My wife and I fell in love with Savannah about seven years ago when we first visited on a "re-location recon mission." I distinctly remember sitting at one of The Public’s sidewalk tables one evening, looking at the leafy canopy over Liberty Street and knowing that this was the place.
Over the next two years, as we revisited what would soon become our "new" hometown, an al fresco meal at the classy-casual eatery became a constant, and in the last five, The Public has remained among our favorite local spots: a proper gastropub with the natural nuance of small-city Europe, where locals can feel like tourists, and vice versa, as the world wanders by.
A week ago, we rode our bikes downtown to enjoy another Chamber of Commerce early summer day and to experience, at a distance, some ambiance north of Ardsley Park. How sad it was to see the smoke-glazed windows on the southwest corner of Bull and Liberty, the disheartening aftermath of a fire that all but destroyed the restaurant in early June.
As we are all too aware, this has been "The Lost Spring and Summer" for Savannah’s vital hospitality industry, but a fire on top of a global pandemic and social injustice and unrest seems like piling on.
For another restaurateur, perhaps - but not Jamie Durrence.
WHEN IT RAINS...
At the beginning of the year, the outlook was an optimistic one for the Managing Partner of Daniel Reed Hospitality: a sixth Savannah enterprise was going to join the esteemed quintet of The Public, Artillery, Local 11ten, Perch, and Soho South when Franklin’s opened up in the English basement property that formerly housed the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee Headquarters; in the meantime, Durrence had also been chosen to serve as the Chair of the Board of the Georgia Restaurant Association.
"I started the year thinking about how to energize the board and to get everybody excited, and then all of this happened," he said with a thoughtful chuckle in a phone interview this past Saturday.
Fair to write, Durrence and his colleagues have weathered more "all of this" than most. During the week of March 15, Daniel Reed effected blanket closures, as it were, shutting each of the group’s five Savannah properties and Atlanta’s Agency one by one.
With no pop-up events or takeaway service offered throughout the next two spring months, all remained relatively quiet on the West Liberty and Bull Street fronts.
"We had just pivoted back to full service dining for about a week, and then the fire happened," Durrence said, sort of burying the lede of what had already occurred up in Atlanta. One week prior to the fire, Agency was broken into during the social protests, its front glass shot through and its interior devastated.
The very next night, having been up for 24-plus hours, Durrence lay down in bed only to hear his phone ring: Artillery had been broken into.
Six restaurants closed for months. One of these destroyed during a night of civic unrest. Another reduced to ashes. Yet another broken into.
Again, a less hopeful person might have hung up his phone that night and put the pillow over his head. Not Durrence.
"You just have to get up each morning, get your feet on the floor and put one foot in front of the other, and even if it all falls apart, guess what? You’ll be okay."
After the last shift at The Public on March 20, all of Daniel Reed’s employees - about 130 full and part-time in Savannah, plus the staff of more than 60 at Agency - were furloughed in order to be eligible for state unemployment benefits and federal CARES Act assistance.
"We tried to keep The Public open until the weekend," Durrence recalled. "But as people were getting more fearful, it was very clear that we were not going to make it until Sunday."
"Atlanta was more fearful, I would say, than Savannah was," he added. "Because of the sheer number of people, so we knew during that whole week that it was just best to close down everything."
In late May, The Public opened back up for counter service, using an entirely changed operations model - order at the bar, wait outside, receive a text, come in to pick up the food and drinks, and sit outside at one of the tables, all without being served or waited on and all for safety’s sake.
On the night of June 4 and into the wee hours of June 5, the fire broke out, by all accounts the result of a faulty piece of equipment. Upon initial inspection, Durrence had hoped that a kitchen rebuild would constitute the majority of the restoration.
No such luck. The destruction of the restaurant, according to Durrence, was "pretty total."
"The smoke damage in there is really, really, really bad, all over the place," he said. "It’s just as bad as the fire. You can’t get rid of it, so all the drywall, all the furniture has got to go. At this point, you just start over again, so that’s what we’re doing."
Demo is probably underway as you are reading this, and Durrence’s goal for reopening The Public is October 1, which he hopes to coincide with the unveiling of the new venture next door.
"That is going to be a goal that may or may not be achievable," he admitted. "But that’s what I’m going with."
By the restaurateur’s rationale, the only months left to make 2020 financially worthwhile are October and November, though Durrence acknowledges that the restaurants’ readiness "depends on a lot of factors."
"The big unknown is what the hell is going to happen with COVID?" he asked rhetorically, speaking for every entrepreneur and eager eater-out.
"All you can do is take one day at a time, but that’s not how businesses operate," said the Glennville native. "We try to look into the future and forecast and make our decisions based on some sort of known something. Now, we’re sort of walking around blindly."
Like in a restaurant filled with smoke.
THE REST OF THE D-R RESTAURANTS
Artillery, the ‘sophisticated speakeasy’ separated from the actual structural space of The Public by only a staircase, was scheduled to reopen on the Thursday following the fire, but that adjacent building sustained significant smoke and physical damage.
