At this point, the team behind Pitchers Sports Bar & Grill might want to bring in Max von Sydow and a keg of holy water before they pour their first pint.
Less than eight months since the ownership group currently leasing 5500 Abercorn Street Suite 36 thriftily recycled the Sugo Rossa Italian Kitchen sub-marquee by placing Chef Roberto Leoci’s last name above it, the outside wall is now bare again — seemingly awaiting its next victim.
That restaurant space does not need a makeover, a new name or a fresh concept. It needs a full-on entrepreneurial exorcism.
Though Bonefish Grill, Cancun Mexican Restaurant, Five Guys and Starbucks have managed to stay afloat in the Twelve Oaks Shopping Center, Suite 36 might as well be Room 237 at The Overlook or 112 Ocean Ave., Amityville.
We are talking built atop a cemetery cursed. Location, location, bad location.
The haunting at Suite 36
No matter the city or the state of the economy, restaurants close and do so for a variety of reasons, but since an Atlanta Bread Co. franchise baked its last loaf in the kitchens at Suite 36, the space has turned over two more times: three restaurants come-and-gone since 2017.
In that same time, Savannah’s restaurant landscape has had rich harvests, too many openings to count in one column with a reasonable number of closings for a city of this size. Even so, the talented team behind Cotton & Rye and the Leoci last name could not sustain their respective revivifications of Suite 36.
Meanwhile, the Ele and the Chef folks could theoretically open up a shack in the median of Truman Parkway selling sand sandwiches and swamp-water tea and, somehow, be an overnight sensation, but the quality cuisine served at Sugo Rossa survived at Suite 36 for a little more than a year.
Back in April, I humbly knighted the Margherita pizza at Leoci’s Mercato Italiano one of the best in Savannah, though despite the quality pie and some tasty risottos, the all-day menu was just too expensive for a restaurant in a Publix parking lot. With primi courses priced between $17 and $26 and secondi entrées between $18 and $36, the ownership evidently did not learn anything when it dusted off the Sugo Rossa renovations, essentially raising prices for food that was entirely similar to the previous failed spots that waved the same Italian flag.
Cotton & Rye chef-owner Zach Schultz graciously declined to comment. Leasing agent Louis Lipsitz, who handles Suite 36 for landlord-owner of Twelve Oaks Shopping Plaza A.J. & C. Garfunkel, did not respond to my calls and emails prior to press. Maybe there is no voicemail in the Upside Down.
Don't look back!
The lone brave voice from the latest aftermath, Chef Leoci had a rational assessment of what came to pass, noting a few fateful factors.
Going in, he, along with the Leoci’s Mercato Italiano ownership group, knew that they could not bank on a certain percentage of tourists, not in a plaza south of DeRenne, and that “the locals would have to come.”
“In the beginning, it was fine,” he said genially, without a note of dismay or regret in his voice. “Then summer came along,” and with the warm weather months, the numbers started to decline, enough to pull the plug last week on the sign bearing his name.
“In my honest opinion,” Leoci added, citing a few notable chefs and their respective eating establishments, “even the best restaurants suffer in [their] first two years.” He explained that, especially in bigger markets, what allows a place to ride out the early ups and downs is capital, funds sufficient to offset an almost inevitable dip in customers after the initial fanfare wanes.
“I’m just glad I’m out,” said Leoci, like the relieved last man standing outside Hill House at the end of “The Haunting,” a little marinara-stained but ready to cook again as he takes over as executive chef of Green Fire Pizza, which is poised to expand under his watch, shortly opening branches on Montgomery Street and in Pooler.
In my last column, I asserted that opening a second and a third restaurant in any market takes chutzpah. Sometimes, that more-or-less admirable trait ruinously morphs into hubris.
The current lessees of Suite 36 thought that hitching their culinary cart to Robert Leoci — and emblazoning his name on the brickface — would yield a different result than that of Sugo Rossa. As Cotton & Rye’s iteration of Italian fare at Twelve Oaks did not succeed in 2018, I cannot imagine that makes them think that their version of the same would do any better in 2019.
Total head-scratcher, but many of us saw these two closings coming because we had seen this movie before.
Aside from concepts that did not hit and prices that outshot the possible clientele, the location itself is terrible. For starters, the fact that it is south of DeRenne is enough to deter anyone living north of Savannah’s ghastliest thoroughfare from even considering crossing over. To boot, that stretch of southbound Abercorn has one-way ingress at one of the most excruciating lights in the city.
Savannah has far too many charming places to eat out even to entertain the drive past CVS, Checkers, two title pawn shops, and a budget hotel into a clean and copious but equally un-alluring parking lot for a nice night out.
For a morning coffee before the traffic has created the eight-hour interminable clog at Abercorn and DeRenne, fine. For a quick lunch after grabbing groceries or an eye exam, sure. For a $60-or-more per-couple sit-down dinner, nope. Not in that plaza.
The bottom line is what keeps Bonefish, Cancun, and Five Guys above water. At Cancun, 90% of the menu is under $10, and a taco is less than $3. Five Guys is not a cheap chain burger, nor is Bonefish inexpensive for anything on its formulaic menu, but the financial scaffolding of a nationally franchised restaurant means low overheads, high markups, and big profit margins that can sustain nights of 20 covers.
Bonefish must stay afloat on happy hours, brunch, and chain-lovers, most of whom are seniors. Last Sunday at 1 p.m., a dozen guests were scattered around the main dining room, not one of them younger than 65 — in other words, a crowd that is willing to spend $$$ or $$$$ at a safe and familiar restaurant.
In the trailer for this sequel, Brad Sellars emerges from the mist, bringing more than a decade of success managing and directing downtown nightclubs (Club 51 Degrees, Élan, and Saddlebags) to his first ownership role. He is well aware of The Curse of Twelve Oaks and is more than confident that he can break it.
“The cycle ends now,” said Sellars, referring to the frequent turnover of Suite 36. “That’s not going to happen with this place.”
Spoken like the horror film hero.
Where the rest of us see keep out and stay away signs, Sellars sees a timely opportunity to fill a void in Midtown, and Pitchers will be a “step-above” sports bar, a “restaurant that has a bar, not a bar that has food.”
He envisions a downtown concept for this venture, a place that offers a “progressive environment” for eating and drinking, watching football and listening to music well into the wee hours.
“In big cities,” Sellars explained, “as the games end, restaurants transition,” turning off the TVs and turning up the rhythmic music. He wants Pitchers to appeal to a very different crowd than the one that did not ultimately support the previous upscale dining incarnations.
“There is a strong need for a midtown bar,” he said, mentioning everyone from Bonefish Grill employees to hospital workers to Hunter Army Airfield service persons to residents of Habersham Woods and Kensington Park who have “literally had nowhere to go” for late-night adult bevvies.
Perhaps Sellars can retool Suite 36 by amping up the scene and simplifying the cuisine: a sports bar means lowered prices, overhead, and esculent expectations. He certainly knows how to run successful downtown nightclubs. He might as well give it a shot. After all, this movie is not over yet.
“We’re into it for the long haul,” Sellars promised.
If Pitchers is still open by Halloween 2020, the curse has been broken. If by then Suite 36 is dark again and boarded up, we can title this latest retread “A Nightmare on Abercorn Street IV.”
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.