THE BIG NEWS in the local food & bev world is the closing of The Florence at the end of this week.
The latest marquee project of high-profile Southern chef Hugh Acheson opened in 2014 to great flourish. At the time, The Florence was important not only for its foodie trends, but perhaps more so for its then-confident statement about the direction of Savannah itself.
Anchoring the southern end of the rapidly gentrifying South of Forsyth/Victorian/Streetcar/Midtown area — choose your nomenclature — The Florence seemed a harbinger of the overall exodus of Savannah’s creative and entrepreneurial class out of the Historic District, as small businesses and residents are priced out by continuing tourism development and corporate investment.
Even its address, One West Victory, resounded with promise and resolve.
For these two reasons — a famous but nonetheless “outsider” owner, and prescient (too prescient?) geography — The Florence perhaps took on more added symbolism than was fair.
The Florence quickly became a sort of conduit, a proxy of sorts, for discussion of a myriad of other issues bubbling under the surface, many of which had little to do with Northern Italian cuisine.
As other observers have noted, local reaction to The Florence’s closing is heavy with Schadenfreude. There were people who eagerly counted down to the restaurant’s demise as proof of some dearly-held concept of “the way things are” here.
Or as a friend put it in a spot-on assessment, “celebrating the demise of the Florence would be regression to that comfortable Savannah mean.”
That said, we’re still talking about a restaurant. And any discussion of The Florence inevitably starts with the same two words: “Mixed Reviews.”
A mixed review is indeed what I gave it, for the same reasons many others did: A menu which often overpromised and underdelivered, poor coordination between back of the house and front of the house, unrealistic price points, a room which never hit the balanced sweet spot between comfort and bustle.
Looking more closely, however, we see that many of the criticisms of The Florence are perhaps just as accurately criticisms of the market in which it operated.
As I’ve written many times, Savannah considers itself a much larger and more sophisticated market than it really is.
Despite being only the 137th largest metro area in the U.S., we insist on seeing ourselves “competing” with much larger cities, such as Atlanta (9th largest) and Charleston (74th), when a more realistic cohort for Savannah might include Columbus, Ga. (161st), Wilmington, N.C. (167th), and Hilton Head/Beaufort, S.C. (209th).
Strip away the ego and the airs, and the facts remain that Savannah’s poverty rate is nearly 30 percent, and our public schools, if we’re being frank, are among the worst in the country.
Not a $5 meatball kind of town.
In the end, Hugh Acheson’s only sin may have been to believe what Savannah already believed about itself.
The success story of nearby Atlantic is a case study of the more viable approach. The location is virtually the same; a major league right fielder could hit Atlantic with a baseball from the roof of The Florence.
What isn’t the same, however, are the price points, which are accessible and market-realistic, and the service, which is personalized in line with the smaller size and volume of the restaurant itself.
And this brings me to what in my mind is the salient issue: The difference between a service industry and a service culture.
Savannah has, for better or worse, a robust service industry. The banquet servers, the hotel maids, the line cooks, the hostesses, the cashiers, etc. North of Victory, most all of them primarily serve tourists.
It’s all the rage locally to bash these types of jobs and the companies which provide them. But that misses the point.
The problem is that we don’t have much of a service culture to speak of. That’s a key distinction, and probably the main reason why The Florence shut down.
It also has ramifications for future job and economic development here overall.
It’s not something Savannah likes to talk about openly, but it’s a truth that almost anyone in the local food and beverage industry here will confirm.
We always want to compare ourselves to Charleston. But in Charleston there are plenty of people whose entire career is as a fine dining server or a bartender or a sous chef. They take great pride in it, and make a lot of money doing it.
In Savannah, you could fit the city’s whole population of true career restaurant service professionals in The Florence dining room with space to spare.
Indeed, one of The Florence’s problems as I saw it was they just couldn’t find enough dedicated food and beverage veterans to back up the restaurant’s promise.
I can find dozens of posts a day on Facebook decrying Savannah’s service industry for its emphasis on low-wage jobs with little upward mobility.
I can hardly find any posts, however, decrying Savannah’s lack of a service culture. It seems to me that if we could foster such a thing, many of our complaints about the former would solve themselves.
What we should be doing isn’t bashing the jobs that are here, but encouraging the kinds of jobs we want to see.
If each of us has an open mind, we can all find important lessons to learn about the failure of The Florence, few of which have to do with meatballs.