A year ago today, The Fat Radish opened its second location right here in Savannah.


Nothing like celebrating a first anniversary with a reopening.


Just ten blocks east, St. Neo’s, the rez-de-chaussée brasserie in The Drayton Hotel, is set to ‘grand-open’ for the second time in seven months. More on that in another column this week.


While one column is not fit to chronicle the separate stories of these two exceptional restaurants and their respective efforts during the closures caused by COVID-19, the similarities abound, not the least of which is the recent expedition of re-opening so soon after a grand opening.


Since the property at the corner of East Congress Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was radiantly restored, The Fat Radish became a fast favorite for downtown diners, a bright white beacon that may well anchor a retail revitalization in the stretch between The Grey and highly anticipated Plant Riverside District.


The same can be written about St. Neo’s and the super-handsome restoration of the historic American Trust and Bank Building at the corner of Drayton and East Bay Streets, creating in The Drayton Hotel a destination that blends bits of Manhattan, Charleston, and London and is sure to elevate expectations.


Even the two owner-proprietors - Natalie Freihon (The Fat Radish) and Raghav Sapra (The Drayton Hotel/St. Neo’s) - are both Big Apple-based because of other restaurant and real estate concerns, which gave them the somber advantage of seeing the crisis play out first-hand across the hospitality landscape of the country’s initial pandemic hotbed.


Suffice to say, these two special Savannah establishments are in great begloved hands, and the best news for hungry patrons, not to mention so many employees, is that both are back to business as of last week.


RADISH REDUX


Though the dining room at The Fat Radish reopened on Wednesday, Executive Chef Nick Wilber and his team have been in its kitchen throughout these past few months, taking stock, deep-cleaning, and finally preparing for a phase-based resumption of services.


Beginning last week, “larger-format” family meals were made available for pre-order pickups on Wednesdays and Fridays, replete with pre-cooked proteins, casseroles, hearty salads, and veggies.


“It’s a small offering to get us going,” said Wilber in a phone interview a week ago Tuesday. “It’s a double edge there: we haven’t been open for two months, so we don’t want to fill the walk-in again and expect everything to go back to normal right away.”


Similarly implemented by other area restaurants over the last few weeks, the nature of such a pre-ordering program allows a professional kitchen to know exactly what it needs to fulfill a given day’s service without overage as well as what it needs to prepare and package for pickups.


A whole roasted chicken with creamed mustard and lentil salad ($34), kimchi red curry with sweet potato, kale, and brown rice ($27), and a fennel and fish pie ($34), along with variety of substantial veg and bean-based salads ranging from $15 to $19 have been offered as two-person meals.


This past weekend, a takeaway “window” was added for Saturday and Sunday midday fare of sandwiches, salads, and snacks, accompanied by cocktails and wine, perfectly paired picnic packs for “strolling the squares of Savannah” or “hopping on your boat or going to the beach,” said Wilber.


They sold out.


For the family meals and the takeaway aliments alike, The Fat Radish’s signature beverage service abounds with wines by the bottle, non-alcoholic cocktails, and adult beverages: cucumber cooler, watermelon fizz, rum punch, passion fruit margarita, and the sunny weather star Aperol spritz.


“People are still kind of uncomfortable coming out, in many places across the nation, and actually being in an environment where there’s more than just the four people that you’ve been around,” Wilber said. “So this is going to be woven into the fabric of what restaurants are going to be doing.”


In what world did any of us imagine The Olde Pink House or The Fat Radish to take on selling take-out or prepared food to be frozen and then reheated at home? These are the initiatives even the finest of restaurants are now realizing “to make themselves more accessible,” according to Wilber.


He added that even before the exigency created by the coronavirus, The Fat Radish team had talked about having an “at-home option,” like a “date package” that allowed patrons to “bring The Fat Radish experience to your home.”


“It’s a good thing that we’re trying this a little bit,” he observed.


AHEAD OF THE CURVE


There was light laughter in Wilber’s voice when he acknowledged the ironic timing of re-opening The Fat Radish’s light and fresh dining room, a smartly trimmed wicker-and-palm Southern solarium in the heart of downtown Savannah, which comes with a limited capacity and total adherence to new health and safety guidelines.


One day before its exact one-year anniversary, and a superb first several months it was.


“It was wonderful,” he said, recollecting the restaurant’s ‘first’ Savannah start. “We were just hitting our stride when all of this happened.”


Even a summer grand opening, which is not always the best timing for a restaurant, did not keep The Fat Radish from immediately imbuing its ethos in its staff and building a “great customer base.”


The decision was made to close up shop entirely on March 18, but Wilber said that even before the city’s pruned Green Season, business at The Fat Radish had already “tailed off,” like it had for every downtown retailer.


“Our St. Patrick’s Day was not anything,” he recalled.


