The elephant in the room

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.

Loretta Tacker with her son, Jeff, and daughter, Lisa Taylor, pose for a photo in front of her elephant collection from Dr. Clifton L. Ganus Jr.  A photo with Dr. Ganus is displayed with the collection.

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. 

Categories: Features.


  1. Tammie Hacker

    Love this story Loretta! Miss getting to stop at the Shake Shack since we live in Pangburn now and are not traveling back and forth from Memphis!

  2. Jackie Perkins

    Just visited with Loretta and enjoyed a delicious dinner at Shake Shack today!! Got to meet Jeff and Lisa – what a precious family! Such a blessing to the Harding community and beyond!❤️ ‘82 HU alumnae

  3. Jill Shipman Valentine

    I used to work across the hall from Dr. Ganus, and he would periodically drop in after a trip out of town. (foriegn or domestic) One Monday he dropped in with some peanut brittle, that he bragged was made exclusively for him. I said, “Dr. Ganus, you know better than that! What would Loretta feel like if you went in to a diabetic coma? She would feel terrible!” He said, “Jill, don’t worry about that, I tell Lorreta it’s for Louise.”

  4. Morris Seawel

    Love to stop in at the Shake Shack! Loretta, Lisa, Jeff and all the Shake Shack employees make you feel at home and part of the family. The cheeseburger and crinkle fries are my favorite along with a piece of homemade pie or banana shake. Thank you, Loretta, Lisa and Jeff for keeping up the tradition of wonderful food in a comfortable, friendly atmosphere!

  5. Cindy Richmond

    Love this article & love the Tackers. The Shake Shack has been part of our world for many decades! Great article, great family, great place to eat.

  6. Deb Hindman Payne

    Shake Shack has been a favorite since the Tackers began this icon of a place. Always stop in to say hi to Loretta and reminisce about our SoIL and Harding days!

  7. Deb Hindman Payne

    Shake Shack has been a favorite since the Tackers began this icon of a place. Always stop in to say hi to Loretta and reminisce about our SoIL and Harding days!

  8. John Curtis

    What a terrific article and honor. Congratulations Loretta, Lisa & Jeff. You are a shinning light for HU and the Lord.

  9. Don Selvidge

    Oh yes been there sent by family member Debra dexter while I preached at Metropolis. Love you folks.

  10. Joe Cranford

    This video and the story had me welling up a bit. Shake Shack is a treasure, and the Tacker family is pure gold! I love them all so much and thank God they’re part of my journey back and forth to Searcy!

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