Nancy Zimmerman Pechner (center), her mom Alice (left) and sister Beverly at a Zim's restaurant in 1969. Pechner's father Art Zimmerman founded the popular S.F. burger chain. (Photo/Courtesy)
Nancy Zimmerman Pechner (center), her mom Alice (left) and sister Beverly at a Zim's restaurant in 1969. Pechner's father Art Zimmerman founded the popular S.F. burger chain. (Photo/Courtesy)

Behind Zim’s hamburgers was a family in turmoil

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Nancy Zimmerman Pechner grew up the daughter of Bay Area icon Art Zimmerman, the Polish-born founder of famed San Francisco hamburger chain Zim’s and a ubiquitous Jewish community volunteer.

Nancy Zimmerman Pechner,IMG_2041
Nancy Zimmerman Pechner

Her father was, in Pechner’s words, “Mr. Mitzvah” and the “mensch of all mensches,” an affectionate man who doled out friendly kisses and philanthropic dollars with equal generosity.

But he was also deeply wounded, according to Pechner. At 30, Zimmerman watched Shirlee, his wife and first love, suddenly convulse, stop breathing and die in her hospital bed just 45 minutes after giving birth to their second child, a daughter. Instantly, and without warning, he found himself a widower and single parent to newborn Beverly and a toddler, Steve.

“He had to bear witness, brave up and suffer through this horrific event, a true trauma that scarred him for the rest of his life, not to mention the rest of the family,” Pechner writes in her 2023 self-published memoir “Them Before Me: Born Into Grief. Journeyed Into Love.”

It’s a heartfelt, highly personal story of generational trauma and the complex attempt to understand it, heal from it and find forgiveness.

“I really believe forgiveness is one of the highest forms of self-care,” the 61-year-old author and artist said over Zoom from her home in Hawaii, where she and husband Richie, a professional photographer and music artist manager, have lived for the past decade. “I always say forgiveness is selfish, but in the best of ways. You release yourself, you release your own soul.”

Born in San Francisco and raised in Marin, Pechner, like her late father, is a familiar face in the local Jewish community.

I always say forgiveness is selfish, but in the best of ways. You release yourself, you release your own soul.

She founded San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay, sat on Jewish boards and committees and taught tallis-making as an artist-in-residence at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman. She and her husband return to the Bay Area regularly and still belong to Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. Pechner counts the synagogue’s rabbi, Stacy Friedman, among her dearest friends.

“I know I got my Jewish soul from my dad,” Pechner said in her 2008 eulogy for him, delivered to more than 500 mourners after he died from complications due to a stroke. “Them Before Me” contains that tribute in full.

Pechner clearly adored and admired her father. But as she writes in the book, she endured a childhood full of tumult that she attributes largely to the tragedy that left her dad wracked with lifelong subliminal grief but lacking the tools to process it. Pechner hopes her memoir will help her three adult children better understand their roots.

In 1956, six years after his wife died, Art Zimmerman married Alice, who brought her own anguish to the union as a result of childhood abuse. In 1961, she gave birth to Pechner.

The Zimmermans’ marriage was turbulent, their daughter recalls. She describes frequent arguments that left her in a constant state of insecurity and fear.

Pechner remembers standing between her arguing parents as a young girl, a tiny, quivering peacemaker. In the book, Steve Zimmerman, Pechner’s half-brother and her father’s oldest child, describes Pechner as the “family shock absorber.”

Many of the fights revolved around how to handle Pechner’s rebellious older half-sister, Beverly, the child left motherless when Shirlee Zimmerman died.

Nancy Zimmerman Pechner and her dad Art Zimmerman, founder of San Francisco hamburger chain Zim's, in 1974. (Photo/Courtesy)
Nancy Zimmerman Pechner and her dad, Art Zimmerman, in 1974. (Photo/Courtesy)

Beverly Zimmerman battled drug addiction for decades and ended up overdosing at age 56. The Beverly Shirlee Zimmerman Bock Fund for Girls and Women at Risk, at S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, honors her memory.

“So much yelling. So much conflict. Constant chaos,” Pechner writes in her memoir. “It was never quiet in my house growing up between the three of them.”

Pechner, a UC Berkeley graduate who earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Dominican University of California in San Rafael, believes her sister’s struggles stemmed from “living in a state of grief from the day she was born.”

Beverly Zimmerman missed out on early maternal bonding, Pechner notes. What’s more, the author writes that her own mother, Beverly’s stepmother, lavished Pechner with an attentiveness her stepdaughter didn’t receive.

Before reading his sister’s memoir, “I didn’t realize the extent of the dysfunction between Nancy, my parents and Beverly,” Steve Zimmerman said in an interview, describing Pechner as loving, caring and accomplished. “Art and Alice Zimmerman did the best they could, given the circumstances.”

Pechner sees it that way, too. She tells even the most painful parts of her family’s story with empathy and considers herself fortunate to be an inherently resilient person.

“Nancy’s evolution, growth and positive attitude are all products of her many years of discernment, personal inquiry and study of psychology,” Friedman said in an interview. “She has a deep willingness to confront her darkness and pain and use it to transform her life and relationships with others.”

Pechner said she’s worked hard to make peace with the difficult parts of her past through self-awareness practices such as therapy and mindfulness. Judaism has provided comfort too, giving her a community that supports her and a strong sense of identity to turn to when she needs it most.

“It’s a journey,” she said of healing from trauma, “and it’s a journey forever.”

“Them Before Me: Born Into Grief. Journeyed Into Love”

Nancy Pechner (Swiss Cheese Press, 317 pages)

All proceeds from book sales go to the Beverly Shirlee Zimmerman Bock Fund for Girls and Women at Risk or Nā Keiki O Emalia, a nonprofit in Maui, Hawaii, providing support to grieving children, teens and their families. Pechner will read from her book and sign copies at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 28, at Congregation Beth Israel, 1630 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. Details at tinyurl.com/them-before-me.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.