The Loft Café : Different Face, Same Place…Come Eat with Us

“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces—just good food from fresh ingredients.”

~Julia Child

Story By Katrice Williams Photos By Shelia Scott

The Loft Café definitely offers a delectable dining experience. It has been a noteworthy and sought-after restaurant in the community since its inception in 2010. As the café begins its 8th year of service, its two co-owners, Bruce Kirwan and Zach Wooten, are excited about what’s to come. Though some things like the extraordinary customer service and palate-pleasing products have not changed, the restaurant’s exterior face with its bold, new image has. However, customers have the opportunity to continue to enjoy great food at the same convenient location as before.

     Bruce Kirwan continuously strives to differentiate the café from others. Early on, he wanted to assure that each customer’s experience would be memorable, and he understands that a good amount of effort is needed for that to be a constant reality. Bruce and Zach feel that service is always the essential foundation for a successful venue.

     “We try to give that service that you don’t find in any other areas,” Bruce remarks.

     Bruce and Zach strive to employ individuals who value the importance of high levels of customer service and also understand the substantial difference that they make in customers overall dining experience.

     Regarding employees, Zach states, “I like to see personality and pride in their work.”

     Though the team is small, which works well for the atmosphere dynamics and business demands, each team member strives to remain true to Bruce and Zach’s goals for the business, which is simply: great service, great food, great atmosphere.

     Besides exceptional levels of service, the two co-owners place extremely high standards on all of the products that are served at the restaurant. Though the price is truly reasonable, to a customer’s delight, nothing about the quality of food is compromised. Only the freshest, most choice ingredients are used to prepare each dish. Additionally, there is a very consistent turnover with the items, as nothing is stored for long periods of time. Bruce and Zach commit to product quality by only ordering what is necessary to be prepared within just a few days. This means that there is “never any  spoilage,” no freezer-stored or old food on hand; the “items are in and out.”

     Zach insists, “Anywhere I eat, I’d personally rather pay for a quality meal. You can tell a difference in the materials.”

     All of that is a formula for an exceptional meal. Each order is important and is prepared with that in mind-the two guys would have it no other way.

     “Every order gets ‘done-up.’ It’s done to order. I hand-prepare every order–from every sandwich to the flatbreads…you name it. It’s made fresh when you get it,” Zach comments. He knows that it may take just a little longer to prepare, but feels that it is “well worth it.”

     The team strives to ensure that the atmosphere is consistently welcoming for all of their customers. In fact, Bruce and Zach had a vision for the business early on, and they persist to ensure that even now.

     Bruce mentions, “I wanted a homey environment…trying to give that southern-comfort feel.” Zach agrees that a warm and comfortable atmosphere is not only beneficial but essential.

     The menu has more of an American-traditional type scope. Whether enjoying the wide array of signature sandwiches, including the Corned Beef or Turkey Reubens, which are topped with either sliced corned beef or smoked turkey breast, along with “sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing” or the French Dip Au Jus Sandwich, made with “Au Jus dipped roast beef with Provolone cheese on an Italian roll,” it’s hard to go wrong with any of the sensational sandwiches. Many customers prefer the variety of wraps that are offered, which may include the famous Club Wrap, with its “smoked turkey breast, ham, thinly sliced bacon, Provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise” or even the Chicken Caesar Wrap, which includes “grilled chicken breast, romaine lettuce, shredded Italian cheese and Italian dressing.”

     Further, the two agree that the delicious flatbreads that are made similar to pizza are definitely a big hit with many customers. From the Buffalo Chicken Flatbread, topped with “grilled chicken breast fillet smothered in homemade buffalo sauce, mozzarella cheese and a drizzle of Ranch dressing” to the Chicken Pesto Flatbread with its “grilled chicken breast, mozzarella cheese, Portobello mushrooms and homemade peso sauce;” these are truly tasty and sure to please.

     Regarding the flat breads, Bruce states, “No one else really does it for the price…we do them pizza-style.”

     Bruce and Zach admit that their fresh salads are often a fan favorite. Whether it is the Greek Salad made with “lettuce, sliced ham, feta cheese, black olives, tomatoes, red onions and house Greek dressing” or their chicken and tuna salads, customers do not leave disappointed.

     “They’re fresh…topped with a lot of ingredients. These are always the best. They’re not pre-made, sitting in a cooler all day,” Bruce insists.

     Interestingly enough, Bruce and Zach take pride in making as many homemade dishes as possible, including both their pasta and potato salads, along with their salad dressings.

     Bruce mentions, “Anything that we can effectively create, we try to.”

     The two co-owners agree that franchising ideas and other business ventures may be entertained sometime in the future; however, they are both pleased with the direction that the business is going.

     Bruce Kirwan and Zach Wooten, along with their team at the Loft Café, plan to continue to keep customers first, knowing that real quality will always count. They welcome all, saying, “Come eat with us.”

