So many folks come to Savannah for the food, and perhaps no other single restaurant bespeaks the city’s history, heritage, and culinary draw than The Olde Pink House.
No business deserves what the Lowcountry landmark has endured over the last sixteen months: first the December 2018 fire and then this global health crisis. Nevertheless, the Hostess City’s grande dame of dining is back on her feet, inviting guests to enjoy its Southern spread in the Reynolds Square mansion as of last Monday.
That same day, Euro-elegant Garibaldi, also owned by Donna Moeckel, reopened for onsite service.
Though both establishments had reopened their respective kitchens for takeaway meals within the last two weeks, General Managers Craig Jeffress (The Olde Pink House) and Hans Raina (Garibaldi) are clearly excited about bringing back staff and welcoming diners through the front doors once again.
THE ‘NEW’ PINK HOUSE
“I am so proud of the team here [and] the way things went last night,” Jeffress said following Monday’s dine-in service, the first since The Olde Pink House closed on March 24 and its 200-plus full and part-time employees were furloughed.
“We’re so grateful for all of the guests that showed up,” he added. “People obviously missed us while we were closed.”
Jeffress admitted that though no target was set for the number of covers that first night, the restaurant “far exceeded” what he was hoping for in terms of both the staff’s performance and the number of diners that were served.
“Everything went the best I could have asked for,” he said.
Jeffress heaped praise on The Olde Pink House employees for their adaptation to added health and safety measures: working while wearing masks, changing gloves, and continuously sanitizing work stations throughout the night, all in order to make patrons feel more comfortable.
“My staff is so game,” he added proudly. “They’ve done such a great job with it.”
Under the direction of Executive Chef Vincent Burns, who has helmed The Olde Pink House kitchen since 1997, and Chef de Cuisine Pete Smith, almost the entire menu was on offer for the reopening, and the few items that were not available are probably back on as of today.
“The two of them together really do a dynamic job of making sure that we have a well-trained team and the best ingredients in the region,” said Jeffress, who has been at the restaurant for 11 years.
“There’s some availability issues,” he admitted. “But by the end of this week, early next week, we’ll be in a good place.”
Though only a few of the restaurant’s thirteen dining spaces are being used at present, Jeffress expects that the entire house “will be open shortly,” which will then necessitate bringing back more and more staff.
“We’re making people as comfortable as we can at this time,” he added. “I can’t say enough about the folks who are here, coming back to work and making it happen for our guests, and I can’t say enough about our leadership team, the way they’re pulling things together for us.”
“I am just one person that represents a great team of people,” Jeffress said, emphasizing ‘great’. “One heck of a team that spends a lot of hours trying to make sure that we do things the right way.”
He praised assistant General Manager Autumn Taylor, who has “done a phenomenal job staying in touch with the staff, bringing them back when they are comfortable coming back.”
TWICE IN TWO YEARS
Restarting in the pandemic’s wake has been similar to what the restaurant and its personnel experienced throughout the spring and early summer of 2019, bringing the old girl back “slowly with a good foundation.” The Olde Pink House was closed for 102 days in the aftermath of the fire before reopening in partial capacity on April 8 and then resuming full operations by the middle of June.
“People count on us to make sure that we impress their guests,” Jeffress said, citing the quality of the meal and the level of care and hospitality given to diners. “They count on us to be that good.”
“What’s most important for me,” he said, “is that we respect what we should be doing and the situation that we’re currently in as a world.”
Whatever decisions are made by city, state, and national leaders, Jeffress added, “That’s the way we’re going to do it.”
“You have to embrace the challenges,” he said. “Don’t make it more difficult than it already is. It’s already hard enough.”
THE 912 SHOWS UP
On Monday, May 11, The Olde Pink House reopened its kitchen for drive-up take-out only, offering a pared-down menu of items that would travel well.
Jeffress was pleased with how his team rolled out this initiative as well as how it was received by fans of the restaurant, who ordered food online and picked up orders curbside at The Arches Bar.
“Any time we can make someone happy, we do it,” he said of this foray into takeaway service. “If opening for take-out pleased five people who had been missing us, then I’d call it a hit.”
While some Savannahians might see The Olde Pink House as suitable strictly for special occasions or too touristy for locals, Jeffress made it clear that the restaurant is “always going to be driven by the local support,” noting that the first thrill for his team was seeing their regulars again last Monday.
“Our focus has always been to make sure that Savannah enjoys eating with us,” he affirmed, adding, “With take-out and dine-in, the first people that will always come to The Olde Pink House will be our locals. They are the heartbeat of this restaurant.”
“Of course, we serve people from all around the world,” Jeffress said, “but the Proverb says, ‘Serve well those who are near, and those from far will come.’”
