For Savannah, a city that thrives on hospitality, restaurants are basically our social fabric. If Savannah was a quilt, our food and beverage industry would be the stitches holding together all the different patches of our small yet diverse community with a gentle bind.


Now, due to the danger of COVID-19, those stitches have been ripped, and the chances of repair are uncertain.


Throughout the past month in Savannah, we’ve watched our favorite establishments close their doors one by one; places that we’ve gathered in for years made the difficult decision to cease operations in order to ensure the safety of their guests. Places that we’ve celebrated in, closed a business deal in, made announcements in, cried in, fell in love in, and shared ideas in, are no longer able to serve us.


On top of that, the people who worked hard to cultivate those environments are no longer there either. Servers, bartenders, chefs, hosts, managers, and the owners of these establishments, have all suddenly found themselves unemployed.


When making the decision to write this piece, I faced a tough choice. Is it my place to even speak about the hardships that our service industry is facing? Does this story even matter when ALL industries are currently taking a hit? What exactly am I trying to tell our community? There were already so many prominent voices in our world releasing heartfelt and gut wrenching stories about this issue.


Amanda Cohen, the owner of Dirt Candy, and Gabrielle Hamilton, the owner of Prune, both amazing restaurants located in New York City, wrote pieces published in the New York Times that questioned the purpose and roles of their restaurants during and post-pandemic. After reading both Cohen’s and Hamilton’s thoughts, the consensus is: none of us have a single clue what the future of this industry looks like. I thought to myself, what else is left to say?


As a writer, I wanted to stand aside and let the story tell itself. But as a server who has been in this industry for almost 8 years, I found it impossible to remove myself completely. I would not be who I am without the restaurant business. I entered this industry the way most do, to make quick and seemingly easy money. What began as a part time job at a small local cafe to help me get through college, grew into a passion for food and wine. Even after graduating, I turned down a job in my field in order to stay in this industry because I couldn’t quite let go just yet. I wasn’t ready to leave an environment where I could spend one day learning about the history of collard green varietals in Georgia, the next day tasting a Cabernet Franc from Chinon, and then spend a busy Saturday night, hopping from table to table, pairing this wine for guests and gushing to them about this food that they so eagerly came to taste.


Memories are created during these shifts.


For me, service became synonymous with connection. Savannah’s service industry is truly like no other. Unlike most other cities, our restaurant scene is small and intimate. This gives us the opportunity to form relationships with each other. We recommend each other’s establishments to our guests and we treat our own as VIPs when they dine with us. With this thought in mind, I decided to reach out to others who work in this industry and learn about what it all meant for them and how this pandemic affected their lives. I sent out a general set of questions hoping to gain insight and what I received in return were answers that encompassed the myriad of emotions that everyone is feeling.


Blair Wagner, Server at The Grey


What’s your favorite part about working in this industry?


Wagner: “I love the education I’ve received about food and wine. When you learn about food, you also learn about people, history, and cultures. Food and wine both have the ability to connect you with someone from an entirely different continent. The simple act of sharing a meal always has the potential to be a memorable encounter. I love the service industry because I get to enhance this experience for others through my knowledge of food and wine.”


How do you feel about the effect COVID-19 has had on Savannah’s service and food industry?


Wagner: “I feel that it’s going to spark a lot of necessary conversation. I think our industry is going to learn from this and figure out how to protect ourselves better if we were to ever face this again. Even in the face of uncertainty and hardship, I’ve watched several restaurants channel their energy and resources into continuing to serve and feed our community in various ways. That’s the literal definition of survival. It’s tough right now, but we will survive and rebuild.”


Brian L., Server at The Fitzroy


What’s your favorite part about working in this industry?


Brian: “Giving people the space to be together, to enjoy each other, to be listened to, and then to be thanked for it is truly what has kept me in this industry for as long as I’ve been in it.”


How do you feel about the effect COVID-19 has had on Savannah’s service and food industry?


Brian: “At the end of the day, I’m doing my best to remember that yes, this is an economic crisis. But first and foremost, this is a biological crisis. No one saw this coming. No one weighed our ability to pay rent and feed ourselves through however long this will last. I know our industry is hurting greatly. And even when the shelter-in-place is lifted, let’s be honest, people are not going to be rushing back into bars and restaurants by the hundreds.


“This is going to change people’s social behavior forever – not to mention the way they value their disposable income. I am, of course, concerned about the ramifications this may have on our income, but I am finding some hope in the fact that so many of us are enduring it together. When it’s over, our politicians are going to have to answer to us, and I believe, or hope, they will.”


Co’wan Miller, Line Cook at The Grey


What’s your favorite part about working in this industry?


