Old Savannah: Friendly Spirits

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It was the cutest of meet-cutes. 

The year was 1941, and Johnnie Ganem was a truck driver, ferrying Try-Me soda from Savannah to Jacksonville. Louise Thomas was a waitress from Jacksonville who had just moved to Savannah to work the counter at a new luncheonette. Their paths soon crossed at the jukebox—a clandestine moment to the tune of bebop. In 1945, they got married and settled in to build the family business Johnnie had opened three years earlier: Johnnie Ganem’s Liquor Store, on Price and Gaston.

After moving to the corner of Habersham and Gaston in 1948, Johnnie Ganem’s became a bustling establishment with a catering service and a nine-stool soda shop named The Habersham House, where Johnnie and Louise’s burgers and deviled crab reigned supreme.

Johnnie Ganem’s Habersham House, circa 1950s.

In the mid-1950s, the couple took over the building next door and called it Johnnie Ganem’s Steak Ranch. Expanding their menu to include hand-cut steaks grilled over charcoal, the Ranch was open for lunch and dinner, as well as a late-night breakfast from midnight to 5 a.m., catering to the party crowd and the hospitality industry. A few years later, they opened the Rebel Room, a cabaret-style weekend supper club with dancing and live bands.

Celebrities flocked to Ganem’s—Cary Grant, Polly Bergen, even The Beatles—to join for a glass of scotch or a Garbage Steak, the house specialty nicknamed for its tender cut that spoiled if not cooked the same day it was delivered. This was a place that knew no outsiders, only friends.

Savannah Jaycee Pioneer Day Dance, 1952

When Johnnie passed away in 1972, Louise and her children, Johnnie Jr., Charlie, Paul, Margaret Rose and Evelyn Anne, took the reins. A little more than a decade later, the family closed the restaurants, refocusing on the catering side and the original package shop.

In 2017, Johnnie Ganem’s celebrated 75 years in business—a fête that drew the elite of Old Savannah by the hundreds. Judging by the fond stories she told that night, it was clear that Louise Ganem—96 years old—still only had eyes for her truck driver.