“We don’t exist without The 912,” he said with great cheer in his voice. “They’re always in our reservation book, 912 shows up.”
For the time being, The Olde Pink House will be open for dinner only, starting at five p.m., and takeaway will remain available every day from noon until close; orders can be made-and-paid online and then picked up at The Arches Bar.
“It’s been a good journey for all us, really and truly to learn how to get better,” Jeffress reasoned. “You’ve got to love that challenge. I am just thankful for the opportunity to serve.”
As we finished our conversation, he echoed his own praise of his colleagues, saying, “I’m beyond proud of the group of people that I work with. Watching them perform on a nightly basis at a high level before this and now watching them embrace this challenge, I am humbled by their efforts.”
A half block south of City Market, the circumstances of these past two months have been largely the same for Donna Moeckel’s other stylish Savannah restaurant, though Garibaldi’s kitchen fires, too, are lit once again.
For Moeckel, General Manager Hans Raina, and the entire staff, the more recent challenges have been exciting ones, leading to last week’s reopening and a measured march toward ‘normalcy’.
Beginning on Monday, May 25, the restaurant realized a “soft opening, keeping the reservations relatively low and focusing on the additional steps of service to keep everyone safe,” according to Raina.
“The kitchen did a great job and put out some fantastic food,” he informed me after this past Saturday night’s service, praising Executive Chef Gerald Green, who has led Garibaldi’s kitchen for thirty years now. “Guests were very happy to be out of quarantine, and the staff was excited to be back at work and doing what we do best.”
For the first couple weeks of resumed in-house dining, the menu will be slightly abridged, offering roughly eighty percent of Garibaldi’s customary carte of fresh seafood, steaks, and Italian staples.
“The menu is still substantial,” said Raina, who likened the reopening to a grand opening, what for all of the adjustments born of necessity.
“I’ve opened half a dozen restaurants from the ground up, and it’s been very similar,” he said. “Our signature service has been modified and altered to incorporate the new guidelines and to make things safer for the guests.”
Both fancy floors are open for dining, but half of the tables have been removed, ensuring six feet or more between chair backs. He said that Garibaldi will follow national, state, and local guidelines, but that there is not a rush to be back to full capacity.
“We’ll just do what makes sense.”
Raina, who started with the restaurant group in 1996 and who has been the general manager at Garibaldi for a total of nine years, spotlighted owner Donna Moeckel as the steady hand and the guiding force behind everything that has gone on over the last two months, including all of the time and effort now being spent on reopening.
“She’s had her thumb on everything from Day One,” he said. “She’s a very involved owner and is the secret to our huge success at both restaurants.”
A STRANGE SPRING
The restaurant, which will celebrate its 40th year in business later this year, maintained regular operations during the two-week Green Season span that is usually a hospitality boom.
“We were open during that stretch, and it was very quiet, very slow,” said Raina, estimating that the glam West Congress Street restaurant might have seen between 15 and 20 percent of its normal number of diners in mid-March.
Due to the world health crisis, the decision was made to close on the Tuesday after St. Patrick’s Day, like many other downtown establishments, and some seventy restaurant employees were furloughed.
Prior to reopening for onsite service last Monday, Garibaldi’s culinary team began doing take-out, much like its Savannah sister spot with online ordering and curbside pick-up.
“As word gets out,” said Raina. “It’s growing a little bit as we’ve moved along.”
This menu was trimmed, namely eliminating the raw bar specialities that are not made to travel, but even as top-shelf takeaway, the crispy diamond-scored flounder, chef’s veal chop au poivre, five-layered lasagna, and veal picatta have remained “huge hits.”
The real news, though, is the reopening, which means that some Savannahians are back at work.
“Probably eighty to eighty-five percent of the staff returned,” Raina said happily, noting that the attrition was mostly due to individuals moving away to be with family during the pandemic as well as SCAD students who went home and have not yet returned to town.
“We’ve had everyone back in the building, and we’re retraining them,” he said. “We didn’t want to wait until the last moment to bring the staff back and find out we didn’t have adequate staff to properly run the restaurant.”
Raina admitted that the most challenging part of this unprecedented set of circumstances is “making sure the staff is comfortable with moving forward, with reopening, making sure that they’re comfortable taking care of guests.”
Because tourist traffic in Savannah tends to slow a bit after Memorial Day, he also said that he is interested to see if this trend holds this year, considering millions of Americans did not go anywhere from March through May.
“Everyone who normally would have traveled in March or April didn’t get the opportunity to,” said Raina, before adding, “The reservation book’s already open, and it’s already starting to fill up.”
That is the news our city’s dedicated restaurateurs and hospitality employees deserve to hear.