Thursday, January 19, 2017

Hope Comes in Pieces

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Ma, your world hurts! Mia Smith, a five-year old girl, regresses into thirty-eight medical and behavioral conditions, one hundred and thirty one allergies, and autism. Many substances and foods in her biological environment cause her pain. Her mother, Terra Smith, practically the Chief Recovery Officer, works with doctors, therapists, and insurance companies to coordinate all the care required for Mia’s comeback. Her father, Craig Smith, puts in the work hours to make sure the family has a home, food, and clothes. The longer recovery takes, the more Mia falls behind.

Saturday, January 14, 2017


Pooler, GA October 23, 2016, 7:00am, the morning of Savannah Food Truck Festival:      
     Chaz and crew have been preparing all night. There is little discussion. Everyone knows their part. Yet, Chaz is clearly the center of communication. “You are only as good as your team and I have a good one,” he said.
     Of Hurricane Matthew, he remarks, “The original festival (scheduled for October 9th), it did not set me back at all…. I didn’t lose power here,” Chaz said. “Me and a couple of other food trucks provided meals. We went to Chatham Parkway, 204, and downtown to serve fresh hot meals.  Everybody discounted their food 20-25%. 

    A great deal of pre-positioning and planning makes loading the truck easier. A predetermined amount of Clorox wipes, cleaning cloths, and napkin racks go in each truck, a red one and a blue one. “Lines, lines, and more lines. I hope every truck has a record day,” Chaz remarked.

     All loaded, Chaz’s father, J R, drives the blue food truck (Chazi-dos 2) out of the parking lot, headed for Daffin Park. He waves and shouts, “See you at the festival!”
     A couple other staff members meet the trucks at the park. Chazito’s trucks are among the first to arrive and everyone knows their part. Chaz’s father moves into a leadership role in the Chazito’s-dos 2 truck. At 10:45 a.m., the crowds start to show up, scoping out where they want to eat.  A cool beautiful day and music motivates the crew. By 1:00 p.m., there are, as Chaz had hoped, lines, lines, and more lines.  I leave the event about 3:30 p.m.. Chazito’s is still at high-energy, serving a steady flow of customers.

 Colombian restaurateur brings authentic Paisa to Savannah:
     Rafael Reilvitz De Leon is going through the process of getting a food truck authorized to operate in Savannah. Currently, he operates one truck, Spanish Foods, at Ft. Stewart in Hinesville. He also owns Antojo Latino, a restaurant specializing in Colombian food, near Oglethorpe Mall.

     Rafael is from Cali (Santiago de Cali), Colombia’s third largest city. “I have a paper (a university degree) as a Student of Administration, on the wall for my parents, but I wanted something different,” he said.  He owned a pawnshop there but it closed down. A conversation with his sister brought him to the U.S. to join her. 
     He left Colombia for Miami in 2000.  “In Miami, everything is always open,” Rafael said. “You spend your money all the time so I never had money. Always you have something to do.”  Rafael looked for a smaller city; some place he could live and reestablish himself.

     Then he drove through Savannah, stopped at a locally owned car wash and found his first job. Soon after, he had two jobs. When he would finish his first shift at the carwash, around 6:00 p.m., he drove down Abercorn Street where he worked at a steakhouse franchise. 
     Later, Rafael worked in yacht manufacturing. Then he started his own painting company and a cleaning company.  “The idea of a restaurant came when I was working in my cleaning company,” he said.  “Never before had I thought about a restaurant.” His wife had 20 years’ experience as a chef and she worked at the Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill. “I thought why not? So, I saved my money to build this restaurant.” He opened Antojo Latino in 2013.
     “In Miami, there are lots of food trucks,” Rafael said. “People always running, I want this. I want that. A partner in Hinesville called and we decided to open a truck on (the military base) at Ft. Stewart.  It was hard and a lot of money from your sales. The city is more complicated, but we are doing that now.”
     Rafael spoke as he looked over at Emanuel Rivera, his main chef. “We have a different menu on the truck than the restaurant. We need something good and fast. It is for all to enjoy, but we want there to be very little difference from how someone from Colombia expects it to taste.  My paisa– I have Colombian visitors from New York, Miami, New Jersey… they say this paisa is the best.” 
Getting started: Emily Miller, Business Banking Specialist for Wells Fargo, sees expanded interest from the food truck industry. “It’s not just a food truck. It is a small business. At Wells Fargo, we want to do our part to help them grow and thrive by offering resources through our Wells Fargo Works for Small Business® platform.” When business owners visit, they can access free tools and resources – including the Business Plan Center and the new Business Credit Center – to help them start, run and grow their businesses.
    “For food truck owners, personal credit profile is important because business credit profile can be tied to it.” Emily pointed out that understanding the food truck business and market are also important. Wells Fargo Works offers helpful information, such as videos on Managing cash flow with the right mix of credit options and Working with family. “Some of those interested in the food truck business are going to other cities to educate themselves and understand what to do. The bank offers general business seminars as well. Again, It’s not just a food truck. It is a small business.”

