Calling Starland Yard a food truck park is like calling The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist just a church: justice not remotely done.
That unoriginal modern moniker for food-on-wheels sounds like an otherwise empty parking lot and limits the scope, ingenuity, and downright beauty of the creation developed by Guy Davidson, Niko Ormond, and their team, who opened the eponymous Starland Yard two weeks ago.
Even without the participating food trucks, the space itself is a visual feast, 23,000 colorful square feet that has quickly become the home of the city’s best food-and-bevvie block party. For the last several years, that piece of real estate was barely a rubble-filled half-block, not even used as a parking lot, and in less than nine months it has been magically transformed into a unique destination that may well economically anchor the entire transitional neighborhood.
Architect-designer Kevin Rose of Lominack Kolman Smith and Billy McIntosh of JTVS Builders helped Davidson and Ormond realize their collaborative vision, inspired in part by visits to Oklahoma City’s Bleu Garten and Dallas’s Food Truck Park, and turned 2411 DeSoto Avenue into an art-and-engineering showpiece where we all can buy pizza and a Cuban sandwich.
More exterior than interior but with plenty of open shipping containers-cum-dining rooms, Starland Yard contains so many nooks and covered crannies as well loosely defined open spaces flanked with mature palms and deciduous tulip poplars that will soon provide shade to the center of the property in the summer months but will then drop their leaves to allow winter sunlight in. Even the steel container walls have become works of art with murals painted by Gina Berchin, Jimmy Butcher, Juliana Lupacchino, and Kyle Millsap.
All at once, this project-and-product is artistic, singular, modern, industrial, environmental, and impressive.
Anyone who might complain about Starland Yard can have a heaping helping of something beats nothing and is welcome to go hang out in the erstwhile Shoney’s-Johnny Harris wasteland on Victory.
Just go and enjoy that it is now part of Savannah.
Saturday nights, way more than alright
It is difficult not to invoke the excruciatingly trite and overused line from “Field of Dreams” after spending a Saturday evening at Starland Yard, so I offer this abridged appropriation: they built it, and the people have come.
Thunderheads that blackened the sky and a dozen raindrops did nothing to scatter the happy and garrulous crowd. According to General Manager Ava Pandiani, Starland Yard tallied more than 500 tickets throughout that one day, which means that more than a thousand folks visited between 11 a.m. and closing time.
Granted, the still-90-degree temps at 8 p.m. and threatening clouds might have kept some folks away, but the longest line of the night extended out of the welcome container only to the curb—and the longest wait time to check in ranged between seven and 10 minutes.
Speaking of check-in, building an indoor-outdoor protean dining room with repurposed shipping containers is only part of the innovation the Starland Yard team has introduced to Savannah. This city loves its scuttlebutt, and the most widespread gripes you might overhear in these early days will be about waiting to get in and the centralized POS system.
Allow me to explain.
When you arrive, you enter through a main shipping container and are greeted at a check-in station. You show your license—if you are of age and plan to have an adult beverage—and your credit card is run. Those drinking alcohol are given one wristband, and anyone authorized to buy food and drink on your card is given another wristband. If you are going to pay with cash, you leave your ID. Done. Go eat and drink.
For the rest of your Starland Yard stay, you never take out your wallet. You do not pay the individual food trucks. You do not hand a bartender any cash or your plastic money. Instead, you simply show your wristband and give your name, which immediately comes up on every point of sale (POS) system within the park, including those Pandiani hooks up in each truck. While you eat and drink whatever you like wherever you like, your orders are tallied and totaled.
When you leave, you head back to the welcome container to checkout. On Saturday night, that took all of ten seconds.
The process, if you will, at Starland Yard has merely taken the waiting portion of the dining experience and inverted it, as the same amount of time you would wait at a sit-down restaurant for the bill and then for the server to run your card occurs at the start of your al fresco drink-and-dine.
To the gripers: lighten up. You are just rankled over something new and different. Grab a beer and let your kids run around on the AstroTurf.
This is a superb and practical concept that is purposefully designed to expedite the food service itself. Think about it: the food trucks do not have to waste time running credit cards and making change, which means shorter lines. Bartenders never have to card anyone individually. From a purely sanitary stance, this is brilliant because no one is touching everyone else’s cash before then touching my food.
One caveat, I suppose, is that it might be easy to lose track of how much you have spent over the course of a few hours. My wife and I drank water and split a pizza. We were done and dusted for $14. Friends of ours were thrilled that a few beers and a pizza rang up to 29 bucks.
Then again, if you and your mate each toss back three Atlanta-priced cocktails and buy separate entrées from the food trucks, most of whom are pricing main menu items above $10, you are going to be on the high side of $60 for the night, easy.
A truckload of options
By 10:30 a.m. the next Sunday morning, the sun was back out in full force, and Starland Yard was spotless. Pandiani was helping Bowtie and Chazito’s get online for lunch service, and bar manager Joe McLean and his team prepped for another thirsty crowd. Within a half-hour, at least two dozen people were strolling around the yard, cool drinks in hand as they considered their food options for the day.
Chazito’s Latin Cuisine’s food truck was parked in Starland Yard every day during its first week and doing doubles—serving lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and dinner from 5 p.m. to close—on Saturday and Sunday.
“Collectively, this is such a great thing,” said Chazito’s Nicole Meléndez-Rodríguez that Sunday morning as the lunch queue steadily grew in front of their truck. “I love it.”
She said that the centralized POS system was a technology already very familiar to Chazito’s, so she sees the universal advantages of not having to handle credit cards or cash.
“We can focus on customer service and the quality of our food,” she said.
Brannon Heath and Austin Dudley of Bowtie Barbecue Co. echoed these sentiments as the latter served me a pulled pork sandwich and a side of fries, this past Sunday marking the second time the Bowtie truck was on the marquee.
