Zip's Cafe in Mount Lookout celebrates 90 years in business

Posted at 9:52 AM, Jul 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-13 09:54:36-04

CINCINNATI — Zip’s Cafe will mark 90 years of serving hamburgers in Mount Lookout on Wednesday, and the eatery plans to celebrate with beer.  

“We collaborated with Rhinegeist on a pale ale called Deluxe,” said Zip’s current owner Mike Burke.

Burke will tap the beer at the cafe, at 1063 Delta Ave., at 5 p.m. to kick off an evening of giveaways including Cincinnati Reds and FC Cincinnati tickets, beer swag and surprise specials for longtime Zip's patrons.

The beer is a specialty brew named in honor of Zip’s deluxe cheeseburger, which the cafe’s original owner, Zip Kirschner, first made in 1926, Burke said.

“That’s one of the things we do best: consistency,” he said. “Ours is the simple burger and keeping that the same has always been important to us.”

The History 

For Zip's that "simple burger" has meant buying meat from Downtown's Avril-Bleh & Sons Meat Market and serving it "deluxe" on a Klosterman bun with lettuce, tomato and onion since the beginning.

“The prices have definitely gone up, but that is inevitable,” said Burke.

Burke is the sixth owner of Zip’s. He grew up in Cincinnati and got his first job at Zip's as a teenager in the 1990s. He became its manager in 2005 and bought the place from former owner Brian Murrie in 2015. Burke said Murrie also worked at the restaurant before buying it from another local businessman, Ron Bircher, in 1994.

Two other former Zip’s owners, Harold Stumpf and John Gerber, were from Cincinnati as well. They all made Zip’s burgers the same way.

“I feel it is what makes sense for the business,” Burke said. “If somebody else came in, it just wouldn’t work. We’re just a small, local place.”

Over the years, the owners have left the cafe’s decor unchanged. For example, the men’s restroom is located near the back bar while the women’s is near the front dining area -- “Women weren’t allowed back in the bar room when Zip’s first opened,” Burke said.

The bar area, known as the code room, served other purposes through the years. During the mid-20th century, the "code room" was where Zip’s customers placed illegal bets on horse races. 

"I know we ran books for the local horse tracks for quite sometime," Burke said. The 'code' always said if the blinds in the front of the cafe were open, the books were open. There's even a spot out front where old phone lines to call in all the bets to get the numbers were located."

The People

Gambling eventually ended, but the people who have come to simply eat burgers have remained largely the same. Burke points to Zip’s longest-working employee, Jim Marck, as an example.

“He’s worked here longer than I’ve been alive,” the 35-year-old Burke said.

Marck, 57, started as a doorman at Zip’s after his 21st birthday on April 1, 1980. Marck said at the time he was hired, Ohio allowed bars and restaurants to serve a weak brew called three-two beer to patrons over age 18. Those young adults came into Zip's on evenings and weekends for the drinks as much as the food, he said.

Now, Marck mostly works the cafe’s bar -- and he continues to see familiar faces from when he first started.

“I am waiting on third-generation costumers,” he said. “I waited on kids with their parents. Those kids now have kids.”

Marck, along with Burke, also has encountered celebrities who have visited the cafe.

“I was there on a Saturday night, going back close to 20 years ago, when George Clooney came in wearing a peacoat and pulled-down hat,” Marck said. “He ordered two cups of coffee that cost 75 cents back then. When he left, he handed the server $20 and told her to keep it.”

Burke said former White Stripes singer Jack White also stopped by the cafe one night before he owned the place.

“That was the big one for me,” he said. “I think that’s the first time I saw a national celebrity.”

A parade of Cincinnati Bengals and Reds players also have come in for a burger over the years, such as former Reds Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo and multiple players on the Bengals' offensive line.

“(Reds player) Billy Hamilton is one of the guys who comes in now,” Marck said. “We get a lot of pro athletes because nobody bothers them.”

Burke said Zip’s will continue to serve its deluxe burger to athletes, celebrities and Mount Lookout regulars for a long time; he does not plan to change a nearly century-old winning formula.

“I did install new custom blinds and awning,” he said. “Most of that stuff will hopefully go unnoticed."