban said, stocking her fridge with government cheese to help feed her family of four. His father, Don, lived nearby and remarried, expanding the family with two stepchildren.

By the time he was 15, Zerban was working in food service, washing dishes. At 18, he had worked his way up to an entry-level management position at a Bonanza steakhouse, where he earned more than did his mother at the time.

Two years in junior college followed high school, then a move out East to work in a restaurant and a subsequent invitation to work aboard a cruise line.

“There’s where I got my sea time, working as a deckhand,” said Zerban, who eventually qualified for a 100-ton Master’s license from the U.S. Coast Guard.

“I traveled all over the Eastern seaboard of the United States, down through the Panama Canal, through South America to Antarctica even,” Zerban said. “So I’m well-traveled.”

It was during that time as a deckhand aboard the now-defunct Clipper Cruise Line that Zerban rotated into the kitchen and had the opportunity to work with chefs trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Zerban’s interest was piqued, and, in his early 20s, he enrolled in the school, where he took chef and restaurant management training.

Newly graduated, he returned to the cruise line, where he worked as a chef for about a year. Then it was back to the St. Louis area for a management job with a catering company.

While on a visit to Chicago, Zerban met his wife, Cornelia, a licensed clinical psychologist. Zerban relocated to the Chicago area and began working for food service giant Aramark, where he sowed the seeds for his first catering business.

Burgeoning businessmanWith Aramark, Zerban said he became involved in a food service contract with CDW Corp., a suburban Chicago-based computer services provider.

Zerban said CDW management, amid strained relationships with Aramark, encouraged Zerban to open his own business. Zerban’s first venture, Corporate Dining Services, was founded in 2000, doing business exclusively with CDW until 2007, when he closed it amid a corporate restructuring at Aramark.

At its peak, the business employed 45 full-time staff, with annual sales in excess of $1.5 million, Zerban has said.

Meanwhile, Zerban founded a second company, Third Coast Catering, to provide catering services to CDW customers and partners such as IBM, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Sony.

“They’d come in with marketing budgets and say, ‘We’d like to provide CDW with a free lunch for the day,’” Zerban said. “So we’d provide lunch for 5,000 people all at one time, in several locations.”

In time, it was a grind Zerban looked to avoid. In 2008, he sold Third Coast to a manager who offered to buy it.

“I worked eight years putting in 60- to 80-hour weeks,” Zerban said. “It was time for a break, I guess you could say.”

From catering to public serviceAbout that time, Zerban grew interested in politics and public service.

Having moved to the Kenosha area with his wife in 2004, Zerban became involved in door-to-door campaigning and lobbying for the enactment of the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, a multi-state pact governing the use of Great Lakes water.

That led to a state board position with the League of Conservation Voters and, Zerban said, increasing encouragements for him to grow more active in community affairs, to perhaps run for office.

He did that in spring 2008, coming in first in a three-way open primary for the Kenosha County Board’s downtown-area seat and besting his general election opponent six weeks later.

Zerban would remain on the board for two terms, stepping aside this spring to pursue his run for Congress.

“I think the County Board did a lot of great things while I was on there,” Zerban said. “The reconditioning of the Courthouse was one of the things that was decided upon when I was on the Building and Grounds Committee. It was during that time when we actually removed the health insurance benefit from the Kenosha County Board of supervisors.”

By the time Zerban established himself on the County Board, he and Cornelia had relocated to a condominium in HarborPark, blocks from where they docked Zeitgeist, the 35-foot J/109 sailboat that Zerban piloted to top-tier finishes in the vaunted Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac in 2007 and 2008.

What sounds like a long journey from his days of Bonanza paychecks and government cheese is all part of the fabric that Zerban believes distinguishes himself versus Ryan.

“I’ve demonstrated that as a small biz owner, that I know what kinds of conditions need to exist for you to be able to employ people,” Zerban said. “I know how to write responsible budgets. I know how to balance benefits and the bottom line.”

It’s all, as Zerban says, his part of the American Dream.