70 and Counting
Zesto Atlanta’s family affair marks a milestone of sweet and savory service
Back in the early 1970s, Jimbo Livaditis played youth baseball at Bagley Park (since renamed Frankie Allen Park) in the Garden Hills neighborhood in Buckhead. With some frequency, on the way home after a game or practice, the parents of Livaditis and his preteen teammates would take their Little Leaguers to the nearby Zesto for an ice cream treat or milkshake.
Cooling down in the summer, sipping chocolaty goodness through a straw or licking melted vanilla cream from the runnels of a crunchy sugar cone, a boy could easily slip into a daydream about hitting a grand slam to win the World Series or building a skyscraper in downtown Atlanta next to that new hotel with the blue-domed flying saucer on top. In Jimbo’s case, the idle musing took a different tack.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘One day, I hope this is mine,’” Livaditis says in a phone interview with CL. The young baseballer wearing the syrup-stained jersey had good reason to consider such an unusual prospect. His father, John Livaditis, owned the joint.
As a matter of fact, at the time, “Big John” Livaditis, a hard-working, entrepreneurial, first-generation son of Greek immigrants, owned multiple Zestos in Atlanta, including the city’s first — a walk-up, ice-cream-only stand — which opened in 1949. Later that same year, just a few years out of the Army, where he competed as a Golden Gloves boxer, Livaditis accepted a proposal from a tree grower and started selling Christmas trees in the parking lot on Peachtree Street at Brookwood Station. Thus was established Big John’s Christmas Trees, which helped fill the revenue gap during the holiday season when the demand for cold desserts tapered off.
“Dad always put in an incredible amount of hours,” Livaditis recalls. “A lot of times, we went to visit him after the game because he wasn’t able to attend, since he was working.”
By the mid-1980s, Big John was lording over a fiefdom of 10 metro Atlanta Zestos. In 1988, he retired, bequeathing the restaurant and Christmas tree businesses to sons Lee and (younger by eight years) Jimbo. Seven years later, Big John passed away. For the next three decades, the Livaditis brothers carried on, riding demographic tides and dallying with commercial developments by closing some Zestos, opening new stores and refurbishing others while tweaking the menu to accommodate the public’s trending palate.
In 2019, Zesto Atlanta President and CEO Jimbo Livaditis is presiding over a year-long celebration of a 70-year-old family enterprise. His wife, Leigh Ann, serves as company vice president and director of marketing and communications. The couple’s children work in one capacity or another for Big John’s Christmas Trees. Eldest son John is also involved with Zesto operations while finishing up college at Kennesaw State University. Lucas attends the University of South Carolina, and Anastasia is a senior at North Atlanta High School. Sadly, Lee is not around to raise a celebratory Nut Brown Crown with the family. Three years ago, he succumbed to lung cancer at age 66.
“It was a sudden, traumatizing and multilayered loss,” says Livaditis. “I no longer have my older brother’s advice to lean on or daily presence to cherish. I’ve had a crash course in wearing many more hats than I was used to. I’m still getting on my feet in some areas.”
Currently, the Livaditises operate four metro area Zestos: Buckhead, East Atlanta, Forest Park and Little Five Points (a fifth location, an independent franchise in Tyrone, is owned by a sister-in-law). Big John’s Christmas Trees, which peaked around the turn of the millennia at 22 locations, now stands at nine lots.
The family’s abiding commitment to the cause has been shared by a number of Zesto employees. Delores Slaughter, general manager of the Buckhead Zesto, has been with the company 41 years. East Atlanta GM Jimmy Koulouris has been clocking in for 45 years and counting. Two recently retired store managers, Pete Giannakopoulos and his brother Tommy, were Greek immigrants originally sponsored by Big John in the 1950s; their sister-in-law, Theoni Giannakopoulos, works at the Little Five Points Zesto.
“Our long-term employees know their customers and the customers know them, which adds to the authenticity of the Zesto experience,” says Leigh Ann. “You can’t easily create relationships and experiences like that in a branded business model.”
The original Zesto venture was spawned in 1945 by Rockford, Illinois-based Taylor Freezer Corporation, which manufactured a soft-serve ice cream machine called the Zest-O-Mat. Conceived as a competitor of Dairy Queen, the first Zesto stores were only equipped to serve ice cream. By the time Big John Livaditis opened his franchise in Atlanta, Zestos could be found in 46 states.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, America’s head-over-heels, pedal-to-the-metal love affair with automobiles, drive-ins, and fast food fueled the fortunes of Zesto and its rivals, which competed for customers by expanding their sweet and cool dessert menus with warm, savory fare. In 1959, Zesto introduced a double-patty hamburger originally named “Fat Boy,” which was renamed two years later when Shoney’s objected to the resemblance to the company’s signature “Big Boy” sandwich. Consequently, Big John held a contest, which was won by a Georgia Tech student who submitted Chubby Decker, with a nod to the contemporaneous rock ‘n’ roll star, as the two-tiered burger’s new moniker.
