Out of the Ashes

The Zimmermans lost their home of 13 years to a fire one week before Christmas in 2010. Even as the rubble smoldered, a close-knit Newborn community rallied around the family of eight and provided hope where it was so desperately needed.

by David Roten

Paul Zimmerman stood alone, quietly surveying what used to be. Smoke still rose from hot embers while a few lingering flames licked up the remains of what he, his wife Laura and their six children had called home for 13 years. It was one week before Christmas in 2010. “I just stared at it thinking, ‘What am I going to do next?’” Paul said. As he struggled with the reality of what happened and a host of other questions, an older woman drove up and stopped in front of the smoldering rubble. “She got out of her car and she walked up and looked at it, and she looked at me,” Paul said. “She had tears rolling down her cheeks, and she gave me a hug. She just stood there with her arm around me for a few minutes, and then she got in her car and left. She never said a word and neither did I, but I got a lot of strength from her.”

Expressions of support from neighbors and residents of the Newborn community began to flow in almost immediately. “It started that night,” Paul said. “While the house was [still] burning, people started showing up.” Some brought hot coffee to ward off the winter chill, while others simply stood by to offer their sympathy and concern. Fortunately, the displaced family had a guest cottage on their horse ranch property into which they could squeeze, but almost all of their possessions had been lost in the fire. “Then,” Paul said, “we had no idea what was coming.” 

The family was greeted by an avalanche of food, clothing, Christmas toys, equine tack and miscellaneous household items donated by local citizens, most of whom the Zimmermans had never met. “It was mind-boggling,” Paul said. “People came for weeks.” So great were the generous contributions that the Zimmermans were forced to turn their basement into something of a makeshift Goodwill store just to sort it all out. 

“Life changed,” Paul said, remembering the day it all came tumbling down. It took a year to build a new house “just across the creek” from where the old one once stood and another year perhaps for the Zimmerman family to settle back into a sense of normalcy. 

“We literally lost everything. I homeschooled, so I had files of paintings and pictures and stories and poems and everything they ever did stored in that house.”

Laura Zimmerman

Ten years after fire burned their house to the ground, Paul and Laura use the same word to describe the experience: humbling. “We literally lost everything,” Laura said. “I homeschooled, so I had files of paintings and pictures and stories and poems and everything they ever did stored in that house.” She lost keepsakes from her own childhood, including Bryer horses and Barbie dolls, as well as an old iron that belonged to her great grandmother. Paul’s beloved collection of original autographed “Hardy Boys” books represented another painful loss. Each of the children had their own list of favorite things that were now gone forever. Veronica, who was 8 years old at the time, rendered a poignant portrayal of heartbreaking loss as she sifted through the smoldering remains every day looking for anything that might have survived. “It was really hard watching her go through that,” Laura said. Though they hated their kids had to face such a tragedy, Paul and Laura have seen them grow as a result of it. “They learned things and have strength today that came from that experience of losing everything,” Paul said. “All of that stuff is replaceable,” Laura said. “What is not replaceable is your family. I think it just taught us all to humble down and just appreciate what we do have, go with God’s plan in our lives and just keep moving forward.”

After spending 30 years in medical sales, the company for which Paul once worked downsized in 2017, leaving him unemployed and overqualified to start over somewhere else. After several months of fruitless job hunting, he once again found himself asking a most difficult question: “What am I going to do next?” The answer came when Laura noticed a for-sale sign on the Biscuit Shack, a small breakfast spot in Newborn owned by former Atlanta Braves pitcher Pat Jarvis. “Paul has always talked about opening a biscuit shack,” Laura said. When she suggested that Paul give this one a look, he thought she was joking initially but soon discovered otherwise. “I went to look at it and started to see an opportunity,” he said, “so we bought it.” In the fall of 2018, after months of repair and renovation, ZimSkillet opened its doors for business.

More than a year and a half later, the former Biscuit Shack has been repurposed and features what Paul describes as old-school, real pit barbeque. “Everybody thinks their BBQ is the best in the world, but mine really is,” he said with a laugh. Lunch and dinner menus outline a mouthwatering array of comfort food, including baby-back ribs, brisket, pulled pork sandwiches, tenderloin, smoked chicken sandwiches and wraps, lemon pepper chicken salad, specialty sides and more. “I try to do it the right way and put a lot of passion and love into everything I cook,” Paul said. Set up primarily as a drive-thru, the restaurant has inside seating for eight, as well as a couple of picnic tables outside for those wishing to linger longer. 

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Though Zimmerman had neither formal training in the culinary arts nor any prior experience in the restaurant industry, the long leap from medical sales to restaurant ownership has proven successful thus far. He credits his mother, whom he describes as an extraordinary cook, for getting him started as a young boy: “She always had me in the kitchen helping her.”

Nowadays, Paul does most of the cooking while Laura runs the business side. “I manage the money,” she said. “He’s the people person.” Married for 30 years, the Zimmermans concede they are complete opposites who complement each other well. “I’ve always had to rein him in,” Laura said, speaking like a true horse rancher. “He’s like blind side-shot, don’t care, ‘I’m-going-to-make-it-work,’ and usually, he does.”

When it comes to the restaurant, it has taken a family—maybe even a village—to make this mom-and-pop shop work. All the Zimmerman kids have put in their time when able, sometimes at considerable personal cost. Laura referenced the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” when discussing the selflessness of her daughter. “Veronica is George Bailey,” she said, “because she let her siblings go on and she stayed home to work the bank, i.e., the restaurant. She gave up going to college to help us here, which she is still doing to this day to earn money so she can go to school.” ZimSkillet employees Judy Whitaker and Shelaine Hawkins, described as “true friends” who go “above and beyond,” are longtime pillars of the restaurant. “Bless their hearts,” Laura said. “They wanted us to succeed so bad [that] they volunteered their time for a year.” Now accepting pay for their efforts, the two continue to make significant contributions to the thriving enterprise. 

Through all the hard work and long hours, Paul finds contentment in “trying to make the world a better place one BBQ ‘sammich’ at a time.” Serving the people of Newborn who supported his family through difficult times makes his job even more fulfilling. “Our customers are some of the greatest people on the planet,” he said. “That’s what makes this fun.”

It seems only fitting that one of the few keepsakes to survive the house fire would hold a prominent place in the new family business. The cast-iron skillets are used not only in the kitchen but as part of the restaurant’s name, coupled with “Zim”—Paul’s nickname since childhood. The Zimmermans are grateful to have come safely through the fire. Laura struggled for words to describe God’s care in the aftermath of tragedy. “Oh my gosh, miracle after blessing after grace, uncountable,” she said through tears. “He’s brought us through it all, and we are all the better for it.” 

ZimSkillet is located at 4142 Hwy. 142 in Newborn. For information or to place an order, call 770-337-9449. Menus are posted on ZimSkillet’s Facebook page at facebook.com/ZimSkillet/.

Click here to read more stories by David Roten.

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