How does one run an establishment whose entire concept is built on social gathering when that very phrase is now enough to make people hide inside?


Do what the creative and committed visionaries at Starland Yard have done since they reopened the container doors for sit-and-stay service on May 13: make a plan to keep customers safe.


As soon as its steel doors opened last year, the uniquely chic Thomas Square venue became the city’s destination gathering place: dinner and drinks with friends and visiting relatives on weekend nights; lunch with the whole family after Saturday and Sunday morning religious services; the quintessential ‘something for everyone’ place.


Recognizing the potential health risks of ‘social gathering’, Starland Yard closed down its signature bar and hosted no food trucks for nearly three months that should have been a stellar first summer season.


General Manager Ava Pandiani described a "four-step reopening process" that Starland Yard’s owners and management team devised over the three-month cessation of the majority of its onsite operations, during which time the Yard remained open only for takeaway pizzas from Vittoria.


One week in April saw a low-key pop-up when Loki Bus Line pulled in to serve, partially to give Kyle Jacovino and his Vittoria team a chance to take a much-needed break.


On May 13, Starland Yard recommenced its bar service — though without stools around it — and allowed guests to stay for some drinks and a couple pizzas.


Food trucks returned to the Yard at the beginning of June, starting with just one a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Baby steps for our collective benefit.


Right now, Tuesdays through Thursdays play host to one truck only, which ramps up to two on Friday — one all day and one for dinner service — and then to four on Saturdays — two all-dayers, one for the midday hours, and another truck for the evening slot.


"We want guests to have as many options as possible," said Pandiani. "But we also want to make sure that the food trucks are making money."


To that end, Starland Yard is waiving all commissions on food truck sales through the end of 2020.


"We know it’s a struggle, and we know that they’re going through the same things we’re going through," she added. "We want to make sure that they’re still motivated to operate here. If they’re getting that little bit back, that’s helpful to each of them."


New to the yard this summer have been trucks operated by Farm (Bluffton) and Vida Fresh (Latin Chicks) with a few others ‘in the works’ as guest numbers climb over the remainder of the year.


A place with a plan


"There are things that have changed so quickly," Pandiani said as she replayed the summer in her head. "We didn’t have anything about masks on our opening guidelines because when we first opened back up in May, that was not a focus. It just was about gatherings.


"And now, of course, as more information’s come out, that’s become a priority for us. So even our opening guidelines have had two iterations to them."


Every staffer wears a mask. All operators of food trucks are wearing masks. Bartenders are all wearing gloves for that extra layer of patron protection, and one of the Starland Yard host staff is constantly patrolling and cleaning any unoccupied surface.


"You can’t be ‘over-clean’ right now," Pandiani sagely said.


Starland Yard’s reopening plan set out 150 seats for diners, all of which are more than 6 feet apart with most distanced by 8 feet or more, so when the crew sees no open seats during a bustling time, a ‘1 In, 1 Out’ protocol goes into effect.


"What we will do," Pandiani explained, "because you can drink on DeSoto (Avenue) now, if people want to order a drink, we can have them wait outside," a practice that has helped manage larger parties of guests.


Some tables have been removed. Others have been turned around, all to give an already open space an added measure of safety, so please play along and do not try to move a table. They are where they are for a reason, folks. No bar stools is the "easiest way to keep people from gathering there."


The picnic tables can hold a group of eight, with two chairs at either end, but parties larger than that will just have to abide by Starland Yard’s incredibly clear and reasonable COVID-19 Guidelines, which are posted on its website.


"If you want to come in with 12 people, you can do it, but what we’ll do is try to seat you here and there," Pandiani said, pointing to neighboring picnic tables. "Just make you keep the tables separate."


Starland Yard is also allowing super-large parties (ten or more) to call ahead, unless your ETA is between 6 and 8 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday.


"Between 6 to 8 is our rush hour, and at this point, we do have some instances, if it’s beautiful out at seven o’clock, we’re having people go on a wait," explained Pandiani.


"People want to have a good time, and I understand that, for sure. It’s like Choose Your Own Safety Adventure right now," she said with a smile in her eyes above her mask. "If you really don’t want to be around anyone, you can sit upstairs and be fifty feet away from the nearest person."


Dibs. That is my kind of social distancing.


Sweet celebration


The landmark Savannah meet-and-eat space celebrated its first anniversary on July 28, but many of us might have missed it while still hunkering down at home.


"We were still in the position where we thought a full-blown party was inappropriate," said Pandiani. "So we toned it down, for sure, but we wanted to do something to mark it at least."


While paper has long been the traditional first anniversary gift medium, Starland Yard went a sweeter route, launching its own snow cone stand that day and offering free ones throughout that weekend.


Housed underneath the pavilion, this crowd-pleaser will shave ice from Friday through Sunday (4 p.m. until close) and works on the same centralized payment system. A variety of fruit-flavored snow, all concocted with homemade syrups and juices, are $3 each, and for an additional $3, add an adult beverage splash.


Pandiani said that Starland Yard has taken its "biggest hit" over the summer months with canceled and postponed events and large gatherings, including one wedding that was to be a full buy-out of the property for the day.


The strategized pivot has been to host smaller events during the Yard’s least busy times, inviting Pure Barre and local yoga studios to use this unique and secure outdoor venue for classes, say, on a weekend morning or on a Tuesday night from 8 to 9 p.m. If half of those folks stick around after working up a sweat for a drink and a pizza, everyone wins.


Also added are Trivia Nights on Tuesdays (starting at 6:30 p.m.), emceed by local tour guide and quiz legend Chris Grimmett, and Wednesday evening’s Mini-Market featuring local produce purveyors and small-batch makers and bakers (6 to 9 p.m.).


The third Thursday each month will be an open mic night, hosted by Spitfire Poetry Group, and the fourth Thursday will be a comedy event, hosted by Nichelle Stephens. As always, live music acts perform on Wednesday and Sunday nights (6 to 9 p.m.), and a DJ spins tunes on Friday and Saturday nights.


Clearly, the hard work by the Starland Yard team in this most unusual time for the hospitality trade has been geared toward keeping Starland Yard exactly what it was intended to be: a place for food and fun.