A very short time ago in a neighborhood not at all far, far away...
Savannah Food Truck Force was born to defeat hunger of local diners longing to eat out without the added worries that come with socially-distanced dining, a food fleet united to keep us fed while ensuring the survival of several businesses.
No "rebel alliance" but a federation of food designed to do good in our little corner of the galaxy in these dark times.
Tongue firmly in cheek, of course, but I could not resist.
"This was born out of necessity, I guess you could say," said Bayou Café’s Vince Zambito, who with wife Angela co-created and now administrates Savannah Food Truck Force (SFTF).
"We basically saw a need," he added in a phone interview this past Saturday. "I wouldn’t call it ‘desperation’ because some of us probably would have survived anyway, but it really did help some of our restaurants get through this time when we just had no clue of, ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to pay the bills?’"
"We all got together and made it happen."
LIKE MORTAR FOR MOTORS
Opened by Jerry Zambito and taken over by Vince in 2005, Bayou Café is in its 30th year as a brick-and-mortar mainstay on River Street and stayed open throughout the pandemic for takeaway meals and DoorDash deliveries.
Still, between the first outbreak and the beginning of June when their dine-in service resumed, the Zambitos realized the restaurant world’s new normal.
"We really started running it full-out when the pandemic happened," said Vince Zambito of his food truck that was christened during the 2019 St. Patrick’s Day festivities. That August, they started "running it" every week.
Fast-forward a year, and the origin story for SFTF was equal parts opportunity and necessity: the Bayou Café truck was slated to set up on St. Julian Street along the parade route until that event was canceled.
Window closes. Door opens.
"Savannah Distributing contacted me. I said that we would be willing to do St. Patrick’s Day and then light bulb," Zambito recalled, sensing a wave of this current future. "We need to run trucks. The brick-and-mortars are going to be closed."
Right away, he reached out to a handful of other food truck proprietors - many of whom now make up SFTF’s ranks - and everybody "seemed to be on-board" with his idea of an organized alliance.
The Zambitos already had a handful of locations in the works, some available seven days a week, with more just around the corner, and he said to the others, "who’s in?"
Initially, a half dozen trucks and about the same number of sites were in, but within the next three weeks, the Force had nearly doubled.
"Sandpiper Supply was a very big help," Zambito said, thanking owner Chat Ellis, who started hosting trucks in the Bull Street business’s convenient and copious parking lot. Coastal Cathedral (Berwick) and Isle of Hope Baptist Church were other everyday spots early on.
One location after the other, as cautions and precautions escalated, interested parties contacted SFTF: Gordonston, Burnside Island, Lighthouse Baptist Church on Wilmington Island, and more.
"So I just started reaching out to locations, basically, calling people I knew in their neighborhoods and seeing what we could do, and before you knew it, we had a lot of locations," he added, happily inflecting the parking lot.
The Zambitos then offered to help neighborhoods and locations manage the bookings and heard a concordant, "Yes, please."
"We just kind of did it for them," said Zambito. "And then trucks just started calling us and joining us."
At present, the Force is eighteen food trucks strong with the same number of regular locations, all of which is clearly spelled out and linked on the user-friendly SFTF website.
"So many food trucks and their families have excelled throughout the pandemic with a little help from us and a lot of help from the Savannah community," Angela Zambito commented via email.
Emma Wagstaff, who owns Pie Society’s stateside British Empire with her family, wrote, "Vince and Angela have done a fantastic job to get the Savannah Food Truck Force up and running in such a short time to include a fully functional, free app that helps us input our menus, truck availability, and photos quickly as well as an excellent tool for all local customers to locate a truck near to them or chase down their favorite truck."
Owner of Latin Chicks and its spinoff Film Crew and Vida Fresh mobile kitchens, Mary Githens commented that their "dear food trucks" have "kept [them] going," adding, "I would say that I am immensely grateful [to] the community, and I feel so blessed to have had the resources to make a small difference in the day of the several communities where we served that were looking forward to some sort of novelty in their days."
CITY OF SAVANNAH SUPPORT
Understandably, the local leaders were unsure of how mobile eateries would work during these strange times, especially the health and safety aspects for the proprietors, their on-truck staffs, and the paying public.