"Even though the fire was put out on June 6," Durrence explained. "You can still smell it, so we’re going to have to do more investigation there, find out if there are any walls that we’ve got to get into and replace."
Though the establishments are semi-independent, they "work together," which means that it simply does not make sense to open Artillery until The Public is restored and ready to go.
"Right now, the corner is kind of dark," said a positive but pragmatic Durrence. "I don’t know that it necessarily makes sense to rush to open Artillery. Maybe that’s in a month and a half or two months. Then it opens a month before we open The Public. We just don’t know."
"We just don’t know": sounds like the t-shirt for 2020.
At the south end of Forsyth Park, the situation is somewhat sunnier. Local 11ten reopened in the last week of May, and Durrence said that the elegant eatery and its rooftop lounge, Perch, have been "doing very well."
Durrence cited a number of physical factors that have contributed to the sense of safety in the bucolic bank setting, a reservation-based restaurant whose private parking lot is just a couple of steps from its tables.
This past Saturday night, Local 11ten had more than a hundred bookings, a notable number for late June.
Perch reopened at the same time, featuring live music Thursday and Sunday nights and now offering a "more extensive menu" than what is normally available on the Local 11ten roof bar so that patrons can have "the full experience without having to be downstairs."
"People are desperate to get out and do something, and we’ve been a little more flexible with what we have been doing up there," Durrence said. "That outdoor space feels very safe, and people are really responding."
Even that rekindled interest in Perch, though, "comes with its own set of challenges" vis-à-vis social distancing.
Back on West Liberty Street, Soho South’s restaurant has not yet reopened. A very busy spring and summer was on the books for multiple onsite events each week, but the travel restrictions and lockdowns prevented those folks simply from coming to Savannah - and even if they pulled into town, they could not be safely seated and served.
"We lost all that business," Durrence said before happily reporting that the calendar has already started a recovery with two events in July, three in August, and ten in September. With that have come emails from diners who want to know when Soho South will reopen for routine reservations.
"Our focus at Soho is to keep plugging along and try to focus on the events for a while," he added.
Across the street, the debut of Franklin’s was another summer setback.
"We were entering the last, say, heavy thirty days of construction right at the fire," Durrence said, "but we had just finished, about a week and a half prior, the kitchen space at Franklin’s. Unfortunately, that entire space got compromised."
Franklin’s concept is the all-day classy café offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the comfort of pancakes and chocolate cakes, lattes and to-go picnic totes, brunchtastic fare to accompany coffees and cocktails and plenty of people-watching.
With the entire corner essentially under reconstruction, it might make best sense to have it cordoned off completely for the next few months.
"Our goal is to open The Public and Franklin’s together," said Durrence. "We’re going to treat that as one reopening, which is exciting to have both come online at once."
STATE OF THE STATE
Durrence has been on the Georgia Restaurant Association board since 2012 and said that the experience has been a "real highlight" of his professional life, particularly over the last few years.
In a body whose decision-making, understandably, is Atlanta-centric, he is equally proud and pleased in "having representation from our city and being part of [what] greatly affects us here as well."
Over the last several weeks and in its cooperative response to pandemic concerns, the GRA’s intentions have included advocacy against limited liability lawsuits and support for both the hate crime bill (HB 426) and a bill that would allow restaurants to deliver beer and wine, a piece of legislation that has been passed by the state but which still requires approval at local levels.
"It’s amazing what this whole pandemic has done because it’s opening up the eyes of everyone," Durrence said, citing burgeoning food delivery service from restaurants, bars, and grocery stores.
"I think the legislators have seen that there is a real desire for people to be able to order beer and wine and have it delivered to their house," he explained. "I don’t know that that would have ever even gotten passed in Georgia had it not been for this."
In addition, the GRA’s website features a comprehensive and constantly updated COVID-19 subsection that has a ‘Restaurant Reopening Toolkit’, dozens of webinars, training resources, real-time restaurant updates, and invaluable links to all manner of federal and state relief programs.
Through all of the hardships, Durrence said that the GRA’s biggest talking point has been the symbiotic relationship that exists in the hospitality industry.
"We, as restaurateurs, are trying to extend our hospitality to you, but we also need for people to understand what their responsibilities are as part of that process," he reasoned. "We want people to get out there and support the restaurants, but we understand that everyone is different and that not everyone wants to do that [right now], which is okay."
"At the end of the day," Durrence added, "the message is that we’re all in this together. Everyone must be responsible and have mutual respect."
"At some point, things will go back to some sort of normal. People are going to want to go out and dine. If we want to have bars and restaurants around a year from now," he said soberly, "we have to be, as consumers, part of that process."
While Durrence realizes that "not everybody has the answers," he, like most of us, wishes that the pandemic response could "get on the same page at the very top," if you will, and that the messaging had definition and uniformity.
Not surprisingly, his punctuation mark on the entire conversation was a positive one, and he underscored "the outpouring of love and support for The Public and the restaurant industry as a whole" that he and his team have experienced over the last few months.
As soon as The Public is back in business, we will be sitting at a table on the Bull Street sidewalk, sipping sweet tea and watching the passersby, always remembering that this was why we came to Savannah.