To talk to Brian Torres, one would never know that a global pandemic has rocked the restaurant trade, especially in a city whose culinary scene is so vital.
It is not that Torres, who co-owns Fork & Dagger Eatery and Fork & Dagger Latin Diner with Chef Sky Hoyt, is taking the situation lightly - far from it.
Torres is purely cheerful and optimistic, qualities in him that have not abated since we all stopped going out to eat and that have helped him focus on the good that is coming out of exigency.
In a telephone interview this past Friday evening, he told me about the kindness and generosity of a couple, ‘regulars’ at F&D Eatery who always order breakfast sandwiches - one no meat, one with tomato - who still come in every other day.
The woman tips $20 on a $12 order, one individual doing what she can to help a local restaurant and its staff.
“It’s stuff like that that really makes me glad to be part of this community.”
New Meals in the New Reality
Had the world not stopped spinning on its axis, Hoyt and Torres would have spent off-hours in the spring and summer months renovating 610 Abercorn Street, readying that space for an October 2020 move necessitated by the sale of Chatham Apartments. At the same time, they had planned to expand hours at the Latin Diner and to introduce dinner service at that location.
Alas, here we all are.
The sequestered situation, as Torres put, is forcing “small business people, almost, to try to relearn our business[es] all over again.”
“The breakfast business has really gone defunct,” he mentioned with an audible shoulder shrug. “People are getting up at ten, so at one o’clock, we are getting a bunch of breakfast orders.”
For the last few weeks, F&D Eatery had been open from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., just a bit different from its usual Monday-to-Saturday hours, but starting on April 20, it will be open from 10 to 5. Depending on how business goes that week, he and Hoyt may make another adjustment, just like the rest of us are doing with our jobs and somewhat surreal day-to-days.
Be creative. Try something different. See if it works. If not, make another change.
Right after St. Patrick’s Day, Hoyt and Torres closed the Latin Diner, and prior to Green Week, they had already pared down the Eatery’s fare to their brunch menu, which has remained available since.
“We’ve got two restaurants with very similar menus, so those first seven days, I didn’t even have to look at my purveyors,” said Torres. “I was just ‘shopping off of’ the Diner,” bringing the produce from their closed kitchen up the street.
From there, the biggest change has been more small-scale shopping because, he explained, he does not need a case of chicken breasts for the week; he might need just five that will last him three days, depending on what sells.
Starting the second week of April, F&D began preparing and featuring Family Meals, featuring Brooklyn-Style Chicken Cutlet Parmigiana and Nana’s Arroz con Pollo served with crispy chicken skins and Hoyt’s signature chimichurri.
The former is served in a marinara that Torres credits to his papa, and the latter is his grandmother’s recipe. ‘Family’ meals in every sense of the word.
This new food service model, he said, has given them a chance to “get back to why [they] got into this business.”
Last Friday, their modest kitchen filled orders for 72 Family Meals, the majority via community-arranged orders from the Gordonston neighborhood. That same day, Torres updated F&D’s Facebook post to advertise an expansion of the Family Meal options to include the Best Meatloaf in Town, a four-meat blend served with mashed potatoes and gravy; Italian sausage with peppers and onions in Papa’s marinara; and Brian's Chicken Francaise, served over mashed potatoes and topped with an artichoke, tomato, and caper white wine Sauce, a throwback dish from his days at EOS.
Also available are Hoyt’s fresh-made tuna salad ($9.99 a pound), served with a choice of Brooklyn rye bread, kaiser rolls, or long hero rolls ($1.25 each), and tri-colored peppers stuffed with spiced ground beef, saffron rice, house-made sofrito and that superb chimichurri.
The Family Meals can be ordered in two, four, or six-person portions and all come with a mixed green salad, featuring Kachina Farms greens.
Melissa Brown of Kachina Farms (Rincon) has continued to deliver her greens to local restaurants during the outbreak. Because several larger clients have temporarily shut down and not needed any produce, she still has April fields full of current crops that may be squandered.
The loss is both economic and ecological with the potential of not being able to reseed for what customers are going to need three months from now, assuming something remotely resembling the restoration of restaurant’s ‘normal’.
When Brown last delivered an overstuffed bag of greens to Fork & Dagger, including what Torres calls the “best arugula I’ve ever tasted in my life,” she told him that she did not want to cook and asked if they could ‘trade’ the greens for a Family Meal for four.
Torres then delivered a portion of the Kachina greens to Rocky’s NY Deli, whereupon owner Bill Vissicchio asked his friend how much he owed him: Torres bartered for a New York chef’s salad in return.
“Let’s just trade and trade and trade,” Torres said, hoping that smaller locally owned restaurants can lean on each other to make it through these uncertain times.
“This is going to affect our little city, but Savannah’s a great city because it’s very self-sustaining. We really don’t need to get [produce] from outside of Savannah, and if we can just keep stuff flowing enough, the recovery time will be a lot better for us than anywhere else because we all can work off of each other more.”
In a usual week, Hoyt and Torres go through 25 loaves of Texas toast, but of late, he has not been able to shop for it or to buy it in bulk himself. He reached out to Angela and Alexandre Darbousset at Le Café Gourmet. Later that day, Alexandre custom-made the loaf Torres asked about, hand-sliced and cheaper than Torres buys a loaf at Kroger. He also brought a big croissant for his F&D staff to share.
Torres gave Darbousset a cheesecake to sell at Le Café Gourmet, and Darbousset will be making F&D’s Texas toast bread from now on.
“I’ve been baking cheesecakes like a mad person,” Torees admitted. Rocky’s carries F&D cheesecakes and sells about one a day. “He’s blowing through them.”
Torres also designed a new flavor, roasted butter pecan, for Squirrel’s Pizza, which goes through one about every two days as part of its own Family Meal menu.
“This is the coolest thing that is coming out of all this,” he added, clearly invigorated by pivoting as well as by encouraging other small-business owners to cooperate.
“We’ve got a little pack of small businesses that I just love.”
Meals in Memoriam
Arnold and Lorlee Tenenbaum were pillars of Savannah in every conceivable way. The beloved couple passed away just five days apart in late March, both having tested positive for COVID-19.
Longtime friends of Hoyt and Torres and patrons of their restaurants, Ken and Jackie Sirlin made a generous gesture that honors the living and the dearly departed. This past Monday, 50 Fork & Dagger boxed lunches were delivered to medical personnel at St. Joseph’s Hospital to thank and to feed the teams of doctors, nurses, and support staff who cared for the Tenenbaums.
What is not lost on Hoyt and Torres in this thoroughly touching tribute is that the Sirlins’ largesse gives also succor to them and their little restaurant when they, too, most need it.
Ending on a high note - because we all deserve one.