Recipes for Success

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The women of Savannah’s culinary industry — the sugar spinners, the gatekeepers of gourmet, the hosts with the most — dish on what it takes to build, grow and succeed in the food scene.

Jennifer Strickland. Photo by Jeremiah Hull

Jennifer Strickland

River Street Sweets

Savannah’s oldest candy store has been tempting locals and tourists for decades with its World Famous Pralines, bear claws, nostalgic caramel apples and old-fashioned salt water taffy. There’s nothing quite like watching River Street Sweets’ candy makers dip pralines right before your eyes or watching the shop’s vintage taffy machine pull and spin — and the family-owned business began to share that experience in 2014. Now, having franchised in partnership with Savannah’s Candy Kitchen, Savannah’s beloved candies can be found as nearby as Pooler and as far away as Maryland, and treats can be shipped to candy lovers worldwide via a bustling online commerce.

Franchising is a big step. How did you know it was time?

My mother, brother and I had been approached many times over the years about franchising River Street Sweets. We always thought it would be a great way to expand our brand, but we were not in a rush to do it because we wanted to make sure our systems and training were top-notch. When we found out that our father, Stan, at Savannah’s Candy Kitchen was thinking of franchising as well, we decided it was time to join our resources and franchise together. We picked the best practices from both of our candy stores and are now using our combined family brand, River Street Sweets-Savannah’s Candy Kitchen, to franchise.  

What are the advantages of being a family business? 

It is so much fun to collaborate and build something together that we can all be proud of. Really, our entire staff is part of our family, and helping people relax, enjoy some great sweets and have a little fun together is truly amazing. We all look out for each other and put our guests first.

We have to know: if you could pick just one River Street sweet …

Wow, this is a tough one because I still like every sweet we make! I will say that our bear claws are my very favorite. 

Abby Longwater of Wicked Cakes. Photo by Jeremiah Hull

Abby Longwater

Wicked Cakes

Savannah native Abby Longwater has been whisking her way through the local bakery scene for a decade. In 2015, she stepped out on her own, opening Wicked Cakes on Whitaker Street in the heart of the Historic District. The St. Andrew’s School and Georgia Southern alum has developed a cult following for her made-from-scratch desserts, including cupcakes, brownies, cookies and beyond, and brides sing her praises for Wicked Cakes’ gorgeously-crafted wedding confections.

You describe yourself as “90 percent self-trained.” What did it take to make that leap from your home kitchen to becoming a professional?

Timing is everything. I have been in this market for years, working for various bakeries, and in 2014, when the shop I was working for was changing ownership, I found that my current location was up for sale. So I jumped at the opportunity.

As a local, how has your relationship with your hometown changed or grown since becoming a small business owner?

Since opening, I have gained so many friendships through networking with groups such as Savannah Wedding Vendors and Savannah Master Calendar, who have been nothing short of amazing. 

What is your business philosophy?

“Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” — John D. Rockefeller.

Cathy Colasanto

Director of Operations, The Pirates’ House

Maintaining the history, magic and mystery of the oldest standing building in the state of Georgia is no small task, but The Pirates’ House crew continues to welcome travelers and locals with legendary Southern food and thrilling tales of the  building’s past — and serve it all up with a chilled glass of Chatham Artillery Punch. Given current owner Turner Food & Spirits Company’s warm love of their customers and staff, it’s no wonder Savannahians and visitors are still hooked after all these years. 

The Pirates’ House is one of Savannah’s most beloved establishments. How do you keep the menu and the energy fresh?

We are fortunate to have an outstanding service and culinary team at The Pirates’ House. Everyone is very aware of our great history and enjoys sharing that aspect with our guests. Because we do so many different types of groups and events, along with our daily lunch and dinner offerings, our culinary team relishes the opportunity to introduce new dishes or prepare classic Southern menu items that our guests  travel from all over the world to taste.

 The Pirates’ house buffet is a Savannah dining staple. What do you always add to your plate?

When I treat myself to our traditional Southern buffet, like everyone else, I can’t resist our fried chicken! Our Savannah red rice is one of my favorites, using Bob [Turner]’s daddy’s recipe. Ms. Janice has been making our squash casserole for decades, and it is unique and delicious. Finish it off with a Georgia pecan bar, and I am full!

How does the menu reflect the building’s rich history?

Our colonial area was known for agriculture, abundant seafood, poultry and meats. We try to source locally when we can, and we have great partnerships with local purveyors. We can see the river from our back door, and if you head west for just a bit, you’re driving past farmland. Our extensive rum list pays homage to our legendary rum cellar, but at The Pirates’ House, our most precious treasure is the food!

Wendy Armstrong of Thrive Catering. Photo by Jeremiah Hull

Wendy Armstrong

Thrive Catering

After building an adventurous career as a yacht chef, Savannah College of Art and Design alum Wendy Armstrong returned to Savannah with a deepened knowledge of international cuisine and a passion for creating “special meals for special people.” Since it opened in 2008, Thrive has been breaking barriers: becoming Savannah’s first Green Certified Caterer, partnering with a local school to provide lunches for students and bringing a mindful eye for detail to customers’ needs. 

How has the business grown since its beginnings?

I started Thrive Cafe as a simple carryout model, which was very well received. The catering side took off immediately with our local clients, and we started getting invitations to partner with other local businesses — for example, as a wholesale prepared foods supplier at Whole Foods. As national tastes shifted to include healthier, tastier and more organic options for school lunch programs, we spearheaded the lunch program at a premier local private school with great success! Many other opportunities came our way, but the catered events side of our business was our favorite, and we really excel at it. So we streamlined, built a commercial kitchen solely dedicated to off-premise catering, and our trajectory since then has been amazing.

Do you think Savannah is becoming more conscious about adopting eco-friendly practices in its food and beverage industry? How would you advise other businesses to follow in Thrive’s footsteps?

Savannah has grown a lot in this area, which is thrilling! Of course there’s more to do, but the awareness and desire is there. Eco-friendly practices sometimes do cost the business a little more, and every bit of customer support and feedback helps. Ask businesses why they are using styrofoam, or maybe go somewhere that doesn’t. Another tidbit is staff training. When the staff starts to understand the “whys,” they are happy to be doing a good deed. It takes a minute, but good team-building and morale are a huge part of being excellent in more ways than one.

What did you study at SCAD? How is the visual art process and culinary process intertwined for you?

I studied illustration, which I loved. At the time, I also worked in hotels and restaurants. There are a few more dimensions to the culinary arts: taste, food pairings, texture, presentation, and, of course, the happy recipients of your cooking. You are only as good as your last meal.