     Indeed, the Savannah Food Truck Festival is a showcase of small businesses. To Chaz, Rafael and so many others, their food trucks also represent the hard work of bringing artful passion from an idea into a means of making money from a business. Cooking from the early hours of morning, working all day, their fortunes at risk from both market competition and government policy - all for the price of the payoff - an untethered pursuit of personal liberation. That makes the Savannah Food Truck Festival a living compilation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the American Dream on full display. 

     Think about that the next time you see a food truck rolling past. 

View these videos of other food truck owners:

And a strong close


     Interest was high when the City of Savannah hosted a Food-Truck Rollout meeting on Wednesday, September 14, 2016 at the Savannah Civics Center. Susan Broker, the Director of Permitting for Savannah’s Leisure Services Bureau, moderated this event. 
     A standing room only crowd expressed deep concerns in many areas, including the legality of a business from another county, bringing a food truck into Savannah, and the use of an independent commercial kitchen to support and supply a food truck operation. 
     Looking around the room, it was obvious this topic had generated lots of passion. On my right, I saw hope. On my left, I saw doubt. I glanced behind me and saw careful scrutiny of every word. Attendees asked the panel probing questions, some of which brought to light the significant effects of city government policies. Panel members replied within the limits of their responsibilities. While most of the answers seemed helpful, others led to more uncertainty- all giving way to the obvious conclusion that a clear and well-defined policy was crucial to the success of this undertaking, especially for those like Chaz Ortiz.     

    From bending metal, popping rivets, and building aircraft with the precision and skill required to keep passengers and crews safe… to owning and operating a food truck. In this instance, the “…” symbolizes many years of significant decisions made by Chaz Ortiz, the owner of Chazito’s Latin Cuisine Restaurant in Pooler as well as two food trucks.  Ortiz described culinary influences and his transition from aircraft manufacturing to the food truck business. 
     Chaz is working with passion for his passion to make money from his passion. “This is my step towards a dream,” he said. “That’s why I had to leave my job in aircraft manufacturing.” 
     He has financial, physical, spiritual, and emotional investments in his food trucks. Most of them took place in his driveway, where Ortiz and his family modified both of his food trucks. Each step in building the trucks became a step back in time to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where Ortiz grew up. 
     “My experience was not what some might call the “typical” American experience,” he said. “I tried a lot of different foods in that neighborhood, coming from different traditional kitchens– Filipino, Japanese, and Korean. Then there was, like, a little Spanish Harlem– Dominican, Colombian, Venezuelan. I was in middle school before I was in what some might see as a typical American classroom.” 
     “I was always in my grandma’s Puerto Rican kitchen, always asking what was going on,” he said. “We ate rice every day. We made it 20 – 30 different ways. They could not get me out of the kitchen, always asking questions. My grandmother always cooked a lot of food that took a lot of preparation.”
     Chaz moved to Savannah when he was 17 years old.  “In high school, I moved down to Savannah to be closer to my father,” he said. “I didn’t really know him at the time, though people always told me I was like him and that I shared his love of cooking.” 
     In Savannah, Chaz worked in hotels, restaurants, finally landing in the aircraft industry. About 5 years ago, he put up a tent at Savannah’s annual Latin Festival on River Street. “Friends encouraged me because of the huge parties I gave where I prepared food.” 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Savannah, Saving the Soul of a City

