A Family Thing

By Hannah Blair Hurt

Joe “Dixie” Fuller prepares his peach cobbler for his family restaurant Zarzour’s. Sunday, November 20, 2022. (Photo by Hannah Blair Hurt)

Walking through the door of Zarzour’s Cafe on Chattanooga’s Southside feels a bit like walking into a time capsule containing four generations of Zarzour family history, owners of the small brick building for over 100 years. The shelves and walls are adorned with an array of heirlooms and memorabilia, from family photos, celebrity autographs and newspaper clippings to Charles Zarzour’s naturalization papers from 1946, signed in Arabic.

“It’s in my soul, it’s in my blood,” says Joe “Dixie” Fuller, current owner and great-grandson of the original Zarzour. “Everybody’s like, you ought to sell that, but I’m not selling that. I’ve been offered stupid money for that place. It’s not for sale, not on my watch.”

Fuller’s great-grandfather, Charles, arrived from Lebanon at Ellis Island in the early 1900s. After meeting up with cousins in Birmingham, Alabama and working as a door-to-door salesman for a while, Charles decided he would make his way north to Chattanooga. He found the property at 1627 Rossville, and purchased it for $1,000 in 1915. He continued with his unwavering salesmanship, selling popcorn, soda and homemade peanut brittle outside his humble homestead, alongside his loyal wife and five children. 

A photo of Charles and Nazera Zarzour, Joe Fuller’s great-grandparents, hangs on the wall of Zarzour’s Cafe. Wednesday, November 9, 2022. (Photo by Hannah Blair Hurt)

“I never got a chance to meet him,” Fuller says. “But my mom said he was a fun, fun guy. He was happy all the time… He must have been a character. All the pictures that I’ve got of him, and I’ve got many, he’s always smiling. I’ve got some video and he’s dancing out front of the restaurant doing this thing. It’s really incredible.”

The oldest of Zarzour’s five children was Rose, Fuller’s great-aunt. It was her idea to start serving plate lunches alongside her father’s sweets. 

“Aunt Rose said she said, ‘You know, Daddy, we ought to sell a hamburger or a hot dog or something,’” Fuller says. “Then at a later date, she brought the plate lunches in. She offered one entree. I remember growing up, her having really good vegetables, but it was only potatoes, pinto beans, turnip greens and just one entree.” 

Zazour’s now prepares two entrees, five vegetables and at least one dessert every weekday to serve their customers, both regulars and first-timers. One thing, besides the food, they have always focused on is their ability to make their customers feel at home.

“They’re all human, regular human people,” Fuller says. “They’re very successful. They’re very wealthy, but they walk through Zarzours, everybody’s just the same… They come in there cause they don’t have to act like they got it. They don’t have to tell anybody about it. They don’t have to sit in front of the board of directors at Zarzours. They come in there and be their own self.”

A customer enjoys lunch at the bar at Zarzour’s cafe. Wednesday, November 9, 2022. (Photo by Hannah Blair Hurt)

Although the Southside is now a popular spot in town for dinner, drinks and entertainment, it wasn’t always the lively district it is now. Abandoned buildings, warehouses and factories were most of what you’d see driving down Main Street. Zarzour’s struggled through this time with recession and family illness, and Fuller’s mother almost closed the doors, but the restaurant persevered. 

“Even the sad times are part of what gives you character and makes you who you are,” Fuller says. “…The longevity and the ups and downs and the happy and the sad. It means a lot.”

Proud is an understatement for how Fuller feels about his family’s legacy, and that’s the main reason he keeps the restaurant running. Each piece of the building and its contents tell the story of over 100 years of family, food and community. 

“It’s such a wonderful place that I like everything about it, to be honest with you,” Fuller says. “Even if an air conditioner goes down, it costs me a thousand bucks. I still get back to liking it before too long. I mean, I don’t have a lot of money to go, but I’ll find a way. Don’t you worry about that. It’ll be open a year from now. It’ll be open. Promise you.”

You can visit Zarzour’s Cafe at 1627 Rossville Ave, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Monday through Friday from 11-2. 

Audio by Hannah Blair Hurt.

Meet the Storyteller

Hannah Blair Hurt is a final semester senior Communication major at UT Chattanooga. She is a writer and storyteller with special interest in feature and entertainment. She comes from a family of musicians and travelers, having been to 46 states before the age of ten. Hannah Blair has written for the University Echo, Rising Rock Media and is currently interning at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. For questions or collaboration with Hannah Blair, email zpf745@mocs.utc.edu.

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