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Inside The Olde Pink House – Rebuilding

He was out for a six mile run. It’s a run he completes every day near his home in Pooler. The next day, he was scheduled to fly out to meet his family for a ski vacation.  On this particular day, he wasn’t even close to half way when the call came.  The Olde Pink House was on fire. It was bad.

“I got here as quickly as I could, obviously.”

Craig Jeffress is sitting on a bench in Reynolds Square. About 100 feet away from the fencing that now surrounds The Olde Pink House. Savannah’s most historic and legendary restaurant. He’s the restaurant’s General Manager. He’s the man overseeing everything going on in that building right now.  There is a team working on everything going on in that building right now, however, he’s the man tasked with making sure everything is as close to perfect as it can be when they re-open their doors for business on Monday, April 8th.

“I’m out here easily 4, 5, 6, hours a day sometimes.” He says.

The square has become a makeshift office. Not only for Jeffress, but for a couple of other staffers during the rebuild of the restaurant. No, there are no desks or landline phones. There are cellphones and lots of conversations. He’s even brought on one of his regular hosts to stand out front of the restaurant under an umbrella to facilitate with questions and visitors. There he stands, signature bow tie. “Everyone knows him. They’ll talk to him.” Jeffress says. “I’m over here trying to put it all together.”

Why is he out there? Every single day? You could say that while the construction is going on to make The Olde Pink House everything it was the day before the fire, he’s outside trying to rebuild his staff into something as close to what it was the day before the fire.  He had 270 employees that day. Today, he estimates about 170.

“That has been, without question the hardest part of all of this.”

“I cannot begin to tell you how tough it was to see them lose their jobs from one day to the next.” Jeffers says. “We were right in the middle of a very busy week between Christmas and New Year’s. Everyone was looking forward to making a little bit of money to prepare for those bills that were going to come in January.”

His chef helped his cooks find a place to work. His managers have kept in touch with every single employee. Craig Jeffress wants Savannah to know this has been 100 percent a team effort to rebuild The Olde Pink House.

The community rallied, as it always does. “I have to say, that first day when we really had no thoughts on what we were going to do, the guys from La Scala called. Almost immediately.” he says. “They don’t even have lunch service and that day, they offered our staff a family meal. They told me ‘whatever you need. You call us.'”

From there, the outpouring came. But the reality is, financial assistance can only go so far. He estimates the amount of money they received from donations to be just north of $11,000.

“If someone stopped by and gave us $250,000” Jeffers says “That’s a quarter of a million dollars! But it would only amount to a thousand dollars per employee.”  That doesn’t stretch very far.  So how do they help? You scramble to help get them placed somewhere else, if you can. Jeffers started almost immediately back in December and he is doing it today. Right out in Reynolds Square. Right there on the park bench.

One of the primary hosts at The Olde Pink House already has his job back. Greeting anyone who has a question ahead of the April 8h re-open.

They immediately were offered office space which he acknowledges was a God send.  “We have office space right here on the top floor of the Planter’s Inn next door.” He says. “They told us we can keep it as long as we need.” he says, noting that they are do need it and are very appreciative of that space.  “I have a beautiful 7th floor view of Savannah. I spend 4-5-6 hours a day down here.”

‘Down here’ he takes meetings. Including his interview with me. ‘Down here’ he talks to former employees who have taken jobs at other area eateries. “I see a lot of them on their way to or from work almost every day.” he says. They smile sometimes and wave.

He knows all 250 former employees by name, is very proud to say so. Understandably, there are many who have been with them for so long there is absolutely a personal connection. Some employees had been with the Olde Pink House for years. You can’t help but wonder if they will make their way back once she re-opens. Some, he knows, may never come back.

“I’m actually so happy for one of our guys. He was just hired at Georgia Ports. Full-time with benefits. It was something he always wanted to do” Jeffress says, realizing that being forced out of a comfort zone actually helped one young man land himself a career.

“You wouldn’t believe how many resumes I’ve helped make the last couple of months.” he tells me.

You can only imagine. Some of the Pink House long-timers hadn’t found themselves looking for a job in a decade or more. Now all of a sudden, the need to learn how to put themselves on a database set up by Tourism Leadership Council so potential employees can find them easily. They also need to go door to door with those resumes Mr. Jeffress helped them make on the fly.

Even with all of that, the action is out in the square. “I see them. They stop by to chat with me to see when we are going to re-open” Jeffers says. “They tell me they’ve got friends that want to come work with us when we are back.”  At the same time, he’s letting anyone who asks what he knows about job openings.  “It’s a constant flow of information out here.” Jeffress says through a laugh.  At that moment, a potential employee arrives to show Mr. Jeffers a current ID. He snaps a photo of the drivers license and tells the young man that he will be in touch soon.

ID check in Reynolds Square.

He says scenes like that have been repeating all day long for a few weeks now. As the Old Pink House nears that April 8th re-open date.

Back inside the fencing around the restaurant, the re-build continues. “It was extensive.” He says

“The problem with a building this old is that you don’t know what you’ve got until you get in there and start peeling layers”

“If there is smoke in the AC duct? The ducts have to go.” He says “When the ducts go, sometimes that means needing to get inside of a wall. Once you get inside of that wall, you may find smoke. then it all has to go.” he adds.

They located original heart pine wood in North Carolina to replace a few spots here and there where it is needed. But the Olde Pink House remains largely as she was.  This re-construction is aimed at making everything as close to what it was as possible. His entire team, he says has worked tirelessly to get everything back on-line.

Now comes the task of getting everything back up to speed.

When they open on the 8th, they will not be accepting reservations. Walk-ins only and their service will be limited to the Tavern downstairs and 2 rooms on the first floor. That will last through April 14th.  Reservations are already being accepted for the 15th and beyond. “We are busy. We are full.” He says, looking ahead to the 2nd half of the month.

For the time being, service is going to be limited to a few rooms. The ballroom where it is believed the fire began (no official cause has been released), home to a lot of private functions at the restaurant, won’t open until summer. “We are not going to book any private events until July.” Jeffress says “I cannot do that to our staff. We need to give them time to get everything back up to speed.”

He didn’t say so, but he knows the community will be patient and understanding as Savannah’s “Grande Dame” restaurant nurses herself back to health. Confirmation of that came within hours of the fire.

“We had a wedding reception booked for the last weekend of December.” he says “So we made the rounds calling everyone who had an event to let them know that we’d be unable to accommodate them. We told one group we’d be refunding their $4,000 deposit in full, they asked us to keep it.”

“Please give it to your employees.” they said.

You may not realize, but the Olde Pink House has never had a website. Reservations for April 15th and beyond can be made by calling (912) 232-4286 or visit opentable.com

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