Pizza Chef

Someone once said that if you find a profession that you truly love, then you’ll never have to work a day in your life. If the words of that particular adage have any truth at all, then Jessica and Anton Trifonov have been living the easy life for the past fifteen years. As owners of  Pizza Chef in Guyton, the couple have found a niche that has won the enthusiastic approval of locals and visitors alike with their own brand of Italian food. “We try to put our heart into every order,” says Jessica.  “Every salad, calzone, or pizza is made for that specific person, and our personality really comes through in the pizzas we make.” Originally from Kentucky, Jessica has lived in Savannah area since 1986. “I truly love the South and Guyton in particular. I moved here with the company in 2002. Three years later my husband and I bought the restaurant, so we’re getting ready to celebrate our fifteenth year. We’re really excited about that.”

Jessica began working for Pizza Chef in 2002 after a friend brought her into the company to only work part-time on weekends. Gradually she began working four days a week, and then a full week. “Before I knew it, I had become the manager, Jessica recalls. “The owner at the time was preparing to move the location from Pooler (to Guyton) due to a considerable amount of competition in that area and to simply be in a location that needed a new restaurant. Then when the opportunity came to purchase Pizza Chef, I just jumped at the chance since I love the company. Plus, who doesn’t love pizza, right?”

When the couple purchased the business in 2005, their first executive decision involved taking a pay cut. “We had to reduce our pay to get things started, but other than that it was a smooth transition. Other than making some minor changes, we closed on a Saturday with one owner and opened up on the following Monday with two new owners. We’ve  stuck with it because we love being in Guyton, meeting people and making pizzas,” recalls Jessica.

After moving the franchise to Guyton, the restaurant has been nothing short of a remarkable success, which Jessica attributes to a number of factors. “We make everything as much from scratch as possible. We make our own dough fresh every day, and we also start with a basic sauce, adding seasoning and spices to really make it our own. A lot of the bigger chains use a frozen dough, which is acceptable if you’re that busy,” she says. “We make every pizza to order; nothing is made ahead of time.” One local customer, Susan Altman echoes Jessica’s sentiments. “Pizza Chef is truly the best, and they are always happy to deliver right to your doorstep. All the employees are very kind and have become wonderful friends as well. My puppy, Sophia, also loves them and knows when they get here before I do,” she says.

As well as handling all the paperwork for Pizza Chef as its Chief Financial Officer, Jessica’s husband Anton is also the delivery driver. He says, “We feel that we give more personal customer service because we’ve known most of our customers for a very long time. It’s more like a family than a business and we do our best to make every order perfect.” Hailing from Bulgaria, Anton came to the South in order to join his father in the family trucking business. “A few people don’t know what to make of me because of my accent, but once they get to know me, we become great friends,” he says with a smile. As far as working with his wife, Anton says it’s not always easy but always worthwhile. “Working with my wife

has it’s challenges,” he says with a laugh, “but it’s proven to be a very successful combination. We’re in a very good place right now.”

As a self-described “people person,” Jessica says she’s comfortable overseeing the employees and greeting the friendly faces who grace their restaurant. “I love the people as well as the familiarity of working here. We have a great product and wonderful customers. We’ve had some of the same customers since moving here in 2002 and have watched some of them grow into adults. They’ve worked with us as teenagers and have moved on to various careers, so it’s really like seeing your own kids grow up.. For us, it’s really about the people, not the profits,” she says. Anton agrees, adding, “For anyone who hasn’t tried our pizza, before you go to one of the chain restaurants, give Pizza Chef a

chance, and you’ll never go back to them.”

A Daughters Vision Becomes A Mother’s Legacy

The Beginning

 

In 1991, a family restaurant was “born” in Springfield, Georgia. This restaurant would soon become a household name for many who reside in Effingham County….Ms. Jeans.  Just the simple sound of “her” name will make your mouth water.

The restaurant was owned by Jean Waters, lovingly called Ms. Jean by everyone that knew her.

Ms. Jean’s husband, Jesse Waters, suffered a heart attack and could no longer work in his normal capacity.  This tragedy left the family in a dilemma.  Ms. Jean knew that in order to take care of her daughter and continue to maintain their family household, she would have to go to work.  She had always loved to cook and she had plenty of experience taking care of foster children. Could she make a living for her family doing one of those things?

Childcare? No. Cooking? Now there’s a good thought.

Thankfully for Effingham County, Ms. Jean chose cooking. Ms. Jeans Restaurant was founded on love and the desire of one lady to be able to continue to provide for her family.

Jean and Jesse Waters had five children – Olivia, Walt, Marnie, Andrea and Kellis. All five of the kids worked in the restaurant.  Marnie, who had been injured in an accident one week before her senior year of high school, was a quadriplegic. She ran a specialized pre-programmed cash register while the other children cooked, waited tables and helped keep the company books.

In 1999, Ms. Jean closed the doors to the restaurant, much to the dismay of her customers. She went to work as the deli manager in a local Winn Dixie until they closed. She then went to work for a manufacturing company, staying there until her retirement in 2007.

Retirement allowed Ms. Jean many things, but the most important thing it allowed her was the opportunity to spend more time taking care of her daughter.  Over the next two years, Ms. Jean was not only her caregiver, she was also Marnie’s traveling companion. These two were able to take several trips together…some to visit Andrea, who lived in Destin, Florida at the time. Andrea and her Mom were able to take Marnie to the beach, one of the things she truly enjoyed. Marnie passed away in 2009.

