I got some sad news from home today. Angelo Tsiantis, who opened my all-time favorite restaurant (and former hangout), Zesto, died Tuesday at age 75.
Angelo came to America from his native Greece as a teen. After arriving in this country in 1948, he settled in South Carolina and opened a soft-serve ice cream shop called Zesto. At the time, Zesto was a national chain; the corporate entity disappeared decades ago, but when it went under, Angelo redefined Zesto as a full-service drive-in restaurant, serving not only ice cream and shakes, but burgers and the best fried chicken in the world. (No, I’m not making that up. It really is the best!)
But more than being a success at owning and managing a chain of restaurants, Angelo created an atmosphere where people want to take their families, where quality is at least as important as making a profit, and where employees treat you like a member of the family. He was widely known as “Mr. A” around Columbia, because no one was sure how to tackle his last name.
I had been a regular at Zesto almost since I was born, and though he had slowed down in his later years, he still came to work, not quite able to tear himself away from the business he loved. You have to admire that kind of dedication.
I remember once when my best friend and I were making one of our many trips there for dinner, and we were ordering burgers. He and I each had our own set of requests…he ordered a Zestoburger with extra cheese and no lettuce, I ordered a Zestoburger with no tomatoes or onions. Angelo smiled and winked at me as he struggled to fit these instructions on the order pad. My buddy ordered sweetened tea with extra lemon, and when I was about to order mine, he said, “Let me guess!” (And he was right: no lemon for me.)
He remembered those minor details, which made the customers feel all the more like they were really appreciated.
Working side by side with Angelo for more than half a century has been his close friend, Gus Manos. I’ve known Gus and his family — I went to school with his son — for many years, and I know they’re having a rough time dealing with the loss of their friend and colleague. My thoughts are with them all. It’s a difficult time for the many people who got to know Mr. A from across the counter in all those years, too.
Goodbye, Angelo, and thanks for the memories.