You know the old Southern adage: In Atlanta, they ask you what business you’re in. In Charleston, they ask your mama’s maiden name. In Savannah, the most important question has always been, “What do you want to drink?”
No matter what the answer is, the people at Johnnie Ganem’s have kept Savannah’s glasses full for the past 70 years. And whatever you may think about the evils of alcohol, this shop has a history as wholesome and honorable as it gets.
From the moment Johnnie Ganem opened his tiny package shop on the corner of Price and Gaston in 1942, the budding small businessman was the go–to guy for wine and booze. He emerged as “the host with the most” at several different eateries at a new location just down the block on Habersham a few years later.
A first generation Lebanese–American and devout Roman Catholic, Ganem penetrated the upper echelons of Savannah society with his easy charm and honest business practices, becoming a member of the Hibernian Society and the Elks Club and rising to a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus. He was active in both in church and civic life, and some will tell you he’s a good part of the reason Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration “is what it is.”
Yet he was also known for treating all his customers with respect and kindness, whether they were buying a bottle of expensive French wine for a dinner party or a single can of Schlitz to be enjoyed from the paper bag in the parking lot.
The legendary liquor purveyor and restaurateur passed away in 1972 at 56, suffering a heart attack on his beloved St. Patrick’s Day. But his good name lives on: His family has continued his tradition of supplying libations in the manner to which Savannah has become accustomed.
Pop into Johnnie Ganem’s and you’ll find some amalgam of surviving kin: There’s Margaret Rose, the eldest daughter, and Evelyn, the baby of the brood who runs the office. Evelyn’s daughter, Marianne, is the marketing director.
Anyone who’s serious about wine knows Paul, the middle Ganem son and resident sommelier. Two other brothers, John Jr. and Charles, worked in their father’s store for years before setting up their own respective businesses in town.
“Daddy trained all of us in some aspect of the business as we were growing up,” explains Evelyn. “John was a host, Paul was in the kitchen, Charles spent most of his time in the liquor shop, Margaret bartended and I was trained in the office.”
Even their indefatigable mother, 91-year–old Louise Ganem, still comes in to count the register.
“She just went down to five days a week from six,” chuckles Evelyn.
Also a child of Lebanese immigrants, Louise grew up in Jacksonville and was introduced to Johnnie in the heady years after WWII by a nosy acquaintance playing matchmaker.
“It was kind of wanderlust when I was young. I traveled all over,” the lady confides with a grin. “I came to Savannah to meet a friend, and I ended up working at a little luncheonette. He was the coin pick–up man for the jukebox and somebody told him he had to meet the cute little Lebanese girl.”
The couple settled in Thunderbolt and set to work starting a family and growing a business. Not content to stay home, Louise was a partner from the beginning, raising the children as the shop expanded.
“I was always involved in the business,” she says proudly. “I always worked, whether as waitress or a hostess or a soda jerk.”
“Basically, we were here in strollers,” laughs Margaret Rose.
In 1949, Johnnie acquired a vacant lot on Habersham with the vision of turning it into a restaurant. (“He always had an eye on the property,” remembers Louise.) He built a space to accommodate a drive–thru window for the package store and a sunny spot for The Habersham House, a quintessential ‘50s soda fountain complete with vinyl booths and thick malts, and always hoppin’ with boys in penny loafers and girls in poodle skirts.
A few years later, the entrepreneur bought the four–story house behind his shop and opened The Steak Ranch, a high–end chophouse that grilled its meat over coals and quickly emerged as a favorite amongst the movers and shakers of the time: Picture the biggest business deals of the day hashed out over three–martini lunches by guys in Mad Men suits.
(Folks still talk about the “Garbage Steak,” so named because it was a cut of tenderloin so choice that if wasn’t cooked to order the day it came from the wholesalers, it had to be thrown away. At $10.50, the Garbage Steak was the highest ticket item on the menu. Such were the good ol’ days.)
In the early ‘60s, Johnnie lopped off the top of the back building and opened the Rebel Room, a weekend supper club featuring a three-piece combo.
“People would get all dressed up and come to eat and dance,” reminisces Evelyn. “We had a group that would come every Saturday night.”
The Rebel Room got its name from the collection of Library of Congress replica portraits on the original Savannah gray brick walls depicting local Confederate soldiers along with General Robert E. Lee. Though they may seem politically incorrect, the portraits remain a point of pride for the family as they were bequeathed to Johnnie by his dear friend, the late Senator Herman Talmadge.
In most neighborhoods, a liquor store on the corner might be considered a scourge, but even in the city’s necrotic years, business continued to boom. People still came to eat and dance, and of course, pick up a bottle and a pack of smokes to go.
“In the late sixties, early seventies, the whole downtown area was in decline,” says Paul. “We were blessed that we had very little of those troubles.”
The veritable compound saw its share of celebrities over the years, including the dashing Cary Grant, Telly Savalas and Burt Reynolds (in town to film that crazy car chase down the middle of Forsyth Park at the beginning of The Longest Yard).
But the most incredible star sighting had to be in September 1964, when the plane carrying a young band from Liverpool was diverted from their Jacksonville destination to avoid Hurricane Dora.
“I remember my uncle came over one night, real late, and got me out of bed,” Margaret Rose mentions casually. “I walked into the Steak Ranch and there were the Beatles.”
Though the Fab Four’s clandestine midnight stopover in Savannah is not documented anywhere (alas, no Ganems snapped any photos that night, though Margaret Rose still has the autographs), Beatles authority Mark Lewisohn confirms in The Complete Beatles Chronicle that the band’s plane was indeed rerouted from Quebec during their first North American tour: There was a stop in Key West on Sept. 9, and records show that the Fab Four arrived in Jacksonville just hours before their scheduled performance on Sept. 11, 1964.
How they ended up in Savannah is anyone’s guess — perhaps another attempt to fly into Jacksonville during the hurricane on Sept. 10 went south. Or north, as it were.
All the Ganem restaurants had closed by 1982, and even dynamo chef Paul got out of catering a few years ago. But Johnnie Ganem’s original pursuit remains, making it the oldest package store in the city.
The family is celebrating the shop’s 70th anniversary this year with seven different Rebel Room wine tasting events to benefit local charities, including Second Harvest Food Bank, The American Cancer Society, the Rape Crisis Center and the Women’s Legacy Council of the United Way.
“Our dad always believed in service, in giving back to the community,” says Paul. “He always wanted to help out the neighborhood.”
“We’re focusing on local chapters that do their work right here in Savannah,” adds Evelyn.
They kick off with a VIP party June 14, which would’ve been the patriarch’s 97th birthday. If he were here to raise a toast to seven decades in business, what would be in the glass?
“Hmm, what did Daddy drink?” muses Evelyn.“ He drank vodka in the summer...”
“... and scotch in the winter,” finishes Paul.
“Dewar’s,” confirms Margaret Rose.
With that, they clink glasses to an entrepreneur and community leader who was most of all a family man.
If they serve spirits at the big bar in the sky, you can bet he’s toasting them right back.