100 and counting: Four generations have operated landmark Zarzour's Cafe [video and photos]

Shannon and Dixie Fuller are the current owners of Zarzour's, a 100 year-old lunch eating establishment on Rossville Avenue.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Joe "Dixie" and Shannon Fuller are alone at the center table in the front room of Zarzour's Cafe on Rossville Avenue. The restaurant is only open for lunch Monday through Friday, and she is cleaning up after a busy day of cooking.

The interior looks as it did five, 10, 15, 30 years ago. The walls are covered with family pictures and photos of the inside and outside of the building taken over the years, with most in black and white. Like the paneled walls, the stainless and vinyl furniture and the wooden countertop, the photos emphasize that the restaurant hasn't changed all that much in the century it has been in business.

The single-story building is just under 20 feet wide by about 60 feet long, so every inch of space is utilized. Even with just three people in the whole place, it feels small. When it's full, it feels like a family reunion, with people sitting elbow to elbow and talking over their shoulders to people one and two tables over.

On the table in front of the Fullers, the salt and pepper shakers are pushed aside to make room for pictures and paperwork detailing the restaurant's history. The two have been going through boxes of memorabilia the last couple of weeks in anticipation of the restaurant's 100th anniversary on Thursday.

"He's got the original deed," Shannon says. "Can you believe that?"

The deed in question shows that Charlie Zarzour paid $1,000 in 1918 for the property.

"That was a lot of money back then," Joe says of his great-grandfather. "I don't know where he got it, but I would think he paid cash because there are no records of a loan, and they kept everything."

Shannon says the two of them happened across a PBS special the night before about the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

"It took out about 600,000 Americans, one of which was [Joe's] great-grandmother. It's amazing other family members didn't catch it. If they had, we wouldn't be here right now."

Joe's maternal great-grandmother, Nazera Zarzour, died just a couple of months before the restaurant opened on Jan. 16, 1918.

For the Fullers, the fact that Zarzour's turns 100 years old is about much more than just being the oldest restaurant still in operation in the city. (Wally's opened in 1937, Nikki's in 1941 and Bea's in 1950.) It's about perseverance, community and family. Joe and Shannon are only the fourth owners of the place since his maternal great-grandfather, Charlie Zarzour, first started selling his peanuts and peanut brittle 100 years ago.

The building is not only home to the restaurant that has provided for the family; it was literally where they lived until the 1970s, when living space was converted to dining, prep and cooking spaces. Charlie raised all five kids in the small area behind the storefront.

Joe, 61, remembers visiting on weekends as a child and helping out in the restaurant or hanging out with his Uncle George while he operated his ham radio.

"He loved his radio and always had the very best equipment he could buy," Joe says.

It's also about hard work.

"When I think about it, I think about the perseverance," Joe says.

"It's a struggle to keep the place alive. With so many restaurants opening and closing in town, to still be here is amazing. And it's important that we stay open. That's what's important to me. This is our heart and soul."

The History

Shannon, 53, says she knows more about her husband's family history than her own, and she takes great pride in sharing what she knows. She points to the walls and the photos and reels off names and dates and trivia from memory, which isn't surprising when you realize there is no working cash register, calculator or computer in the place. Shannon figures out each customer's bill in her head each day.

Zarzour's has been in the same location on Rossville Avenue a couple of blocks off Main Street since opening. Charles "Charlie" Zarzour was a Lebanese immigrant who married Nazera Abras in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1903.

They had Rose in 1905, Abraham in 1908, Josephine in 1910, Jimmy in 1913 and George in 1916.

"Jimmy was the wild one," Joe says. "He ended up in the military."

After Nazera's death in 1918, daughter Rose essentially became the matriarch, meaning she had to quit attending All Saints' Academy to help raise her siblings.

"It broke her heart because she loved school," Shannon says.

Charlie willed the restaurant to Rose in 1933, though he continued to work there until his death in 1955. Rose and her youngest sibling, George, were very close. Neither ever married, and the two lived and worked in the restaurant until their deaths.

