Chances are you have just driven by Erica Davis Lowcountry at some point since last October and have not yet stopped in to eat.
At 48 miles per hour eastbound, maybe you have not taken the time to recognize that the sharply renovated property that once was home to Charlie Teeple’s Seafood is not another realty office or a gift shop, or simply the central operations for a first-class catering concern.
Those of you who are back-and-forth across the Wilmington River daily or even weekly but who have not pulled in for some pulled pork, shame on you.
That gorgeous whitewashed building with the big bronze metalwork garage doors and gas lamps is a restaurant, one that should have been in your regular eating-out rotation for this past year.
Right about the same moment that you are reading this, Erica and Dwight Davis’s clean and coastal brick-and-mortar restaurant will turn a year old, though in a telephone interview earlier this week, both said that the time was not right for a celebratory gathering.
"We haven’t planned anything until the beginning of November," Dwight Davis said of postponing the birthday party. "We’re planning on doing an oyster roast at the building and inviting everyone."
"People are still a bit wary," he added, "so we’re hoping that [in] early November it will make sense for us to do something that is open to the public like that."
What an unfathomable first year it has been for this food family.
Catering becomes curbside
Imagine your are the Davises. A year ago this very week, you open your restaurant and enjoy immediate and delectable word-of-mouth acclaim and five months of normalcy before the unexpected begets seven-plus months of pandemic pivoting.
The less intrepid of us might look back, curse our timing, bemoan our fate, and pack it in.
The Davises have a different perspective and are made of sterner stuff.
"It has taught us," said Erica Davis, "and it taught us in a lot of different ways."
The couple closed the Thunderbolt restaurant for the last two weeks of March to "assess the situation and come up with a plan for how we were going to operate," said Dwight. Plan A saw a shift to curbside takeout orders only, which lasted the better part of 10 weeks.
Practically speaking, the building lent itself to that method of service.
"We rolled up that one garage door, set up there, and then just did takeout, switching from lunch to dinner," said Erica, who noted that most customers were doing so for family dinners early on in the pandemic.
"One of the reasons why we didn’t stay closed is that we have staff that are single-earning families, where they are the main source of income for their families," Dwight said, referring to their 20-some total employees between the restaurant and catering operations.
They put four staff members on hourly-wage salaries because there was simply no money coming in from table tips.
"We transitioned their jobs to help us put together takeout and prep work in the kitchen and then running food out to people’s cars," he added.
"Thank God, in a sense, that we had the restaurant," Erica said.
Dwight was quick to echo his wife’s rationale: "We were very lucky that we opened the restaurant in October and had enough time for the local area to find out that we were here."
Their catering operations were effectively shut down.
"We had pretty much zero revenue from the catering business from March until August," he explained, estimating the loss of "well-over 60 parties" that were on the books only to be canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
"Anybody you talk to that has any business, you tell them that they are going to have no income and all the same expenses, all your fixed expenses, for six months, and they’d be like, ‘I’m outta here.’"
"The restaurant was able to, basically, bring in enough money to cover our expenses," Dwight said of the strange summer months. "We didn’t make any money, but we didn’t lose a bunch of money either."
In time, the comfort level of patrons rose, and Plan B was the prudent baby step to letting folks come inside to pick up to-go orders.
From there, Plan C was the addition of a Thursday-night roving pop-up, by which the Davises and their team brought their Coastal Empire comfort food to the masses. A different neighborhood was selected each week and posted on Facebook, folks who live there placed their orders ahead of time, and Erica Davis Lowcountry then cooked it all up onsite. This four-month endeavor wrapped at the end of September so that the focus could refocus on the restaurant and the catering business.
"It wasn’t easy, but we’re just very appreciative that all the customers supported us," Dwight said of the neighborhood navigations. "It kept us going."
Customers were re-welcomed back into the restaurant itself for dine-in table service in August.
"Now, it seems like people are becoming more comfortable," he said of the recent shift to Plan D, if I am keeping accurate track of all of their creative adaptations, "so we’re doing fifty percent to-go and 50% dine-in at this point."
"The great part of our restaurant is that [customers] can sit outside," Erica said of the space’s protean structure that allows them to roll up the garage doors to create a wide-open indoor-outdoor setting that is certainly safe.
She then happily reported that come the end of September, their catering bookings started to recover and are filling up for the remainder of the fall.
Thunderbolt’s Soho South
The Davises bought the restaurant building with the initial idea that it would be the hub for their catering business before rightly realizing that it would fill a void in that neck of the river for a classy-casual lunch spot.
That early pandemic Plan A saw the catering all but disappear and the transformation from sit-down lunch to takeout dinner. As catering is back on the upswing, the Davises plan on expanding the relatively new 3 to 8 p.m. dinner hours to start at 11:30 a.m., thereby offering lunch once again and remaining open throughout.
When that day dawns, Erica Davis Lowcountry will be a tasty treat for lunch and dinner four days a week as well as an unique option for onsite catered special events. A Southern comfort Soho South on Savannah’s Eastside.
I challenge you to find something on the approachable menu that you do not want to eat right now. Your only problem will be choosing between "The Sea" and "The Farm" mains and then trying to whittle down the dozen sides and soups and stews to just two.
Make mine the crab-stuffed local flounder with sides of smoked molasses Brussels sprouts and Savannah red rice. C’mon, y’all.
Crystal clear from both is how grateful they are to the community for the outpouring of support over the last several months.
"We’re appreciative that the locals and our repeat customers have really saved us, to be honest," Dwight reiterated.
"When your whole business has been catering for so many years, and you open up, you make the investment, you buy all the extra equipment, and you set up a place and get ready to expand your catering business and then, basically, serve lunch, and then you get hit by a pandemic that, for all intents and purposes, shuts down your business…," he said, not really even able to finish the dazed domino train of thought before he gathered himself.
"Really, the only reason that we survived is because people were coming and buying takeout from us."
The goal that the Davises have discussed is to expand the restaurant’s house during the first week of November, perhaps right around the time that oyster roast is held to celebrate the restaurant’s first year.
Perhaps I will see you there. Wear your mask - and maybe one of those seafood bibs.