“Come get a burger before we both starve!” declares the Facebook page of Zarzour’s, a 10-seat restaurant with a reputation for being one of Chattanooga’s oldest eateries.
Located in a tiny cinderblock building behind Fire Station 1 downtown, Zarzour’s closed its dining room in March to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But owners, Shannon and Joe Fuller, continue to offer pickup and delivery, which the shelter-in-place order Mayor Andy Berke issued April 2 allows.
“We survived the Spanish flu, so we can survive this,” quips Shannon, 55, who has a reputation for being one of Chattanooga’s sassiest restauranteurs.
Although Shannon is known for swapping spirited barbs with her customers, which she says includes everyone from “ditch diggers to lawyers and musicians to judges,” she’s not kidding: She and Joe can trace Zarzour’s history back to the pandemic that devastated the world just over a century ago.
“My husband’s great-grandfather moved from Lebanon to the United States in 1918 and then bought the building where we are now for $1,000,” Shannon says. “His wife died of the Spanish flu the same year.”
Shannon’s plan for surviving the new pandemic is simple: Tighten the restaurant’s belt and wait for the all-clear.
“Normally, we have a meat-and-three and then short order stuff like hamburgers, cheeseburgers and french fries,” she explains. “When we had to close our dining room, we went with the least wasteful items, which are the hamburgers. If I don’t sell all of my hamburgers on Monday, I can sell the rest on Tuesday.
“It’s what we can do to get through this and not lose our asses.”
Shannon’s survival plan does not include taking advantage of the Small Business Administration’s coronavirus relief options, which include paycheck protection, debt assistance and loans.
She says their reasons for passing on the benefits are simple: They don’t want to take money from people who are struggling harder than they are.
“We own our property, so our overhead is pretty low. We’re also a small, family-run restaurant, so we can make it through this without accepting any help,” she explains.
“But the larger restaurants around here have a lot of employees whose lives have been jerked out from under them. It’s breaks my heart to see what they’re going through.”
Shannon says she and her husband would rather rely on the patronage of their loyal customers to see them through the current pandemic. And she just might get her wish.
In response to her clarion call on social media, people continue to pull up to Zarzour’s curb weekdays during lunch to claim boxes packed with burgers, fries and Joe’s homemade strawberry ice cream.
“The kindness and generosity of our customers blows me away,” she says. “Two weeks ago, Keller Williams ordered 27 burgers to go, and then the Hamilton County the courthouse ordered 27 burgers to go. We’ve been blessed with the support of fantastic people.”
These customers likely did not need much encouragement before placing their orders, as the restaurant not only has a reputation for being one of Chattanooga’s oldest eateries, it’s also known as one of the city’s tastiest – or so says USA Today, Roadfood, Gourmet and Southern Living.
The latter declared Zarzour’s burgers to the best in the Scenic City following a visit to the restaurant a few years ago. While the review was a feather in the Zarzour’s cap, Shannon prefers the endorsement of her longtime patrons, including attorney Cynthia Hall, who first ate at the restaurant more than 20 years ago.
“If you’re a hamburger eater, Shannon serves the best hamburgers in town,” Hall says. “I also like her meat-and-threes. Her old-fashioned Southern cornbread is good, too, and she always has a nice array of vegetables.”
Hall’s fellow jurist, Hugh Moore, also says good things about Zarzour’s burgers but reserves his highest praise for the restaurant’s plate lunches.
“Who else serves baked spaghetti, meatloaf with creole sauce, chicken and dumplings, pork and dressing, fried flounder, roast beef hash or an open-faced roast beef sandwich?” he asks. “Imagine fork-tender roast beef with gravy over a slice of white bread. It’s so tasty, I could eat it every day.
Moore continues his mouthwatering reverie as he moves on to Zarzour’s vegetables, which include Greek roasted potatoes, green beans, stewed squash, turnip greens, baby limas, white beans and more.
As much as Hall and Moore enjoy Zarzour’s food, both attorneys say the atmosphere and their relationships with the handful of folks who staff and run the restaurant have played a bigger role in their long-term loyalty.
“I continue to go back not only for the food but also for the atmosphere,” Hall says. “Shannon knows everybody by name, including my mother, who lives out of state. She’s a fun person and full of personality.”
Moore, who’s been frequenting Zarzour’s for at least as long as Hall, likens the restaurant to the bar at the heart of the sitcom “Cheers,” in that it’s a place “where everybody knows your name.”
“Shannon is always there to greet you and make you feel at home,” he says.
“When I was 20, all I wanted was to own a little restaurant where I knew everybody’s name and I knew what they liked to eat,” Shannon says. “And now I own a little restaurant where I know everybody’s name and I know what they like to eat.”
To Zarzour’s customers, Shannon and Joe are more than the owners of one of their favorite restaurants, they’re also friends and a small but important part of their lives.
When Moore and his wife celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, Zarzour’s opened at night just for them. And the children of many of Shannon’s customers have washed dishes for her.
This has created ties that are strong enough to help the restaurant and its community to endure the crisis, Shannon says. “We’re more than a restaurant and its customers, we’re friends and a part of each others families.”
Zarzour’s history is rooted in family. As Shannon tells the story, Joe’s great-grandfather, Charles Zarzour, was a pack peddler who spoke no English but was nonetheless able to open a business selling peanut brittle and Coca-Cola.
When his wife, Nazira, died at the age of 29, their oldest of five children – Rose – quit school and helped her father raise her sisters and brothers.
After Charles died in 1957, Rose and her brother, George, took over restaurant, which by then was serving chili, stew and burgers. The siblings were deeply devoted to each other, Shannon says.
“They were both engaged a couple times but never married anyone. They couldn’t leave each other. When I pulled up the floor in the back kitchen, I could see the outlines of their twin beds.”
When Rose and George died in 1978 (him from a bad heart and her from a broken heart, Shannon speculates), they left Zarzour’s to their niece, Shirley Zarzour Fuller, Joe’s mother.
Shannon credits Shirley with adding Zarzour’s beloved plate lunches to the menu. When Shannon began working at the restaurant in 1995, she brought 15 years of restaurant experience with her.
“I’ve worked five-star restaurants and no-star restaurants,” she says with a laugh. “It’s what I love to do.”
When Shirley died in 2015, Joe and Shannon bought out the other family members for $45,000. The couple then rezoned the parking lot and built a house there, placing them 30 seconds away from the restaurant’s kitchen.
“I like living where we work,” Shannon says. “If there’s a late delivery, I’m already here. We thought about building a place on top of the restaurant, but I’m too old to climb stairs.”
Instead of sweating beads over their survival, Shannon and Joe are focusing on helping other restaurant workers in the community.
“I use Neidlov’s for my hamburgers buns, and if I go in there and grab a loaf of bread, I’ll throw a huge tip in the jar,” she says. “We’ve purchased a few things to go from Alleia and added a 40% tip. We know this has been devastating for the people who have been relying on tips to survive.”
Shannon and Joe are also looking forward to the day when they can open their doors to the public again. “Our customers are dying for us to go back to plate lunches, which we will do once this is over,” she promises.
When Hall, Moore and the rest of the ditch diggers, attorneys, musicians and judges who patronize Zarzour’s are finally able to return, they’ll find Shannon behind the counter, ready to greet them and swap spirited bards.
“If we hang in there together and do what we can to help each other out, we’ll get through this,” Shannon says. “We love our life and business and Chattanooga, and I’ll be damned if this is going to close us down.”