Miller: “My favorite part of being a professional cook is the joy that a guest has after a wonderful meal. It really makes all the hard work worth it.”


How do you feel about the effect COVID-19 has had on Savannah’s service and food industry?


Miller: “I'm from Savannah, and I've never seen this city so quiet. The service industry is taking a huge hit with everyone having to stay isolated. I see a lot of places shifting over to strictly takeout and delivery. My biggest hope is that our service industry bounces back, better than ever. We're a strong city with a backbone in community. I hope the small businesses we love so much can open their doors again one day.”


Sarah Schwager, Server at Cotton & Rye


What’s your favorite part about working in this industry?


Schwager: “Creating irreplaceable moments for friends and families to experience each other's company over a well-crafted meal. The food should replicate the energy of the gathering and spark conversation, curiosity, and exploration. The tight-knit industry that I know and love is hardworking, humble, and excited. It's a lovely thing to be a part of.”


How do you feel about the effect COVID-19 has had on Savannah’s service and food industry?


Schwager: “It's not easy. Savannah being made up of small businesses and locally-run shops keeps us on the forefront of this financial crisis. If our town was bigger or less community-driven, it would be a different story. We are being overlooked by the powers that can help make a change in response to this, and it's pretty terrifying. The actions by leaders bigger than we are will be the major deciding factor in pulling us out in the next few months.”


JoJo Ward, Server at Kayak Kafe (Midtown)


What's your favorite part about working in this industry?


Ward: “There’s a lot to love, but it’s crazy sometimes. Every day you walk into work you throw all of your chances up in the air and you instantly ask yourself ’the important questions.’ Will I make enough to pay my bills? Will people tip out 20%? How many issues will you have in the kitchen with food? The list goes on and on and it only seems that way because you’re getting paid a little over $2 an hour, as most servers do. So you rely on other people to pay your bills for you. You’re not guaranteed a steady living, but you can guarantee great service to your customers, which is why I like serving. At the end of the day, that’s all you want. To make people enjoy their experience: for yours and the restaurant’s success. I like making people happy. I feel like I was brought into this world to do so.”


How do you feel about the effect COVID-19 has had on Savannah’s service and food industry?


Ward: “I’m in shock. When you open a business, you should always have enough to get the restaurant through an entire year of labor, regardless of customer interaction. Some people have it way easier than others. I feel bad about the effect it’s taken on the service industry workers. The fine dining restaurant I started off at? They’re only doing to-go dinners. I can’t say it’s going too well for them. This is the time when I wish I had a fast food job, because at least they’re still working, but I know I truly wouldn’t want that for myself.


I have more freedom as a server to express my gratitude and interest for my job and the people who visit. Mind you, Savannah is one of the tourist cities. I can only imagine how hard of a hit all businesses are taking during this time”


Sydney F., Backserver and Cocktailer at The Grey


What’s your favorite part about working in this industry?


Sydney: “I have always had this passion for hospitality and simply nurturing others. Being apart of helping people create those wonderful memories that really can only be formed over great food, tasty drinks, and a warm atmosphere.”


How do you feel about the effect COVID-19 has had on Savannah’s service and food industry?


Sydney: “Only one word comes to mind...heartbreaking. A restaurant a couple doors down from The Grey had a sign on their door that read, ’we have closed permanently, thank for 14 wonderful years.’ My heart sank as the true reality of this devastation was just beginning.


So many more restaurants will follow suit and as an employee in the industry, it hurts to think about the family, or person, losing their business, the employees losing their jobs, and no one knowing what their next step may be. Simply heartbreaking.”


Through these responses, I discovered the question I was trying to ask: After this pandemic, will restaurants still be a necessary and welcome facet of our culture here in Savannah? Maybe that Cabernet Franc from Chinon is (arguably) a non-essential, but that moment of opening a bottle of it for a couple that’s celebrating their second or 50th year of marriage….that moment is absolutely necessary.


Witnessing a group of friends drunkenly dancing to the jukebox at Pinkie’s with their arms slung around each other is absolutely necessary. Sharing a pie from Vittoria Pizzeria with your best friend is absolutely necessary. Getting off of a long shift and sharing a shot and a beer with all of your service industry friends at Alleycat, Lonewolf, or Savoy Society is, I’m pretty sure, actually mandatory. These are the moments that people are actually seeking when entering our establishments. These are the moments that bring vitality and connection into our daily lives.


We can only hope that when this is all over, that our government recognizes the value of what we provide for people and assists with helping restaurant industry workers reintegrate into the workforce. As an industry, we have to figure out what it takes to provide safety nets and better protection for our workers. Food and beverage are vehicles that bring us together in our community.


In a post-pandemic Savannah, let’s hope that our community will continue to come together for us.