“Our plan for the closing was definitely to get our employees taken care of,” Wilber explained. “That was our only main concern. We didn’t want to put any of our employees in danger.”


He added, “We felt, not just financially, staying open would cost us, but more importantly, it was about our people. We didn’t want to put them in harm’s way, and we wanted to make sure that we would get them furloughed and signed up for unemployment as soon as possible,” noting the untoward demand that was ultimately placed on this governmental relief agency.


Wilber mentioned that Freihon and Director of Operations Michelle Watanabe were in New York at this time and were witness to the veritable brush fire incurred by the restaurant trade, a metropolis-plus that adopted stay-at-home orders and social-distancing practices a full week prior to the rest of the country. With eateries in New York (The Fat Radish and The Orchard Townhouse), Charleston (Basic Kitchen), and Savannah, the realities of closures and layoffs hit their Silkstone Restaurant group hard, a socio-economic swell that turned tidal as it flooded the map.


“It all went really quick in New York, and we just figured that that was what was going to happen down here,” Wilber explained of The Fat Radish’s prescient closure. “So we tried to get ahead of it. We knew that it was going to be really complicated.”


Out of catastrophe comes kindness and compassion, though: the day after announcing the shutdown to staff, The Fat Radish’s walk-in was opened up, its stores laid out on tables, and the twenty furloughed employees and industry friends were invited to come in one last time to “grocery shop,” as Wilber put it, allowing those to help themselves to everything from fresh produce to hand sanitizer.


In the following month, the building which the restaurant shares with The Windrose Apartment Hotel remained fortuitously active, despite the decreed dormancy, with much needed maintenance projects that would have been more complicated had business as usual been going on.


“That’s a little bit of a silver lining to all this,” Wilber admitted, clearly accentuating the ‘little’. “We got to stop, kind of reset, take care of some things,” including a deep-clean of his kitchen to the level that cannot be done on a nightly basis during normal operations.


“It is kind of like starting again with a brand-new kitchen,” he said, his smile audible over the phone line.


Wilber said that most of his work during the closure, aside from staying in contact with Freihon, Watanabe, and the staff, was devoted to recipe testing and to “keeping things moving.”


“We were always speaking about a plan of action for when we do open back up that evolves, obviously, over time,” he said, explaining that The Fat Radish leadership team worked on creating a model that “would only take a week to put into action and tick all those boxes.”


Because of that forethought and collaboration, he added that “it was really easy to get back into the swing of things” last week, preparing for the roll-out of the Family Meal and takeaway menus.


Before the phased restart, Wilber said that they made sure that his sous chef, Ray Robertson, and the FOH management team, led by Courtney Mock, were willing to come back.


“They’ve been great,” said Wilber. “Taking care of the back-end of the house, researching the new sanitizing laws and COVID protocols, and making sure that we’re really prepared for that.”


He sang the praises of Freihon, who has remained in New York to be present at what, understandably, has been a more unsettled scene with a pandemic plus social unrest and protests that have been both peaceful and not so.


“God bless her,” Wilber said. “She takes care of a lot. I have an infinite amount of respect for Natalie and the things she’s been able to do,” citing the weights that fall to owner-proprietors insofar as applying for loans, maintaining insurance, negotiating rent clemency, and doing everything else to put her people and her family “in the best situation.”


“With Michelle, they’ve been working nonstop,” said a clearly grateful executive chef.


In almost the next breath, Wilber expressed the plain and solemn fact that this precise moment of The Fat Radish’s happy news comes at a difficult time for the nation.


“Yes, we’re reopening, and yes, we’re trying to do what’s best for us,” he said. “But [as] a bigger picture, we wanted to take a step back,” out of respect for all who have suffered due to civil discord as well as the pandemic. During the last Blackout Tuesday, the restaurant did not post anything.


“We are a diverse restaurant, a diverse group of people, and we want to make sure that we are reflecting that,” Wilber earnestly explained. “We’re not trying to make a statement, but we’re standing in solidarity with what’s going on.”


“It’s a bigger issue than telling everybody that we’re open.”


Here in Savannah, Wilber mentioned that he has gone to the Farmers’ Market more often, checking in with The Fat Radish’s partner purveyors and providers, and that “it has been awesome to see how they’ve diversified as well, by coming together and offering farm boxes to pre-order.”


He did say that he and his fellow cooks have not had this much time off in a very long time, so there is an element of “stir craziness” that has made folks eager to be back in the kitchen.


“We’re going to come back better and keep moving forward,” said a confident Wilber as he looked forward to a weekend of resumed business. “We’re going to diversify as much as we can, get people back in the doors, and take it step by step as the city rebuilds, the curve flattens, and it’s safer for people to come out.”


“We’ll be here,” he said assuredly. So will we, soon enough.