Editor’s note: As new restaurants open every day in Charlotte, it’s easy to forget about the old standbys, the places that have grown up alongside the Queen City. We think they’ll always be there for us, but so many favorites have closed along the way. This makes it even more important to support the ones we love. Our Gems of the Queen City series highlights the places that you have frequented for years, reminding us why they have stood the test of time.
If you haven’t lived in Charlotte for long, there is a chance you’ve driven by Zack’s Hamburgers’ red-and-white awning, umbrella tables and retro red-and-yellow sign without realizing the significance of this Charlotte staple.
Located on the corner of Scaleybark and South Boulevard, Zack’s has been spinning milkshakes and flipping some of the best burgers in town since 1975. This family-owned shop was originally founded by James Demopolous, whose children all worked there while they were growing up. In 1990, his son, George, took over the business (which is named after one of his brothers).
“Dad said, ‘You take care of the kitchen, and the lights will always be on,’” said George Demopolous, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Elaine. “He was right.”
Demopolous calls Zack’s a Mayberry store in a big city. The old-school fast-food joint is known for its burgers, hot dogs, southern plates, onion rings, milkshakes and feelings of nostalgia with every last bite.
With about 20 sandwich options and about 10 southern plates, settling on your order can be a challenge. Plus, don’t even get started on dessert — will it be a chocolate milkshake or a slice of pecan pie? Life-altering decisions here, people.
“I tell customers that if you can’t decide on what to order, just throw a dart at the menu. Everything is good,” Demopolous said.
After placing an order, customers wait eagerly for their order numbers to be called out through the microphone. There is a decent chance those customers are waiting on a Zack’s Special, the most popular item on the menu. This award-winning burger is stacked with two 100% ground beef patties, two slices of American cheese, fresh-cut lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, mayonnaise and special sauce, all sandwiched between a toasted sesame seed bun. It also comes with lightly-salted, thin-cut French fries — all for a whopping total of $6.35. Sounds simple, but the taste is far from typical.
“Our secret is the ingredients,” Demopolous said. “Whatever Dad used when he first started is what we use today. We have had no big changes since then — just small things here and there to keep things up to standard. We have always been consistent.”
Another crowd favorite is Zack’s onion rings. They are made in-house, battered to perfection and have a crisp, fresh taste. Pro-tip: Always, always, always order them as an additional side. Totally worth the extra calories.
Running into a loyal customer who has been eating at Zack’s ever since it opened 44 years ago would be no surprise. From then to now, Zack’s has seen five generations of customers. During a visit, you may see a couple of teenagers sharing a milkshake with two straws, a young family eating hot dogs or an elderly couple chatting about life and sharing a southern plate.
“We get all sorts of customers,” Demopolous said. “We even get a lot of families with kids, and you know the food is good when kids want to eat it.”
Not only is the food tasty and sold at a reasonable price, the service is even better. The staff strives to accommodate the needs of all customers who step through the front doors. Zack’s staff treats customers as if they were family and goes above and beyond to serve them. Think of how you would treat your grandma if she came to your house to visit — that is how Demopolous compares his customer-to-staff relationship.
It’s no secret Charlotte’s food and drink scene has boomed over the years. Thanks to immense growth and development, Charlotte is not the same place it was a decade ago. Yet — Zack’s persists. “We do not see ourselves as the best,” Demopolous said. “But we will always do our best.”
During a recent visit, Demopolous flipped burgers in the kitchen, helped take orders at the front counter, went out of his way to open the door for guests and struck up conversations with anyone who walked through the front doors. His passion for his work and customers is evident, not only through his words, but through his tiny gestures on a day-to-day basis.
Talking to Demopolous is like talking to a lifelong friend. “All the restaurants here in the city have individual personalities,” he said.
Demopolous said he believes in what they sell at Zack’s. “She is a tough business, and you just have to love it from your heart with much passion,” Demopolous said.
Even with a surplus of buzzworthy restaurants within Charlotte’s city limits, many still make a case for Zack’s serving up the best burger in town. There is still something special about a timeless meal served by genuine people who helped pave the way for what is now Charlotte’s food and drink scene.
“We have kept this place as simplistic and as wonderful as my dad and mom ran it,” Demopolous said. “They taught my siblings and I how to work and how to do things right, as the customer is always right.”
4009 South Blvd.
Closed Saturday and Sunday.