Long-time residents and visitors were used to cheerful messages on the neon marquee in front of the uniquely Flagstaff restaurant that welcomed Cardinals football players, offered skiers a discount and served as a reminder about the “best wings in town.” But on a post-election November day, a distinct sign of change caught the attention of drivers on Milton Road. Rick Lopez was one of them.
“It said something about ‘if you are interested in this property,’” said Lopez, a realtor with RE/MAX. “My feelings were primarily a deep sense of fondness because I remember Granny’s Closet from the time I was attending NAU, and then sadness knowing that it was closing and the property was for sale.”
Frank and Sally Zanzucchi opened Granny’s Closet in 1974 and named it affectionately for Frank’s mother, Ermalinda, the beloved grandmother to their 11 children (all boys and one girl). She kept hidden treasures in her closet for youngsters to discover. Mementos, antique furniture and historic Flagstaff pictures adorning the restaurant paid homage to an earlier time.
Granny’s was a true family business – the entire immediate family worked there at some point, including second and third generation members.
But perhaps none worked harder than Frank and Sally, who were there early nearly every day, and stayed until dark. “It was my mother and father’s nature to work that hard. If something was wrong, they got it fixed. They developed a lot of good relationships with local trades people – plumbers, electricians – and the business was successful because of their work ethic,” said Martin Zanzucchi, who stepped in to manage the business after Frank died in 2005. Sally, 94, worked well into her late 80s. She endured two knee replacements while working, but a severe hernia slowed her down and allowed her to enjoy her great grandchildren and gardening at home.
She would arrive at arrive at 7 a.m. to prepare the salad bar, make lasagna and take care of business, which could mean “dickering with the farmer’s market man on the price of tomatoes,” recalled Martin.
Sally’s lasagna fueled American heroes, like Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, who flew in during the 2009 Flagstaff Festival of Science with a craving for good Italian food, and former Arizona Cardinals football player and fallen U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman.
“My favorite memory is when Pat Tillman was here,” said Martin. “It was the last day of Cardinals Training Camp and we had probably 30 Cardinals in for lunch. I went to see my mom in the back and said, ‘Mother, why don’t you go out there and wish them well?’ She marched right in and said, ‘Hey boys!’ and they all sat up straight and looked right at her, but there was one person who stood up. It was Pat Tillman. And she said, ‘I just want to wish you guys the best of luck!’ He walked over to her and gave her this big hug and I thought, ‘Wow, what a gentleman.’ That’s probably my most memorable event in all those years.”
Northern Arizona University President Emeritus Gene Hughes was shocked by the news of Granny’s closing. “The restaurant, operating under its current name and its predecessor, the Lumberjack Café, had been Flagstaff landmarks for many decades. The owners and operators, the Zanzucchi family, have been long-time supporters of Northern Arizona University, especially its athletic program throughout the restaurant’s long history. The majestic Lumberjack statues, now located outside and inside the Walkup Skydome, will continue to remind us of this iconic restaurant. It will be missed!”
The Zanzucchis donated those 20-foot statues to NAU in 1974. A smaller lumberjack statue continues to stand guard outside of Granny’s Closet, next to an antique farm tractor from the Zanzucchi’s early dairy business. Ermalinda and Ferdinando Zanzucchi moved to Flagstaff in 1929. They owned and operated the Flagstaff Dairy, which is now Flagstaff Ranch. As of now, there are no plans confirmed for where those items will go.
“There is just so much history with Granny’s Closet, it’s sad to see the establishment shut down,” said NAU Head Football Coach Jerome Souers. The Zanzucchi family has been a beholder of NAU traditions and memories. Martin has been such a strong advocate for NAU for as long as I’ve known him, which is 19 years. When you talk about ‘Tubs,’ [Martin’s nickname], everybody in the alumni association knows who we’re talking about.”
Granny’s Closet was also part of the NAU experience for generations of students. Often, it was the place to take mom and dad for lunch or dinner on Family Weekend. Some earned their first work experience in the restaurant just north of campus. “From the decor to the way you were treated as an employee – the whole atmosphere felt like you were part of the family,” said Kendra Pettis, who was a server while studying for her degree in Parks and Recreation Management. “The Zanzucchis set a very professional example for how to treat people with respect and fairness, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have worked alongside them.”
NAU Director of Communication and Media Relations Kimberly Ott recalls her work experience at Granny’s as an introduction into the community as a college student. “It was my second job in Flagstaff and it allowed me to meet lots of locals. I’m still friends with several people that I met while working at Granny’s more than 30 years ago. It was ‘the’ place to be back then and we had a blast.”
“Granny Zanzucchi, Martin and Linda, along with the rest of the Zanzucchi, family have made an indelible impression on our community dating back decades ago starting with their dairy business. The family spirit and ‘legacy of always giving back to the community they love have elevated non-profits and NAU in a big way,” said Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Julie Pastrick. “One thing for certain is change, and with this one the Greater Flagstaff Chamber extends a warm ‘thank you’ and ‘best wishes’ to the entire Zanzucchi family and all the employees who passed through this hall of fame!”
“It’s a competitive business,” said Martin. “You don’t realize how much effort it takes until you get in there and try to make a go of it. The next generation who took it over from me didn’t realize how hard it would be, plus I don’t think they were as committed to running it. You can’t run it from Phoenix. So competition and lack of commitment are the reasons why Granny’s couldn’t make it. Also, the election results had an impact with minimum wage going up. Payroll was going higher and it was going to be a struggle. I think they saw the writing on the wall.”
Martin retired from the operation in 2013. He says he received an offer to buy Granny’s property from The Hub, a housing development, at that time. “It was a good price, but my brothers in Phoenix didn’t agree, so I decided to step back from the business.”
Current manager Tim Zanzucchi was unable to be reached for comment by FBN press time.
So for now, the marquee question of who might be “interested in this property” remains unanswered, but there’s no uncertainty about the real estate Granny’s Closet occupies in the hearts of the Flagstaff community.
“Granny’s Closet has been part of growing up in this community,” said Lopez. “I knew Sally and went to school with the Zanzucchis. Martin and I played Little League together. Seeing it close is really an end of an era to so many of us in Flagstaff.” FBN
By Bonnie Stevens, FBN