Acheson announces closing of The Florence

Well that sucks.

Just about 3 years ago it was considered the biggest thing to happen to Savannah’s restaurant scene since Paula Deen put the city on the national map. Now, Hugh Acheson’s The Florence will end its run on Victory Drive in the heart of the city on June 25th. The news made official via Acheson’s Facebook page.

A lot of locals will tell you they aren’t surprised. Another group in this city will tell you they are devastated. The truth as to why exactly this restaurant couldn’t survive Savannah likely lies somewhere in between.

I’m not in the business of pointing fingers. Especially when it comes to what people like to eat. You like what you like, I like what I like. Sometimes we agree, other times we do not. Frankly, I knew The Florence was in trouble a long time ago and there was really nothing we could do about it.

I’m regularly asked what my favorite restaurant is. I find the question incredibly unfair because it’s impossible to compare, for example, a meal at The Grey with a meal at Betty Bombers or Lili’s on Wilmington Island. You can’t. Still, for a long time my response to that question was a short list and The Florence was always on it. Inevitably, I’d get wide-eyed looks or crinkled noses. “Really?” As if I am going to lie about that question. Too many people plain and simply didn’t get what Executive Chef Kyle Jacovino was doing with his menu. That’s incredibly unfortunate.

The pressure to be perfect at The Florence existed before they even opened their doors. James Beard Award Winning Chef Hugh Acheson had become a popular fixture on Bravo’s Top Chef. If you enjoyed the consumption of those particular type of cooking/food shows then Hugh was a household name. When word leaked around Savannah that a ‘Celebrity Chef’ was bringing an Italian restaurant to Savannah, the excitement was palpable. The problem was the expectation was very different than what ultimately went into an old converted ice warehouse at the intersection of Whitaker and Victory during the summer of 2014. Sadly, the disconnect began almost immediately.

Certainly not everyone, but a lot of people in this town heard “Celebrity Chef” and “Italian” and automatically assumed they’d soon be able to enjoy the best chicken parmagiana they ever had or veal marsala. Early on, I heard “it’s not real Italian” around town, which is flat out absurd. I heard others say “Who does he think he is? It’s just not that good.” As if Hugh Acheson’s status as a leading chef in the South-and America for that matter-made him any better or more important than the other chefs down the street. Not at all. Hugh Acheson wanted to open a neighborhood-friendly spot with Italian influenced food where you could spend a little or spend a lot but still get the freshest ingredients around. You could pop in for a beer and a pizza upstairs or hang around for a little bit more downstairs.

I know service was an issue at times. That, however, is a Savannah problem, not a “The Florence” problem. I’m not a restaurant owner but I thought they’d have trouble finding people in this city to execute the kind of dishes they were accustomed to in Athens or Midtown Atlanta. Savannah has come along culinarily in 3 years but we are still lagging far behind when it comes to keeping the kind of talent around (both in the back and the front of the house) that can make a spot like The Florence work.

That’s not to say that the Acheson group is without fault in their ultimate demise here in Savannah. For a long time, some of us who enjoyed their food, which for the record I did every single time I ate there, wished they’d adjust the menus to make them a little more accessible to the masses. No, we weren’t looking for fettucini alfredo add chicken for $12.95 but dishes like lamb heart scare people away. I know that was an early incarnation of the menu, but it left a lasting impression in the community. A lot of those people never returned.

“They lacked a bear.” is how one Savannah restaurant owner put it to me. “Listen, the food over there was some of the best in Savannah. But if something went wrong with a meal, there was no identifiable face to absorb the blows.” he said. Translation: Acheson brought his most important people down from Athens or Atlanta. If a big-named customer in this town (because we do have them) walks out unhappy and nothing is done about it, that sting will resonate across the city. And it did. Many times.   The problem I have with that, personally, is that pretty quickly a lot of the ‘dining crowd’ in Savannah turned on The Florence. I heard chirps from people outwardly rooting for it to fail. Ridiculous, frankly, and an indicator of the significant lack of culinary maturity we see on occasion in this city whether it be price points, cuisine or otherwise.

To be fair, the space was too industrial for this city. The first time I walked in there I felt like I was in an old converted warehouse in Atlanta. Which I loved. The problem was, I was in an old converted warehouse in Savannah. The space is large. There was next to no color on the walls. A lot of people found it sterile with decor unbecoming a celebrity chef.