     In 20 years, will downtown Savannah be cashed-out to a soul-gleaned, mall-ish district: showcasing premium liquors, over-valued food, and high-end trinkets; all of it fronted as a charmingly haunted, American historical centerpiece which draws tourists into an experience indistinguishable from any other city; shunned by locals who question whether their low-wage and unsteady jobs are worth the bus fare or parking fees?
     Or will it remain an experience found nowhere else, a reflection of its southern roots providing a sense of discovery, with tastes, sounds, and sensations that offer a unique mix of historical exploration enhanced by modern conveniences?
     Keeping the Savannah experience unique is of great concern to Daniel Carey, President and CEO of Historic Savannah Foundation (HSF).  He looks at the balance between short-term versus long-term gains, especially when it comes to the economic development required to sustain Savannah.
     “We prefer to take the long view,” Carey said.  “Planning is important for all those reasons… avoiding gentrification while encouraging economic development.  We don’t want to create a city of divides: those who have versus those who do not. The healthier the middle then the healthier the whole.”
     Carey went on to say that preservation is mostly about people not buildings. “It is important that people experience Savannah in a good way and small businesses have opportunities to prosper along with that growth. As the value of real estate increases, so do the taxes that can price out small businesses operating in or wanting to operate in downtown Savannah. Those same dynamics affect residential areas as well.”
     Carey continued, “We also contend with zoning complaints from residents as well… when someone proposes something that a neighborhood group doesn’t like, they call HSF to complain.  Often, however, it’s a matter of what the zoning will allow.  Without historic designation overlay, there is little we can do. Getting local designation means residents become part of meetings and the process to address those issues.  That’s healthy.  HSF brings people together— a necessity in a city built on relationships— so private citizens, local governments, and non-profits can sit down and work through issues.”
     Carey believes those engagements will help Savannah remain intact. “HSF works for locals and helps to preserve the pedestrian feel. It’s imperative that the Oglethorpe Plan remains intact.  As tourists encounter local people and local hospitality, it is they who can share and relate our unique history. Then and only then will tourists know they have been to Savannah and enjoyed an experience forever etched in their minds.”
     Jamie Credle, Director of Davenport House Museum, sees a direct connection between the feel of the city and buildings because of the lives of the people who built, have lived or currently live in them.
     “Tourism is a strong economic driver,” Credle said.  “The quality of life of those in the surrounding communities is important. Additionally, introspection is part of insuring our institutions provide meaning.  We need young people and people with deep roots who can describe content about the artisans, craftsman, immigrant populations, and others who made this city.”
     Pin Point Heritage Museum is not downtown: however, it is an experience which some see as a great example of local people who can relay local history in a powerful way. Tania Smith-Jones is the site Administrator for Pin Point and is active in Coastal Heritage Society’s Community Outreach and Development.
     She describes Pin Point as, “A cultural goldmine. It is an experience that exemplifies the meaning of it takes a village. It's the last Gullah/Geechee enclave that hasn't been commercialized in the United States. I am connected to this tightly-knit community and committed to preserving the soul of this site.”
     Pin Point, located on the bank of the Moon River, is the birthplace of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The museum is centered in the A.S. Varn & Son Oyster and Crab Factory which a Texas real estate developer helped restore.
     Smith-Jones added, “Baby-Boomers greatly sustain this site. We need to transition that to include others. We want to cultivate, educate, and motivate kids to appreciate what we have here and let them share in the unique and memorable significance of this site.”
 Melody Rodriguez is the co-owner of Rancho Alegre Cuban Restaurant located on Martin Luther King Blvd, as well as the social media & marketing manager for another downtown business, Tequila's Town Mexican Restaurant, Inc. Rodriguez’ family immigrated to the US from Venezuela when she was very young <I did not speak to Melody about this statement> and she was responsible for founding and directing Hispanic student programs at Savannah’s Armstrong State University from 2002 until 2014.
     Rodriguez and I sat down to talk about doing business downtown and how Rancho Alegre adds to the feel of Savannah. “We worked with the Metropolitan Planning Committee to maintain the exterior green paint that is historically significant to the city,” she said. “We are the last remaining weekly Jazz venue in Savannah with no cover charge. Our family business is built on culture and a historic heritage that fits well with the struggle of this city on many levels.”
     From a food standpoint, “The thing about our restaurant is to offer food similar to what you can make at home but make ours something special, worth coming out for.”
     Rodriguez shares Daniel Carey’s concerns about small business owners being pushed out as well as opening doors to newcomers downtown. “Escalating rents and taxes are an issue,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a free-market. We are all subject to that. But I support breaks in taxes and ways to add value to retain and encourage small, locally owned businesses in the downtown area.  I hope the mayor and council will find ways to sustain this key economic driver that helps give Savannah its soul.  Rancho Alegre continues to be a part of that.”
