If you like history, especially Atlanta history, check out a Facebook group called You Know You’re From Atlanta When. A lot of reminiscing happens there, like a big family reunion where everyone sits around in lawn chairs and waxes poetic with “remember when” stories.
Restaurants of a bygone era are a favorite topic among the group. And, whenever talk turns to local mom-and-pop restaurant chain Zesto, the comments pile up.
“There are so many customer stories,” said Zesto CEO Jimbo Livaditis.
“There is so much Zesto lore we don’t know about though,” added Jimbo’s wife, Leigh Ann, who handles marketing and publicity for the family business.
The couple sat in the corner of the Zesto at 2469 Piedmont Road in Buckhead, recalling highlights from the Zesto history reel, whose Atlanta moments began with Jimbo’s father, John Livaditis, and passed down to Jimbo and his older brother, Lee, when their father retired in 1988. These days, the Livaditis family is hearing a lot of Zesto lore from customers, since this month marks Zesto’s 70th anniversary.
Zesto started in Atlanta in 1949 as a walk-up ice cream stand on Peachtree Road, across the street from Brookwood Station in Buckhead. But its roots in the region date back a year earlier, when Livaditis was hired by the Taylor Freezer Corp., manufacturer of the Zest-O-Mat soft-serve ice cream machine, to oversee the opening of 30 Zesto units when the company decided that it wanted to expand its subsidiary ice cream shops into the Southeast.
Livaditis traveled from his native Illinois to Columbia, S.C., where he opened his first Zesto franchise in the region in 1948. The one in Atlanta followed a year later, and Livaditis ended up moving here for good. By the time Taylor Freezer abandoned the Zesto concept, Livaditis had bought the franchise here and began growing his business.
Today, the Livaditis family operates four locations around town — Buckhead, East Atlanta, Little Five Points and Forest Park (a fifth, in Tyrone, is operated by a franchisee) — but, at its height in the mid-1980s, there were 10 Zesto locations in metro Atlanta. There was a popular Zesto at the intersection of North Decatur and Clairmont Road, one at the Buckhead Triangle, and another on Jonesboro Road in the Lakewood area, by the old General Motors assembly plant. The one in East Point since has turned into Big Nick’s Place. The Midtown location, at Peachtree and Spring streets, had the distinction of being the place where, in 1979, the real Col. Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame walked through the doors.
“He was a good Zesto fan!” Jimbo said.
The retro Zesto look is so recognizable that it has made cameo appearances in plenty of films, TV shows, and even commercials for Formula 409 cleanser and Suzuki motorcycles.
You can’t talk Zesto without mentioning Big John’s Christmas Trees, also founded by John Livaditis, and also celebrating its 70th anniversary later this year.
Maybe you know that, at its peak, there were 22 Big John’s tree lots around town. But, did you know about the early years of his holiday tree business? Big John would head up to Nova Scotia and spend five to six weeks there hand-picking between 5,000 and 6,000 trees, then bring them back to Atlanta.
Ah, Big John. The first-generation Greek-American was a hard-working, self-made man. He had many jobs — including street sweeper and police officer — before he hit it big with ice cream, chili dogs and fir trees.
The entrepreneur also opened the door of opportunity to Greek immigrants by sponsoring them and hiring them at his restaurants. There are still a few of those Zesto employees, the “last of the old guard,” Jimbo said. They include Jimmy Koulouris, who runs the East Atlanta location with his wife. There’s Eugenia Frang, now more than 80 years old, but still on her feet and working at the Forest Park location. At least, now, she’s not doing the job in high heels like before.
Every Zesto location is unique, not only in design and with distinct menu items (fried chicken livers and gizzards at Forest Park and East Atlanta, tacos and quesadillas at Buckhead, breakfast in Forest Park), but also the faces behind the counter.
Maybe you knew Pete Giannakopoulos, aka Mr. Pete, who managed the Little Five Points Zesto for ages, or his brother, Tommy Giannakopoulos, who did the same at East Atlanta. They are both retired now, but Delores Slaughter is still clocking in after more than 40 years with the company.
“Time is flying,” said Delores, who started at Zesto when she was 16.
Delores runs the show on Piedmont, but that’s only been in the past year. Her Zesto memories are mainly from Little Five Points, her favorite recollection being the time a customer came in after a concert and starting dancing with her.
On July 1, Delores, and even retirees Mr. Pete and Tommy, joined patrons to celebrate Zesto’s anniversary while biting into chili dogs and Chubby Deckers.
That party is over, but Slaughter has another dance card to fill later this year, when she will serve as the grand marshal for the Little Five Points Halloween Parade. That’ll be one more moment to add to the You Know You’re From Atlanta When memory bank.
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