As much as this story is directly related to the coronavirus outbreak, now and in the weeks ahead, I want to remain true to this column’s purpose: the promotion and celebration of food in Savannah.
That being written, I readily admit that restaurants near and far are beyond hurting, and in no way do I want to appear blithely blind to the stark reality of laid-off kitchen and wait staff and empty dining rooms – quite the opposite.
No one wanted it to be like this. A major reason that we all adore Savannah is its food front, upon which all is now sadly quiet. While the State of Georgia has not yet shuttered restaurants entirely, the prospect of heading ‘out to eat’ is a roll of the dice not many are risking right now.
In a crisis, though, creativity and ingenuity often emerge - and when the result brings a Sly’s bullet club and a basket of crispy fries to my door, I take heart that the world is going to be okay.
For this and an ever-expanding menu of other local fare, we can turn our hungry eyes to Steve Xuereb, owner and managing partner of SAVtakeOut, and his web-based food delivery company’s partner restaurants.
Xuereb launched this purposefully local-focused version of DoorDash and GrubHub in December of 2017, first representing NaaN on Broughton, Fork & Dagger Eatery, Le Café Gourmet, PJ’s Thai Corner, and Cup to Cup Coffee Roasters. In the last three years, Green Fire Pizza and Rocky’s NY Deli have joined NaaN as SAVtakeOut’s most popular partner restaurants.
And then the pandemic broke, changing where we could eat almost overnight.
“Within the last twenty-four hours,” Xuereb said this past Thursday, “I’ve received a ton of restaurant requests to sign up with us, so I have been super-busy.”
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he added, immediately acknowledging that the urgent ‘growth’ of his company has been borne out of a responsibility for the greater good.
“I’m not seeing it so much from the business aspect,” said Xuereb, who has been working overtime to address the sudden demand. “It’s more of a moral thing now because we’ve got to get everything started as quickly as possible so that we can keep operations open for restaurants and give people in Savannah a good source of food.”
“It’s a race against time at the moment, and I’d like to help these businesses to continue to operate.”
In just three days last week, SAVtakeOut added seven new restaurants to its web roster, including The Emporium Kitchen and Wine Market, Fox & Fig Plant-Based Cafe, Sly’s, and Smash House, a special menu being offered by The Ordinary Pub.
The website now features menus of nearly three dozen restaurants. And counting.
Whatever your “jones“ - Indian or Italian, pizza or Puerto Rican, sandwiches or soul food - chances are you can find your fill and then some, all the while supporting Savannah proprietors and their employees.
Higher-end establishments, too, have reached out to Xuereb, eager to keep their respective kitchens open and to retain as much staff as they can afford to keep on.
A delivery service for Brighter Day Natural Foods Market is in the works, which will add to the specialty store profile that already includes John Davis Florist and Woof Gang Bakery.
Like all of us, Xuereb is navigating new territory right now, but he expects his staffing numbers to increase due to the “big interest” of restaurants that have contacted him about signing up.
“We are getting prepared to ramp up our service,” he explained. “We’re trying to work with our restaurants and offer opportunities to those waiters and waitresses who are not able to work to come and deliver with us.”
“There’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment, a lot of business owners really worried about their staffs,” Xuereb added, “and we’re just trying to support each other.”
To a crew of seven active drivers, SAVtakeOut currently has a backup pool of five ready to go and has implemented a ‘standby shift’ wherein an additional driver is available for extra hours during the dinner rush.
The no-contact drop-off service, which customers can request when ordering online, has already proved popular. Xuereb noted that about sixty percent of his customers are now choosing this option, and he expects that number to increase.
He said that the enterprise always had the ability to add a diner pick-up service to its delivery design, but until last week, SAVtakeOut had stuck with what it did best: bringing the food to the folks.
With the hopes of reaching a wider eating audience and helping customers economize, Xuereb decided to add the ‘you pick it up’ option, and more than twenty of the partner restaurants are already participating in this outlet.
“We’re trying to make our service a bit more accessible to everyone,” he said, directly referencing the global wallet-watching that is going to be another of our collective ‘new normals’. “With a delivery, there’s a delivery fee and a tip. With a take-out option, where [customers] are able to pick-up, there’s no delivery and tip.”
Without question, concerns about COVID-19 have put additional responsibilities on the burgeoning business.
“We’ve had to look into our operations as well and see how we are handling the situation from the health-and-safety aspect,” Xuereb said, explaining that he and his employees have heightened their attention to the hygiene of every aspect of the process.
The entrepreneur came to Savannah with a background in hospitality and tourism, first in restaurants and then in five-star hotels overseas and then for Emirates Airlines, which specifically gave him a dozen years with what he called “traveling food,” albeit in a plane and not a car.
“That experience, in particular,” he said of his Emirates career, “really helped out with the service and maintaining food safety and quality.”
Xuereb is clearly proud of the rota of locally owned and operated restaurants that have partnered with SAVtakeOut, which was his intention all along. He accepts that there are “larger national competitors” that are more suited to restaurants that do not fit his profile of partners, but he is confident that Savannahians will support local, as the saying goes.
That is great news for our stomachs. In the foreseeable future, I am going to want empanadas from 787 by Chazitos and a CBG panini from Starland Café and a Squirrel’s Benny Blanco and a half-chicken with double yuca fritas from Latin Chicks.
I know that all of that and more is just a few keyboard clicks away.
“We’re just looking forward to doing our part,” said Xuereb, “to feed everyone and to keep everyone as safe as possible as well.”