Ultimately, I believe The Florence was ahead of its time in Savannah. A smidge too far out in front of a culinary movement in this city. They were part of the beginning but they were too rigid in their offerings to grow, and frankly educate, the palates in this town. At its heart, this is a fried chicken and shrimp town. From my seat, a blessing and a curse.

“I didn’t sour on Savannah at all.” Acheson told me Thursday via phone. “It’s a beautiful city growing in a really good way. It is going in the right direction.” “Maybe it was too big. Maybe it was the wrong block.” he added.

Everyone wants the best food around, but very few like to pay for it. I actually heard someone served a pizza at The Florence one night complain that it was too small and they’d have been better off at Mellow Mushroom. Very sad, but a window into the heart of this community. Way too often in Savannah people complain about the price of a great meal. Any restaurant owner will tell you their margins are microscopic, still people want more for less and when they don’t get it? They walk away angry. Hey, I’d love to drive a brand new BMW SUV right now, I cannot. Does that mean I’m going to spend all of my time complaining about how overpriced they are? Of course not.

Will this lack of success affect Savannah’s growth as a food destination? I don’t think so. Not at all. Other restaurants are doing just fine around town and the ones yet to arrive, like Sean Brock’s Husk, likely will as well. It’s just a shame The Florence won’t be a part of it. Acheson’s statement below:

“I am sad to report that our Savannah restaurant, The Florence, is closing after service on June 25, 2017. Sometimes you build something pretty with a lot of awesome artisans, you cook good food with skill and precision, you serve it with heart, professionalism and a smile, and at the end of the day it is still a financial puzzle that just doesn’t work. Thanks Flo team for all you have done. Hugh”

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Eat It and Like It launched in Savannah, Georgia with television personality Jesse Blanco as the host. His passion for food and travel has made Eat It and Like It a two-time EMMY nominated program about contemporary and traditional Southern food.

2 Comments

  • bigmyc04@yahoo.com' bigmyc says:

    In my view, Jesse, it’s a resounding, “yes,” but also, a firm, “no,” to your assessment.

    I don’t know how long that you have been in town and perhaps that doesn’t matter, but I believe that you are on point with what you say that Savannah is culinarily at its heart. In addition to the local palette, I also happen to agree with you about the state of what people expect from new restaurants with novel ideas. However sometimes,a pizza, especially a smallish one, should be priced as a small pizza…I have been to the Florence exactly one time but I found the service quite responsive and that was even very close to closing time. Of course and to be candid, I was at the bar where service is pretty much inescapable. Anyhow, depending upon the sort of fare that a restaurant serves, I believe that even the most un-discerning restaurant goers are aware of when they are being fleeced. Pizza, is precisely the sort of item that allows them to be so cognizant of that sort of thing. Bread adorned with a smattering of tomato sauce, cheese and sparsely placed toppings doesn’t fool anyone as far as pretentious menu items go…however, I also agree with you regarding venturesome additions like the lamb heart. But, why not bring people in for the cocktails and flatbreads so that they might return for the more crafty selections?

    That aside, my gripe is not so much with your depiction of restaurant clientele but with the reality of what you asserted. Griping about over priced pizza is one thing and taking umbrage with an adventuresome menu item is another (hell, no one is forced to order it) but anyone who would actively root against the establishment, save for the improbable fact that they were personally insulted by staff while they were there, borders upon despicable… that sort of “dining crowd” is the real pretentious contingent and not at all an attitude that this town need embrace going forward.

    Now, I don’t believe that my righteous excoriation of those folks is any reason for the Florence to still be up and running. Obviously, there can be many reasons for a restaurant’s demise…or any business, for that matter. It’s just that such a demise should never appear to validate the more petty gripes that are associated with it. After all, when people cross that line from reasonable in their critique to down right pernicious, well, doesn’t that say quite a bit more about them than it does about those whom they are “criticizing?”

  • natalie.reeves@natdistco.com' Natalie Reeves says:

    Jesse,

    Your contribution to this city and the food scene is immeasurable. Thanks again for a wonderfully written article that crystallizes the blessing/curse of the Savannah restaurant community. Cheers.

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