They say it’s “cooler in Pooler“, but when it comes to new restaurants, Pooler, Georgia is red hot. The restaurant scene in this small but growing suburb is exploding with mostly new, mostly chain restaurants in the Godley Station area which lies between I-95 and US-80 on Pooler Parkway. In fact, since 2007, the number of restaurants here has grown by more than half.
So, who eats here? Travelers and tourists who favor national chains are drawn to the Pooler Parkway exit on I-95 as one of the few major service exits in the Savannah area. It makes a great pit stop for drivers just passing through. This spot is also convenient to the Savannah airport and its hotels. Future shoppers are also expected here. Construction of the Tanger Outlet Mall of Savannah is well under way in Pooler and is expected to open on April 16, 2015. Tax refund checks will be spent before the ink even dries.
The other core group of Pooler diners comes from Gulfstream, JCB, Mitsubishi and the Georgia National Guard. These organizations employ thousands of (hungry) people. In fact, there are so many people on Pooler Parkway at lunch time that some opt to stay on the east side of I-95 just to avoid some of the congestion. According to Teri Bell of Miss Sophie’s Marketplace restaurant in the Mighty Eighth Museum, “When you have an hour for lunch, you don’t want to spend 30 minutes in traffic.” Highway 80 restaurants like Miss Sophie’s and Spanky’s benefit from this traffic avoidance tactic. And yet, according to Pooler Chamber of Commerce Director Karen Robertson, “You’re lucky to get a place to park on pot roast day at Miss Sophie’s, especially during cooler weather”.
Then there are hungry locals. For decades, Pooler, Bloomingdale and even Effingham County residents had to drive to Savannah to get a steak dinner or stir fry. No longer. These locals level out the schedule by dining here on evenings and weekends. Smaller, independently owned restaurants count on these locals to sustain them. The problems start though when a great number of new chains open up. According to Teri Bell, a.k.a. Miss Sophie, “Every time a new chain opens up, the small restaurant “regulars” check out the new kid on the block. After a while, they return but then another chain opens and off they go! The time span for customers returning (to the independent restaurants) is getting longer and longer (when) there is always a new chain to try.” Fortunately, the populations of West Chatham and Effingham County are growing, so there are more locals to become “regulars” at the independent restaurants.
There are several locally owned joints that are jumping on the Pooler bandwagon. Some are opening satellites of their Savannah storefronts, including Sisters of the New South, Molly MacPherson‘s and the historic Byrd Cookie Company. The liquor license was recently approved for a new World of Beer.
We talked with entrepreneurs at some of the restaurants that started their first location in Pooler and have managed to out-rate the chains and run neck-and-neck at the top of both Yelp and Tripadvisor. We asked them, “Why Pooler?”
Splendid Shabu: In developing a plan for a restaurant, Savannah native Christine Tsoi wanted an extraordinary dining concept that would go beyond the ubiquitous chicken strip meal offered by both the fast food and the sit-down chain restaurants here. Her stew-it-yourself Asian hot pot concept is likely the first of its kind in the Coastal Empire. Tsoi says of the dining room, “Our kitchen is out here and you are the chef.”
She is also laser focused on feeding the expected outlet mall crowds. “As soon as we heard of the outlet, we knew we wanted to be in this spot,” said Tsoi. Although their location just south of Sam’s Club is not highly visible from Pooler Parkway, they are on the Benton Blvd. extension which will become the entrance to the mall. In the meantime, since they opened in June, they are keeping busy with lots of evening business from SCAD’s international population and a mix of business and local diners at lunch.
Pie Society: In contrast, co-owner Gill Wagstaff, didn’t know the outlet mall was coming when she and her son Edward opened their British bakery in Pooler. Her motivations for this location had more to do with the relative ease of setting up a new business in Pooler compared to other nearby municipalities and capturing the lunch crowd from Gulfstream and JCB where her daughter works. According to Wagstaff, “The City of Pooler is very easy to work with.” Another plus was the affordable rent in the Canal Street Plaza just south of Publix. Their customers come for weekday lunch and locals come for takeout.
Like Splendid Shabu, they too offer a unique menu. “People come to us from all over the state.” And now this British food empire is finally posed to colonize a bit of the Historic District. Just recently and rather unexpectedly, a small storefront space opened up in downtown Savannah. “We were not expecting to expand this soon, but the space became available so did it because retail space in downtown Savannah doesn’t open up very often.” How will they handle all of the new tourist business? Their motto of “Keep Calm and Eat Pie” is the only logical way.
Lest we not forget, there is an older commercial part of Pooler along Highway 80 between Dean Forest Road and Pooler Parkway. Institutions in the original downtown Pooler area east of I-95 include Lovezella’s Pizza, Cake Corner and Polk’s fresh produce market. The unfortunate closure of Little Italy Pizza & Subs was perhaps inevitable given the existence of at least two other pizza chains on Highway 80 and the recent opening of Mellow Mushroom and Little Caesar’s in the Godley Area. But according to Ms. Robertson, “Between now and the time when the new Pooler City Hall complex is complete in a few years, we are going to see a rejuvenation of the downtown area.” This will be good for independent restaurants for whom a Pooler Parkway location is not financially or spacially viable.
There is a great deal of undeveloped land south of the Godley area, so there seems to be no end in sight for further development. A Florida developer of the intersection of I-16 and Pooler Parkway has been in negotiations with two grocery groups and other retailers. Look for announcements to be made in 2015. I’ll be praying for Target, Costco, Kroger, Trader Joe’s and Aldi to be in the running.
According to Ms. Robertson, “The City of Pooler has continued its commitment to stay true to its roots with a friendly, small town atmosphere as it grows into one of the most recognized cities in Georgia.” Well, it’s hard to imagine Pooler overshadowing Savannah as a city, but it is clear that Pooler wants in on Savannah’s growth potential, especially as it concerns shopping and dining. Let’s hope that the high tide of chain restaurants in Pooler raises the boats of the independent restaurants so that we can keep tourists and locals well fed and happy.
In other Pooler foodie news:
Miss Sophie’s Marketplace is getting back to her roots and expanding at the same time. Find her ready-to-bake casseroles such as baked ziti and chicken with wild rice in area Enmark Convenience stores. Sizes are Individual, Just for Two and Family Size.
Try the growing Pooler Farmer’s Market on Wednesday afternoons from 4-7 p.m. behind the YMCA. The hours work great for those working in Pooler and being on a weekday allows farmers and other vendors to make their way to all of the area markets.
The Taste of Pooler takes place each April and September and is an excellent way to eat your way around the Pooler restaurant scene in one day.
Don’t miss Pooler Restaurant week this November when you can get great deals on a multi-course meals.
The biannual Sip & Savor events in June and January feature wine and light appetizer pairings. Look for bourbon to be added to the mix at the January 2015 event.