     Joe Bell is Executive Director of Chatham Association of Educators and a former Executive Vice-President of Carver State Bank. He worries about diminished opportunities when
hospitality-centered service jobs are nearly the only option. “Economics drives all things,” Bell said.  “In Savannah, will we have a service community or one that thrives on a combination of industries?”
     Bell believes that the deepening of the port of Savannah’s river channel should play a role in creating a mix of businesses in shipping, manufacturing, warehousing both technical and financial services, large, small, and mid-sized some of which he hopes are locally owned.  In this growth, Bell says, “We must create <deleted bureaucracies> policies that aid small business-owners, (and provide) avenues for access to capital and even set-asides.”
     “Economic mobility is more than just a workforce concern,” Bell said. “Making our school system stronger is truly important for developing a capable workforce… but spurring workers to become owners… that’s powerful. The next four to five years are going to be important.”
     “Embracing entrepreneurship is the key to Savannah’s economic growth,” recommends Costa Rican native <Andy was born in Georgia, went back to Costa Rica, then came back to GA alone at age 16>, Andy Cabistan. He is the co-founder of Watson Works, a company that specializes in building highly effective business teams through the application of tools and engagements that improve communication and facilitate more effective collaborations.
     “We talk a lot about sports and cocktails at networking events,” Cabistan said. “But we talk very little about how we can help some of the thousands of college students stay and build businesses here in Savannah. Instead, our students go back home or to other places to find employment and upward mobility in higher paying markets like Atlanta or even Charleston, our sister city. This is especially so in the tech sector. Take 3-D printing, it makes manufacturing possible from the comfort of your own home. Think about what could happen if we moved from the silos <Andy said grupos or tribus >of scrambling for a tiny piece of the pie and used networking events to bring these students, these potential small-business owners in contact with the great business leaders we have in the area.”
     With access to Savannah International Airport, the relatively low cost of passenger rail, and low cost of living, Cabistan adds, “City leaders and others should collaborate on how we can foster more entrepreneurial thought in our decision-making in regards to the vision and direction of where we want to take this city. In other words, instead of silos that create fighting over little pieces of the pie, just make the pie bigger; so, we can own more equity in those pieces. Embracing entrepreneurship in this manner helps develop a diversified economy with competitive salaries which can help sustain Savannah for decades to come.”
     “Crowds change every four to five years, new faces, students graduating, military personnel transitioning. The venues change as well,” says DJ Lil G, Conrad Gonzalez.
     DJ Lil G has been in the entertainment industry since age 12, a business he learned from his older brother. He is originally from Brooklyn, New York. He has moved crowds to the beat in New York, Jacksonville, Miami, and Orlando as well as Savannah. “I get a sense of changes and flows by paying attention to the crowd, the time of night they show up, and how they respond to the music. The crowds are about 50/50 local to tourists. No matter what time they come, we keep about 85% of them. So, we are getting local people into downtown. The feel of the crowd shifts depending on the time of year from St, Patrick’s Day to summer to October for Halloween.
     “Latin music is big and our guests are becoming more multi-cultural- European, Asia-Pacific, Latino, and Hispanic are showing up. The development downtown can be a good thing if it means we are still there to show what a Savannah Party feels like.”
     Recently, I met someone who suggested that Savannah may have already become that place mentioned in the opening paragraph. As a latecomer into the area, 2001, my history doesn’t start at the same place as his. I can only put forth the following.
     A few years ago, after a Mother’s Day brunch, my family and I went downstairs to sit near the pool on the Savannah side of the Westin Harbor Resort. Interestingly enough, that’s an interesting perch in regards to this article. The architecture conjures of an image of Disney’s Tower of Terror which both fits with Savannah’s haunted theme and gives rise to concerns about building that may look out of place.
     We all found a place to sit and I leaned back to face Savannah from across the river. Literally, when I looked up, I felt an instant connection to the view of villages in Europe. Then, the squares, the huge ships moving pass, the moss, even the shops beyond River Street - the setting of a small port city that retains the basic design of a man who helped define international trade and entrepreneurship in America centuries ago, a city that has endured both the gains and the sorrows in the dichotomy that came after.... Mostly, I got it.
     How do organizations and citizens work together to make sure that the next 20 years do not raze the last 280? The living soul of Savannah is at stake.

Editor’s note: The author expresses special thanks to Lisette Dominguez, for her assistance in preparing this article. Dominguez, a native of Colombia, is a well-known independent marketing coordinator in Savannah, specializing in Latino and Hispanic events.