Rose willed the restaurant to her brother Abe's daughter, Shirley Zarzour Fuller, whom she had practically raised. When Shirley died in 2015, she left it to Joe, though he had to buy it to settle the estate with his siblings.

Shannon and Joe married in 1993, and she began working with her mother-in-law in 1996. Joe, who is the talent and production coordinator for Friends of the Festival, which produces Riverbend and other events in town, works there during many lunch hours.

Almost immediately after Shirley's death, Joe began work on plans to build a 825-square-foot home next to the restaurant. The two moved in about a year ago, and Shannon says, "We love being downtown, and we love being next door. It feels right."

Zarzour's has undergone two renovations, the last in the late '70s. The biggest changes took place when the living areas in the back were turned into dining spaces, and earlier when Rose replaced the front plate-glass window with a brick wall and entry door after rioters threw a garbage can through it.

"It was during the Wilson Pickett riot," Joe says, explaining that Pickett, a popular black singer, was set to perform in 1971 at Memorial Auditorium but didn't after he claimed the white promoter was not going to pay him what he was due.

"[The riot] scared Aunt Rose to death, and she was getting rid of that big window," Joe says.

Later, during a tour of the restaurant, Joe points to a back window that once led into the family's living room, where George shot and killed a man who was trying to break in.

"His family came by later to thank him for getting rid of a bad problem," he says.

The back rooms that now serve as dining rooms or kitchen space are where the family lived. Diners use what was once the family bathroom.

"Aunt Rose's pink bathroom with the shower is still there," Joe says. "She was so proud of that bathroom."

Uncle George's ham radio call letters still adorn the office wall, and the closets boast the original cedar panels.

The Food

The menu at Zarzour's has always been fairly simple, and it has always been open only for lunch, with few exceptions.

Charlie Zarzour first started selling peanuts on Main Street in 1916. When he opened Zarzour's, it sold some produce, but mostly peanuts and then peanut brittle. Joe still has the brass hammer he used to break up the brittle. Bologna sandwiches and wieners were later added to the menu. Rose changed the menu to feature a small burger, chili and a plate lunch, usually a country fried steak with mashed potatoes and pinto beans or slaw.

Shirley kept it pretty similar to that, but in the '80s she would host a Lebanese dinner once a month.

"Oh, man, it was good," Joe says.

"She served cabbage rolls, kibbeh (a Middle Eastern meatball) and a Lebanese salad, which is vinegar-based."

Shannon has reintroduced the hamburger, though it is larger than the ones Rose served.

"She takes a lot of pride in her hamburgers," Joe says, "and for good reason."

George Motz, author of "Hamburger America" and host of Travel Channel's "Burger Land," agrees. He named it the best hamburger in Tennessee.

He wrote of the dish: "Zarzour's is a century-old meat-n-threes lunch joint that just happens to serve a great burger. It's also one of the friendliest places on Earth - you'll make buddies instantly at Zarzour's. The restaurant is run by family, and even if they are just passing through, a family member will always bus a table or deliver food. The burgers are huge and cooked on a flattop. Ask for onion, and an entire thick slice is griddled like the burger."

He's not the first media type to have written about Zarzour's. It also has been featured in Roadfood.com, USA Today, Splendid Table and Gourmet Magazine. Shannon says she thought she was being punked when the folks from Gourmet called to say they were coming by.

"I said, 'Yeah, right. Come on by. I'll be here."

The Regulars

When you walk into Zarzour's, you'll often see Shannon at the grill just to the left. From that corner, she can reach the grill, the prep area and the antique cash till. She greets most guests by name and in many cases knows what they want to eat before they do. That's what you expect from a place like Zarzour's.

"It's like eating at home," says Bobby Stone.

He says he found it in the '90s "and thought I'd discovered the greatest thing ever. Then I moved away to Charlotte [North Carolina] for a while and moved back and forgot about it. Now I go once or twice a week.

"It's just a homey, friendly environment. It's the sort of place like they all used to be."

Joe says regulars have always been a big part of Zarzour's. He figures he's cycled through four or five generations of them.

Joe and Shannon have no children, but a niece and great-niece have shown interest in keeping the family business going when the time comes.

"We hope it's a long way from now," Joe says.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.