“We had a blast,” Heath said about their first attendance. “The POS makes it so easy for us.”
All told, Pandiani and food and beverage coordinators John Benhase and Pila Sunderland have invited and secured participation from eight different food trucks—The Big Cheese, Bowtie, Chazito’s, Dark Shark, Pie Society, Prowl, Renowned Food, and Yoshi’s Kitchen—so the cooperating cuisines include everything from grilled cheese to tacos to burgers to loaded yucca fries to fish-n-chips, depending on who is parked in the yard that day.
“It’s ‘choose your own adventure’,” Pandiani said with a smile and a nod to those books we loved in the ‘80s. “You can have a lovely dinner with a bottle of wine and full service, or you can eat nachos off of your lap next to the bocce court. You can make it whatever you want it to be.”
She added that they are already talking to other food truck owner-operators, but even with the present lineup, a person could go to Starland Yard every weekend for months and not eat the same food once. She said that the yard can accommodate four trucks but that three will be the ideal maximum, considering the space needed for visiting guests to gather and to walk around.
Most trucks are scheduled to stay for either the 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. lunch service or the 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. dinner service, though some will stick it out for both, as Chazito’s, Dark Shark, and Pie Society have done.
While the hallmark of Starland Yard is the variety of options offered by the rotation of more than a half-dozen food trucks, the benchmarks are its permanent fixtures: the huge bar, featuring 18 taps and a mod menu of somewhat pricey cocktails, and Pizzeria Vittoria.
Chef Kyle Jacovino could not be happier in his new double-high shipping container pizzeria, whose cozy interior he designed to be Savannah’s little dollop of Brooklyn: 16 seats, most on wooden banquettes that store cords of split oak underneath, all with a view of the non-stop pizza show.
“We wanted this to feel like you’re sitting ringside, you’re watching the action,” he said of Vittoria’s intimate confines. “This is our version of the chef’s table for pizza.”
The fire glowing in the stately Forza Forni oven is reflected in Jacovino’s eyes and smile, a phoenix chef at home in his new restaurant.
“Everything about it is what I’ve always wanted: the size of it, the casualness,” he said, sipping a coffee on Sunday morning. “This is just me.”
Jacovino plainly admitted that even when he was helming the kitchens at The Florence and 1540 Room he wanted to open a small pizzeria as his own personal side venture.
“The Florence was what I wanted from a food standpoint, for sure,” he said before conceding that he was never really that comfortable with the “beast” of its space. In terms of sheer size, Vittoria is the antipodes to Jacovino’s two previous Savannah restaurants, though his new Starland Yard home has heralded the return of what was lost when The Florence closed: the best pizza in Savannah—if not in the state or the entire Southeast.
In reality, he and his team do have a grand dining room, albeit one that is mostly outside, including 20-plus seats available for Vittoria-only table service. On the Saturday I attended, every other picnic table and patio four-top around the yard had at least one pizza, and Jacovino estimated that their oven cranked out more than 260 total pizzas between lunch and dinner hours.
Like the best pizza in the world, Vittoria serves no ordinary crust. This dough is proper bread, one that is naturally leavened over a twelve-hour double-fed fermentation and that, in just 90 seconds, bakes into a bubbly, black-spotted, truly Neapolitan master pie.
Natalie Freihon, who opened Savannah’s branch of The Fat Radish back in June, has been to Starland Yard four times already, treating herself to a Vittoria pizza three times and saying, in her book, it is tied with Anthony Mangieri’s Una Pizza Napoletana (Manhattan’s Lower East Side) for the best pizza she has ever had in her life.
“He [Mangieri] was the first to get this Neapolitan style going,” said Jacovino. “Just to be mentioned with him is awesome.”
At half past six on Saturday, our pizza was ready in only five minutes; our friends got their texts from the Vittoria window in 10 and 20 minutes, respectively, which Jacovino said is more representative for a busy weekend evening. At one point, he said that they fired more than 60 pies in about 15 minutes to fill the tickets stacked up for inside and outside service plus those at the take-away window.
“Honestly, the last couple weeks have been a blur—an excited, happy, exhausted blur,” he said, doing his best to tally in his head how many pizzas Vittoria had sold in the last week, as many as 80 for a Saturday lunch service and another 200 more that night.
“After hour 14, we lose count.”
Vittoria’s biggest days have been Saturdays, due to the double service, which Jacovino said actually makes it a little easier in that they sell 80-some pizzas for lunch and another 190 or so for dinner. Fridays have been the toughest: around 200 pies but the vast majority of them made between 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
“If you go to any other Neapolitan pizza joint in the world that’s good and busy, you’re going to wait,” Jacovino added with an easy-going shrug. “Have some wine, have some drinks, just chill out.”
Play it smart: order before the usual dinner-hour rush, and you may well have your pizza within a few minutes. If you place an order at seven o’clock, analogize your wait time with an attempt to get a table at Collins Quarter at ten on a Saturday morning. A casual wait is more than worth it.
Savannah’s moveable feast
I was meandering around the yard last Saturday night, just taking it all in, when I overheard a young guy on his cell saying to a friend, “This place is so cool.”
Damn straight: it is so cool.
As we walked over to the checkout window, one of my friends said that we should get together at Starland Yard once a month to eat, drink, and enjoy each other’s company and the special atmosphere.
Because my wife and I can ride our bikes, because the food truck options offer such variety, and because Kyle Jacovino’s pizza is a constant, we will be there far more than once a month.
More like every week. See you there.
Someday, Neil and his wife will be living in a tiny town in the south of France, eating, doing crosswords, and playing Scrabble. For now, when he is not grading papers, baking bread, or watching EPL soccer, he builds furniture and writes.