Zimmer’s Seafood in Gentilly is open five days a week. But Charleen Zimmer, who opened the seafood shop with her husband, Craig, in 1980, works six days a week.
On Mondays, when the seafood shop is closed, she comes in by herself to cook gumbo, stuffed crabs, stuffed peppers, potato salad, crab salad and crawfish and corn bisque.
“I like the peace,” she said. “And not having to answer the phone constantly.”
Not that she doesn’t like her staff, all of whom are family, except for two “girls” who help on Fridays.
“They’ve been here long enough, they’re like related,” she said.
And she does love her customers.
“I have customers that I know by name,” Charleen said. “And 38 years ago, some of them were babies and they still come here.”
When Charleen and Craig, who lived in New Orleans East, bought the seafood market and renamed it Zimmer’s, it was a model of mom-and-pop vertical integration. Craig was a shrimper and a crabber. Charleen, a hairdresser at the time, sold the seafood in their new shop. And at first, Zimmer’s just had raw and boiled seafood.
Then Charleen added po-boys, which she cooked on a little tabletop deep fryer.
“We started that because summertime gets so slow around here,” she said.
She didn’t have to go far for the bread: John Gendusa bakery was right next door. And it still is, one of the few bakeries making French bread that wasn’t closed by Hurricane Katrina or bought up by Leidenheimer.
Zimmer’s almost didn’t make it back after Katrina hit and the levees failed in 2005.
“The day after the hurricane, I called the boy at the bakery and he said, ‘Charleen, your roof is off, but you have no water. And like an hour later, when the London Avenue Canal busted, he called me back said, ‘We’ve got water now.'”
Eight feet of water filled the shop.
The day before the storm, a friend asked if he could store 10 boxes of crabs in her cooler.
“They were live crabs when they went in my cooler, but they looked like boiled crabs in the cooler by the time we got back here,” she said.
Their home in New Orleans East was also destroyed by the storm. They moved in with a cousin in Pearl River.
“We had to make money some kind of way,” she said. “We were actually buying fresh shrimp at the docks and going out on the road, and sitting with an ice chest and a scale and selling shrimp on the side of the road.”
Eventually, they rebuilt Zimmer’s, although Craig lost his boat in the storm and gave up shrimping and crabbing. And though the neighborhood was still struggling to return when Zimmer’s reopened, the old customers came back. Charleen still can’t talk about that without tearing up.
Charleen is justly proud that her shrimp po-boy gets glowing press from time to time, although she’s modest about what makes it better than most.
“I don’t know,” she said. “We fry them like you do it at home. It’s not just little shrimp thrown together. We…