It surprises me how many people who love to eat out, try new foods and watch lots of television still have no idea what is about to happen on Victory Drive.
For all of the buzz surrounding the One West Victory project and the restaurant that will be a part of it, I think the number of people who are locked on who Hugh Acheson is and what he can do for this city are by far in the minority. I was having lunch recently with a friend who I thought would know all about Mr. Acheson, but wound up asking me if this new restaurant "was a big deal." Uh, yeah. Safe to say it's a pretty darn big deal.
Trying to pin Acheson down is like trying to bottle fog. I'd been trying to chat with him since the spring. I traveled to Athens in April - no luck. Traveled to Athens and Atlanta in August - no luck. So imagine my surprise when I reached out to his PR people letting them know I'd be in Atlanta again and was hoping to feature him in my TV show "Eat It and Like It" and - ding, ding, ding! - we make a connection.
As is the case with busy businessmen who happen to be celebrity chefs, our time was limited, but I made the most of it.
We sat outside the third restaurant in his budding empire, ironically called Empire State South, in Midtown Atlanta for a chat about all kinds of things: Georgia, television, staffing, busy schedules, liquor stores in Athens (where he lives) and of course, Savannah.
What I found was a genuine man who loves what he does, but is also disciplined enough to make sure he gets it all done in a day.
Chef tells me he first visited Savannah in 1996 and thought it was an "amazingly beautiful city" then. Never thought he'd have a restaurant here, but the opportunity presented itself and he couldn't be any more excited about it. He smiles when he talks about The Florence.
When asked about the price tag on this new venture, he pulls back, searches for words and says, "Well, uhhh, in the millions?" through a few laughs.
"I am fortunate enough now to have a little better credit," he adds. "I think we opened my first restaurant with $120,000." (Which if you know restaurants isn't much, but he made it work.)
Now operating 5&10 as well as The National in Athens and ESS (as it's sometimes called) in Atlanta, you can see where he's enjoyed enough success to put himself in position to make a big splash.
But why here?
"I'm not scared of new places for me, I'm scared of places that are overly saturated," he says. "I just don't think there's an oversaturation of great restaurants in Savannah. I'd be really hesitant to move into Charleston, for example, which has had a huge number of restaurants open in the last 10 years.
"They are all doing well, but they don't need me. I love to go into places where there's excitement for us to be there."
"About 85 seats" he says are downstairs at The Florence, which is expected to be open next summer.
"Seating at the bar, as well," he says. "Then upstairs, there will be a fine mixology bar and tavern with a huge patio. It's a pretty ambitious thing, but we are excited about it."
There will be a coffee shop attached, too.
"It's going to be loud. 100 percent marble. Marble walls, marble floors, marble shelving," he says. "Very 'Clockwork Orange.'"
Sounds interesting, indeed.
Fans of "Top Chef" have seen him on television plenty of times. Will you see him in Savannah quite a bit? Well, of course that is to be expected early on in the process as they get their feet set with the new venture, but make no mistake, Hugh Acheson is here, there and everywhere seemingly all the time.
When asked about his schedule, he rattles off his itinerary like I rattle off a grocery list for a party: "I was in Phoenix for a dinner for Goldman Sachs last week. Before that, I was in New York three times in one week, I was in Hawaii, now I'm here."
Hugh gets around, but always makes it back home to his family in Athens. So, you will see him here in Savannah, just not as often as you might think, because, well, he has other places to be.
"Now we are talking about that triumvirate in Georgia and we are really proud of that," he says.