Then came the foot-long hot dog, which, based on innumerable unscientific surveys, is an incomplete construction without chili, if not slaw. “In the ’60s, my father had a Greek buddy in Pennsylvania named Gus,” says Livaditis. “He ran a chain called Coney Island, which offered a special chili dog. His success inspired my dad to perfect the chili recipe we still use today.”
Hand-cut onion rings, French fries, and fried chicken became staple menu items. Over the years, at various times and locations, Zesto customers could order a pizza burger, roast beef sandwich, grilled and toasted cheese sandwiches, and pork tenderloin. “There’s even a fish dog — two fish sticks on a foot-long bun with coleslaw and tartar sauce — which is on the ‘secret menu,’” Livaditis confides.
Recently, the influx of Hispanic and Latino residents across metro Atlanta neighborhoods spurred the addition of burritos, tacos, quesadillas, and nachos to the menu at several Zesto locations. For 2019, a Spicy 70th Steakburger with bacon and Palmetto Cheese was introduced. Currently, the kitchen lab is putting the final tweaks on a mango milkshake. “It’s been a labor of love,” Livaditis says. “We want to get it just right using nothing artificial, just pure ingredients, fresh mangos with the right color, texture, and bite.”
Then as now, in acknowledgement of the restaurant’s Southern roots, fried livers and gizzards can be ordered at select Zesto locations. “I’ve been known to stop in and sample the livers and gizzards to make sure they’re up to our standards,” Livaditis says, with a chuckle.
Celebrity sightings and associations are features of the Zesto Atlanta legacy. Pro basketball Hall of Famer Walt Frazier, who led the New York Knicks to two National Basketball Association championships (1970 and ’73), played high school sports at Atlanta’s David Tobias Howard High School. In a 2018 biography produced by MSG Networks, Frazier visits the Zesto on Ponce de Leon (now a Cook Out) where he did a stint as a “curb boy” when the restaurant only offered walk-up or dine-in-your-car service. During the segment Frazier reminisces with his former supervisors, the Giannakopoulos brothers.
Then there was the time (in 1979) a WSB-TV news reporter corralled Colonel Sanders at the defunct Zesto at Pershing Point after the goateed ambassador of Kentucky Fried Chicken was spotted enjoying one of his guilty pleasures, a Zesto milkshake.
More recently, people are still laughing at the “kids meal” scene from the first season (2016) of Donald Glover’s television series “Atlanta,” which was filmed at the East Atlanta Zesto. Cee Lo Green, Lil Yachty, and Shawn Reis (“Flash Gordon,” “Smallville”) have been spotted chilling at Zesto. One day, Livaditis and his three children were eating lunch at the Piedmont Road Zesto when they looked over and discovered they were dining with Carolina Panthers star quarterback Cam Newton (presumably during the off-season).
So, what’s the secret to Zesto's enduring allure and success?
“It’s hard to pin down, but part of it is a combination of nostalgia and relevance,” says Leigh Ann. “If you can maintain that nostalgic ‘Gee, this place is cool!’ factor, that’s great. But you also have to stay relevant by tapping into social media, updating the menu, and doing promotions that attract younger people.”
Livaditis adds: “We were laughing the other night. When Dad started Zesto, he wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to create something 1950s-ish because it’s trendy.’ He was just working with what was available. There is something compelling about the design of the drive-in and the feeling it generates, which has been glamorized by movies. But there is also an element of genuine authenticity, which you can’t force; it’s either present or it’s not.”
Seventy years down the road, thanks to a family’s work ethic and aspirational spirit, Zesto Atlanta stands as a worthy representative of the all-American drive-in food destination, as well as a cultural touchstone near and dear to the hearts, if not the digestive tracts, of the city’s inhabitants.
In researching this story, writer Doug DeLoach solicited memories of Zesto adventures from Atlanta stalwarts and friends. A selection of these recollections, mostly unedited follow. Others may be found on creativeloafing.com.
Patricia Doyle O’Connor
The day of my divorce, I was on my way home from signing papers and pretty broken. I walked into the Ponce (Zesto) location and had lunch. Looking up from my booth, I noticed a man running toward the front door, which faced the old Sears building, two Atlanta cops on his heels. When he hit the door, he jumped up on the first table to try to avoid the police who were getting their tear-gas canisters out. They chased him as he jumped from table to table in full run. I sorta ducked and covered my fries from the dirt flying. I couldn’t decide who to trip — them or him — so I just sheltered my food. When I did finally look up, nobody was left in the store, not a cook or waiter or customer — just me and a huge cloud of tear gas, which I didn’t feel until much later, in the shower for some reason. I continued eating alone.
I was a regular at the Little Five Points location for a sweet tea after big nights. I loved their tea. I stumbled down there one morning/afternoon and got my tea. I made it out the door only to realize my magic elixir tasted like bad socks. I returned to the good-natured laughing of the staff, who knew exactly what happened. Someone new had made the tea. They then offered me my second choice, a cherry coke. Kudos to the staff.
