In the Zesto on Piedmont Road in Buckhead, owner Jimbo Livaditis is more comfortable introducing the people that work there than talking about himself.
I get it. I find the people with the most interesting stories are often reluctant to have the spotlight shine on them. They didn’t get where they are by being in the paper every week or seeking out awards and publicity.
But when he talked about the area back when his father John Livaditis opened this location, Livaditis leaned forward and pointed to where the Zesto was originally less than a block away, toward Lindbergh Drive, when it was a walkup ice cream shop. It had formerly been a Miss Georgia Dairy.
He talked about Ben Massell, the real estate mogul who owned nearly everything around Piedmont and Lindbergh. Massell persuaded John Livaditis to buy the land and open a Zesto there. The Livaditis family lived around the corner in the 1960s, in a two-story apartment building off Lindbergh.
The area was the melting pot of Atlanta, Jimbo Livaditis said, with people of every nationality and every walk of life. The Livaditises are Greek.
They eventually moved to Chastain Park. Jimbo Livaditis graduated from Northside High School, where he played football. He and his wife, Leigh Ann, and their children live in Buckhead.
The first Atlanta Zesto was actually next to the Beer Mug on Peachtree Road across from the Brookwood train station. It, too, was a walkup, serving only ice cream, just one flavor: vanilla. Jimbo worked there when he was a teenager. It opened in 1949, 70 years ago.
John Livaditis and his four siblings were the first generation of their family born in America. Their parents emigrated from Greece. John was the fourth of five and became the man of the house when his father died when he was 16.
He took whatever job he could to provide for his family, including sweeping the streets of Moline, Illinois, and serving as a police officer. He was also a Golden Gloves boxer. He was big guy — more on that later.
After serving in World War II — he was the driver for Gen. Mark Clark during the Italian campaign — he landed in Columbia, S.C., met his future wife, Anna Mae, and started opening Zestos across the Southeast. They were called Zesto because the ice cream machine was the Zest-O-Mat. It was a corporate gig.
In the mid-’50s, the company decided it didn’t want anything to do with the retail stores, making the operators independent. By then, John Livaditis and his young family had relocated to Atlanta, which he recognized was growing rapidly.
That corporate change was a boon, as the elder Livaditis changed the concept to serve more than ice cream, adding hot dogs, hamburgers and fries to the menu, and changing his Zestos to drive-ins. The five locations remain in that mold to this day, a throwback to car hops, double-decker burgers and milkshakes.
That flexibility and ingenuity is a Livaditis family trait.
Back when the Peachtree location only served ice cream, John Livaditis sold Christmas trees in the parking lot in November and December. Soon, he was selling trees all over Buckhead and beyond, traveling to Canada and Minnesota to hand-select them.
He was 6 feet, 2 inches tall, weighed 300 pounds and broad shoulders with a tiny waist. John Livaditis is the “Big John” of Big John’s Christmas Trees, which is also a family business. He died in 1995.
There are not two more opposite businesses, but people don’t buy as much ice cream in the winter, and no one is buying Christmas trees in the summer. It worked. The elder Livaditis used that success to bring families from Greece to work for him, ensuring others had an opportunity to realize their own American dream.
I didn’t know “Big John” Livaditis, but I imagine he wouldn’t suffer some guy from a local paper peppering him with a bunch of questions about his life.
His son prefers talking about architecture, his employees (basketball great Walt Frazier worked at the Little Five Points location back in the day) or the type of ice cream machine they have — it’s not a Zest-O-Mat; they don’t make them anymore. Don’t get him started on what real ice cream is.
That’s pretty unique and refreshing in today’s day and age, a bit of a nod to an early era, just like Zesto.