Heretofore, at least for the five years that we have lived here, Savannah had not been progressive with respect to foodtruckery.
Desperate times seem to have helped.
"The city and the county have been really good partners as far as letting us run as food trucks during the pandemic," said Vince Zambito. "Nothing but good things to say about what they’re allowing us to do.
"A few weeks [in], they decided that it was a great idea, it was safe, it was helpful to the communities, and it was helpful to saving a few restaurants here in town, as well," he explained.
The city expanded provisions as long as the trucks themselves had permission from the particular set-up sites and as long as new rules and regulations regarding safety were followed to the letter.
Zambito credited Susan Broker, City of Savannah’s Director of the Office of Special Events, Film & Tourism, for greenlighting the food trucks’ ability to go forth and feed, and after an email from her to food truck proprietors, more mobile eateries called to join the SFTF, including dessert trucks Ben & Jerry’s and Little Diddle’s Sweetery.
"That was good," said Zambito. "We needed that. We started picking up more and more locations," such as access to Butter Bean Beach near Skidaway Island and The Landings, which has helped people during both lunch and dinner in that highly populated area.
He admitted that the busyness has become a bit of a blurred blessing: so many trucks, so many sites, so many bookings to juggle.
"It’s been steadily growing. We’ve been at eighteen trucks for the last few months," he said, but the roster is fluid, almost organically, accommodating the needs of the proprietors first.
Even though this must take hours upon hours of extra work each week, on top of running Bayou Café’s truck, Zambito does not foresee capping the SFTF fleet or locations.
"There are so many variables. It’s a process, adding and subtracting," he acknowledged. "It definitely can keep growing. At some point, the area will only be able to handle so much, but it’s alive, it’s a living being. Some locations are going to drop off. New locations are going to be added. Some trucks are going to do better at some locations than they will at others."
Born in one crisis, Savannah Food Truck Force seems perfectly poised to be a boon in other unexpected plights.
"I see it going through the future," Zambito said confidently. "The city sees this as a good thing."
A meeting with Chatham Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) is at hand, including SFTF in the conversation, and Zambito hopes that plans are developed "going forward" - not for another pandemic per se but for hurricanes or other more temporal emergencies - to mobilize "The Force."
"We can just jump in and go," he said, citing the consortium’s ability to coordinate around who has power and who has supplies.
More often than not, food trucks have stocked freezers, so as long as roads are passable into needy neighborhoods, one of the SFTF fleet can save the day - or feed those in need, at least.
"If we do have power, we have a supply kind of built in to where we can run two, three, four days, even a week’s worth of food to help first responders," Zambito asserted. "We can feed the medical people. We can pull up at the hospitals. Food trucks have that capability of being an essential service to the city."
Anyone who has patronized a mobile eatery in the last four months knows this to be true.
A FOOD FAMILY
Bayou Cafe’s truck runs "as much as possible," anywhere from two to four gigs a week, but the Zambitos clearly aim to give their SFTF cohorts as much work as possible.
"I want to provide a great service for them, obviously," Vince Zambito said.
Even though they make up SFTF’s roster, the individual trucks still book their own events and gigs.
"This is not limited to just what the Food Truck Force provides," he explained. "SFTF provides at least, for most trucks, four to five gigs a week, or four to five locations a week," which leaves the participating proprietors with a few open windows of availability to personalize their respective schedules.
If a certain truck is booked on a certain date weeks in advance, no worries on the SFTF front: that day and location can be snapped up by another in the fleet.
Emma Wagstaff also wrote, "Vince and Angela’s hard work has allowed us to reach new neighborhoods in Savannah and to extend our restaurant to those that have never eaten with us before. The communication and organization of the Savannah Food Truck Force has helped all trucks involved be more efficient and productive during the COVID-19 times."
She added, "We are excited to see the team grow with the addition of new trucks and locations in the near future."
"We’re a sharing network," said Zambito. "We’re all friends. We all want to help each other out. We all want to succeed in doing what we’re doing. A family group, that’s the best way to put it."
There might be no winning in this pandemic, but Savannah Food Truck Force is a new hope that will fill our hungry bellies now and in the future.
N.W. Gabbey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.