One hot July day in 1979, my brother Tim and I were tooling along in his red VW bug on North Highland Avenue when we stopped at the red light at Ponce de Leon Avenue. The car in front of us had a sunroof, and we watched the driver make a valiant attempt to lob a bag through it and into a roadside garbage can. The shot, of course, was off by several feet and the bag landed rather close to our car. Feeling some ire at witnessing brazen littering, I leapt from the car to grab it and put it into the garbage receptacle when I noticed the telltale classic red-striped Zesto packaging. My brother hollered for me to just dump the damn bag and get the hell back in the car. I did, bag in hand. Peering inside, I exclaimed, “It’s a Zesto bag with a Chubby Decker! Uneaten!” Now, since Zesto makes the very finest of hangover recovery foods, and since the Chubby Decker is the apex hamburger invention on the planet, I was loathe to toss the bag and its tempting contents. I gazed adoringly at the burger as my brother intoned, “Dave, don’t do it.” Brushing off his plea, I devoured that perfect burger between Virginia Highlands and Midtown without concern for microbial attack. While my brother threatened to race to Grady Hospital as a precautionary measure, I enjoyed every bite. Such is the stuff of daft youth and my high regard for Zesto cuisine. Would I do it again? Never, ever, ever!
I ran into Hosea Williams in the Zesto on Ponce way back in the day. He was in his trademark overalls, and he was really nice.
I introduced myself to Hosea Williams at the Zesto on Moreland, had gone to high school with his son Andre.
I was walking to the Zesto in Little Five Points to get some soft-serve when I noticed a woman pooping on one of the walls. I turned around and went back to work.
Our new house had a very similar address to the Zesto on Ponce: same number, different Ponce (Ave. vs. Mnr.), and at one point UPS started delivering us all kinds of restaurant stuff. Coffee filters, straws, mop heads, adding-machine tape, etc. UPS eventually came and picked it all up after nagging from us and the restaurant. Sadder, when Cook Out moved in, they proceeded to put our address on their website, so we got a whole bunch more stuff, which they never came to get.
There was a certain female group in the ’80s whose initiation was to drink a bottle of Jägermeister and piss in the Little Five Points Zesto parking lot. They called themselves the Hellcats and, while the initiation was mostly a joke, a couple of them actually did it. I was an honorary member, as I didn’t do such things.
Spencer L. Kirkpatrick
Zesto at Confederate and Moreland avenues (East Atlanta location): I had a heated exchange with (the) cooks regarding long hair — lots of shit talk but no blows — a true standoff. Would have been 1966.
Back in the mid-’60s, we would meet at the Zesto in Buckhead and get in our hopped-up cars and race down Roswell Road all the way to the river with radios loud. Lucky we’re all still standing. One of the cars was a ’62 Vette with a fuel-injected 327. Another one was one of my folks’ rides after we’d “fixed it up.”
Janet Smith and her sister, Priscilla Smith
Janet: Buying fried chicken livers back in the day.
Priscilla: Back in a month or so ago.
Janet: I had no idea they were still on the menu.
Priscilla: I always coveted the faded Brown Crown sign behind the counter in Little 5. Been gone a few years. In 1961 (?), all the kids on Clairmont Circle were excited because they were going to open one at North Decatur, across the street from the Colonial Store, and they had FOOT-LONG HOT DOGS!
I was at the Little Five Points Zesto with my high school/college boyfriend. He was a musician/songwriter and when people would panhandle, he would see if he could get a song out of them instead of giving them any money. Occasionally, it put me in sketchy situations. One guy approached us in Zesto and started talking him up and then told me to put my hand out. My boyfriend insisted I do it and, not wanting to anger anyone, I put it out, palm up. “Not like you takin’ from me!” he yelled. I turned my hand over, and he tried to get my grandmother’s wedding band, which I always wore, off my hand. Hurt my hand and my boyfriend didn’t even try to defend me. I rarely go there now, but always think of that when I do!
(The East Atlanta location) was my Zesto. We would stop there for pregame fulfillment before going to the Starlight Drive-In. I was a big fan of the foot-long chili slaw dog. The trick was getting a Nut Brown Crown home for my wife’s late-night munchies before it melted.
A large Fellini’s Special (Little Five Points) in 1987 was worth about six Zesto milkshakes, if memory serves. Not that we lowly employees would have bartered pizzas for shakes or anything.
Piedmont Road location at Lindbergh Drive, eight years old, throwing my paper route on a bicycle. Would get a Chubby Decker Basket for 50 cents. That came with fries, slaw, and a drink. My mum always wondered why I wasn’t hungry when I got home for dinner. Still friends with Crystal Sloan. Her dad owned all the Zestos in Atlanta: Big John Livaditis.
Inman/Candler Park/Little Five Points: watching the sunset behind downtown through the picture window with my son Emmett, now 13. He’d get a kids’ cup and I’d get a chocolate-covered cone. Definitely, those were some great, quiet, midweek rituals! Let’s go, kiddo!
I melted down a ceiling tile with a mighty mole in 1992 and it stayed there all brown and bubbly until they sold out to the burger joint. -CL-