Crossing Nazi-occupied Europe with General Patton’s Third Army, Arthur Zimmerman wished for two things: to get out of the war in one piece, and to come home to a juicy hamburger and luscious milkshake.
Both wishes came true. Zimmerman returned to his beloved San Francisco, started a restaurant and became a local legend. He also became a great mover and shaker in the Bay Area Jewish community.
With his death Jan. 22 at age 87 from complications due to a stroke, the community lost one of its most ardent champions.
Zimmerman was “an exuberant, emotional Jew,” remembered Ed Cushman, executive director of the Hebrew Free Loan Association. “He was someone who cared deeply about our community and had an affinity for the people he was close to.”
Anyone who spent time in postwar San Francisco knew the familiar pink-and-orange Zim’s logo. Zimmerman was the Bay Area’s unofficial burger king, offering a simple menu that predated McDonald’s by several years. Zim’s was founded in 1949.
For years Zim’s was the largest privately held restaurant chain in the region.
But Zimmerman was more than a purveyor of burgers. He was also a shrewd real estate magnate, a devoted family man and tireless advocate for Jewish causes, from Jewish Vocational Service, which he co-founded, to Brandeis Hillel Day School and religious congregations.
Born in Poland in 1920, Zimmerman came to San Francisco as a toddler. He and his family lived in a converted horse stable near McAllister Street, then part of a Jewish neighborhood.
Zimmerman weathered the Depression by taking a paper route and other odd jobs. His father, Jacob, was a house painter. Soon after graduating from Commerce High School, Arthur Zimmerman openeda paint store.
“He thought it was a logical business to go into,” said son Steve Zimmerman. “He figured he could always sell his inventory to his father. He used to mix paints for customers, and he found out after being drafted into the army that he was color blind.”
That army stint took him across Europe. As for that burger and shake, Zimmerman borrowed from the Hebrew Free Loan Association, rented space near his paint store and opened a small restaurant. He was no cook, but he knew what customers liked.
“He served nothing but quality burgers,” Steve Zimmerman said. “He would grind his own meat. He used real ice cream and found a bakery to make homemade apple pie. That was the core of his business. He didn’t add fries until 25 years after, because he thought they had the negative image of a greasy joint.”
Encouraged by his father to get into real estate, Arthur Zimmerman bought his first apartment building near the Marina. Real estate became a parallel business for him, one that proved equally successful.
The Zim’s chain grew to 19 restaurants. Zimmerman also opened such eateries as Casa Carlita’s, Kibby’s Drive-In on the Peninsula and Z’s Bountiful Buffets. All told, he ran 35 Bay Area restaurants.
The last Zim’s closed in 1995.
Zimmerman grew up in an observant kosher home, and he carried on the traditions. Zimmerman always tried to make Shabbat special for the family.
“Dad loved music, especially Jewish music,” remembered daughter Nancy Pechner in her eulogy. “Whether it be around our Shabbat table every Friday night with the three generations, or just the two of us together at shul, Dad always sang with his huge Yiddishe neshama — his Jewish soul.”
That Jewish soul propelled him to do countless good works in the Jewish community. He served as president of Congregation Beth Sholom (a synagogue co-founded by his father), regional president of United Synagogues of America, and president of the Bureau of Jewish Education, Sinai Memorial Chapel and the San Francisco council of the Jewish National Fund.
He also helped found Jewish Vocational Service and served as an early president. Never forgetting that loan early in his life, Zimmerman also served as an officer and lifetime board member of the Hebrew Free Loan Association.
The Jewish Home, Israel Bonds, AJCommittee, B’nai B’rith and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation all benefited from his involvement. He was instrumental in the founding of Brandeis Hillel Jewish Day School, and his daughter Nancy, a Wexner fellow, went on to help found Jewish Community High School of the Bay.
In retirement, Zimmerman was a busy grandfather, and active with Congregation Kol Shofar after he moved to the North Bay. Though he was not untouched by tragedy — his first wife died while giving birth, and both his second wife and daughter Beverly predeceased him — he kept his zest for life.
“He used to hold court in the hot tub at the [Marin] JCC,” Steve Zimmerman recalled. “He had a very positive, optimistic view of life.”
At the 2006 college graduation of a grandson, Zimmerman suffered a debilitating stroke. But even that blow couldn’t dim his spirit.
“I think showing your love is about as good as it gets,” added daughter Nancy Pechner, “and Art Zimmerman was the king of love.”
Arthur Zimmerman is survived by son Steve Zimmerman and daughter-in-law Judy of San Rafael; daughter Nancy Pechner and son-in-law Richard of Fairfax; brother Harold Zimmerman of Tiburon; his companion Carol Weitz; sister Esther Ososke of San Francisco; and seven grandchildren. Donations may be made to the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, Brandeis Hillel Jewish Day School or to the Alice and Arthur Zimmerman Library at Kiryat Shimona, Israel.