By Tom Buterbaugh | Photography by Jeff Montgomery
While returning from a quick road trip to Laurel, Mississippi, on March 27, my wife, daughter and I got off the Marion exit on I-55 to head west on 64 to Searcy and needed to fill up the CRV with gas. As I filled the tank, I began debating a fill-up for myself with a shake from the nearby Shake Shack, and my daughter said, “What would Dr. Ganus (’43) want you to do?” Of course, I got the shake!
When you walk into the lobby at Tacker’s Shake Shack in Marion, Arkansas, it feels like a little piece of Harding is there with you. Two Harding Bison flags provided by Morris Seawel (’80) greet you, and any alumni are invited to join the hundreds of signatures already written on them. Stepping into the restaurant, you are warmly greeted by the staff, and if you are wearing a Harding shirt as my daughter was, you are immediately Harding family.
With the encouragement of his father, the late John Tacker (’70), and his wife, Loretta Cheek (’70), purchased the Tastee-Freez in Marion in 1977. Ironically, they had posed for pictures for the advertisements division page in the 1968 Petit Jean where else but at the Tastee-Freez located at that time in Searcy. Their Tastee-Freez quickly became Tacker’s Shake Shack, known for the burger named after its owner, the Big John.
Harding people on the way to and from Memphis, Tennessee, quickly found the location a convenient place to stop. One of the first regulars was former chorus director Andy T. Ritchie and his wife and also driver, Kathryn (’50), because at this point he was nearly blind.
One day Loretta looked up to see another familiar face enter the restaurant and said, “Here comes my president.” Dr. Clifton L. Ganus was there, the first of his countless visits through the years. Still president at the time, he and his wife, Louise Nicholas (’42), became close friends with the Tackers. Any time he headed to Memphis or beyond for a ball game or to fly somewhere on one of his many ventures, he would stop for a Shake Shack burger.
Upon returning from his many trips to Africa, he would visit and pull out of his pocket a gift for Loretta, usually an elephant statuette. The number grew and soon became a collection that she proudly displays on a case in the corner of the restaurant along with the picture from Dr. Ganus’ 95th birthday celebration at the Shake Shack with presidents Ganus, Burks and McLarty and their wives. Her favorite treat to send home with him and Mrs. Ganus was her homemade peanut brittle.
Loretta has made trips to and fallen in love with Africa herself, especially when her son, Jeff (’91), and his wife, Sheri Wells (’91), had a baby while serving on the Togo team in the early ’90s.
The 2019 winner of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame “Proprietor of the Year,” Loretta has been with the restaurant since its opening. Her peanut brittle has been featured in a Southern Living cookbook. On the day of our interview, she was returning from delivering 30 meals to the local hospital, her second delivery of the day. Affectionately known as Memaw, she doesn’t meet a stranger, and while the fried pies and catfish on Friday are a big draw, perhaps the main reason for the restaurant’s popularity is the Southern hospitality she and her family so warmly give.
Tacker’s Shake Shack is truly a family affair. Her daughter and right hand, Lisa Taylor (’92), has been with her since 2007, and her son, Jeff, came to work with her in 2012. Her grandson, Mark Tacker, is the head chef and is responsible for the many specialty burgers, including the mac & cheese and muscadine bacon varieties. Her children’s spouses and all her grandchildren with the exception of Mark are Harding alumni and have Shake Shack flowing in their blood.
Loretta’s favorite elephant souvenir she received from Dr. Ganus has seven elephants in a line, special to her because as she explained, she has seven siblings, five of whom went to Harding, and he did not know that. She met her late husband while refereeing a volleyball game, and the couple married at the Downtown Church of Christ less than a year later. She is a President’s Council member who loves her Harding connections, saying that anywhere she ventures she meets Harding people. Harding remains special to her, providing her with Christian friends she will treasure forever.
In 2019, it became time for the original Shake Shack to say goodbye after 42 years with its successor being built right next door and opening that June. The new facility retains much of the original atmosphere. With the addition of two food trucks, one of which will be at Homecoming festivities this fall, opportunities for growth continue. Loretta has no plans to retire, and Memaw’s friendly welcome remains, especially if you are wearing Harding apparel.