 

The Re-opening 

 

Past customers of Ms. Jeans would often stop her during the years to reminisce about the restaurant. She wanted to reopen the restaurant, but she knew that it wasn’t possible because taking care of Marnie came first.

Ms. Jean longed for the day Andrea would move back home. She wanted all of her children to be close to her.

Andrea Waters Allsbrook had spent 20 years working in the hospitality industry. She started out with the Hilton in Savannah as a front desk clerk and within 11 years, in spite of not having a college education, Andrea was running her own hotel. Her career had taken her to Destin, Florida where she would make her home for the next 15 years.  During this time, she worked with several high end luxury hotel brands in the beautiful Florida vacation town. Her career path gave her a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge which prepared her for the task at hand today.

Andrea had some struggles in life…being away from family all those years wasn’t easy.  But, she had made a great name for herself and things were going very well for her in Florida. But, there was something missing though. Andrea accepted the Lord back into her heart.  Her faith had always played a major role in her life…and that part had begun to silently sneak away.

She said, “Mom had been diagnosed with a rare cancer and had no chance of remission or a cure.  In September 2012, the Lord put it on my heart to move back home and re-open Ms. Jeans, so I took off my corporate hat and began to make plans.  It is life experiences that sometimes makes you realize what is really important in life, and for me, at that time,  in my life it was my family.”

This is was not an easy decision. Those years of hard work had paid off and Andrea knew she would have to give up a lot.

Through prayer, guidance and leadership from the Lord, Andrea put her plan into motion…moving back home to re-open Ms. Jean’s Restaurant. So she sold her home, gave up a nice corporate income and traded her flashy BMW and was Effingham County bound.

“At that time in my life, the one thing that was most important to me was to make sure my Mom went out on top of the world,” Andrea states, “We all knew that with Mom’s diagnosis, we had limited time left with her.  We wanted to make sure the time we had left was the best it could be. I wanted her life to have purpose.”

“Mom was so happy when I called her and told her I was coming home.  And, even happier when I later told her about my plans to re-open Ms. Jeans,” shares Andrea, “I asked her to come back into business with me as co-owner”

Ms. Jean had the knowledge of the restaurant side and Andrea had the knowledge for the business side.  These two would make an unbeatable team.

And, they did!

Andrea returned home on February 1, 2013, but the work began long before then.  Andrea was able to handle a lot of the preliminary work over the phone and on-line before her move, enabling Ms. Jeans Restaurant to open its doors on March 13, 2013.

Andrea laughingly recalls, “I remember us being so excited and moving so hard to get the restaurant open, and all of a sudden Mom asks one day, ‘What are you going to name the new restaurant.’ Like there was ever a question.”

When the sign went up, “Ms. Jean’s Restaurant Coming Soon,” the calls started pouring in.  Andrea said people were calling her Mom wanting to know if this was the same Ms. Jean’s from Springfield.

Ms. Jean truly enjoyed making people happy with her food, and she certainly accomplished that.  Andrea, Walt and Olivia knew that the re-opening of Ms. Jean’s Restaurant was a way for them to honor their Mom while she was still with them, and one day continue it in her memory.

There was a sense of urgency opening the first location on Columbia Ave., all wanting to make sure Ms. Jean would be able to be a part of it for as long as she could.

Ms. Jean never let her illness show, she always had a smile.  Andrea remembers how good it felt to see her Mom back in the community, happy and working in the restaurant. Ms. Jean went table to table, chatting and watching people enjoy her food.

Within a few short months, the first 80 seat restaurant was too small.  A new location had to be found.

 

Ms. Jeans Today

 

They soon found a bigger location and started working on the build out to have it ready to expand as quickly as possible. Once again, this family came together and did the impossible…that sense of urgency Ms. Jean had was inherited by her kids.

Andrea’s brother Walt, who lives in Columbia, SC, came home every weekend and took vacation time  to help with the build out. They worked serving lunch 6 days a week at the original location.  They would leave there and work evenings and weekends at the new location, sometimes until 1:00 in the morning, from October to December 2013.

The doors of the new, 140 seat restaurant opened on December 13, 2013 which is where they are located today, on Lisa Street behind the Krystal Restaurant.

They started out with 2,000 square feet and expanded to 4,000 with the new location. Less than a year later, they expanded again. Opening a Marketplace was in Andrea’s original business plan.  The neighboring space became available, so an additional 2000 square feet  was acquired and The Marketplace opened in November, 2014.

Ms. Jean saw the opening of all three.  That sense of urgency to make things happened allowed her the opportunity to watch her children come together and help this business grow.

Andrea said, “Mom cooked desserts till the day she went in the hospital for the last time, before going home to be with the Lord.”

Jean Waters passed away on March 18, 2015.

It was important to see her go out on top of the world, and she did.

Working side by side with their mother is an experience that Olivia, Walt and Andrea will never forget.  The bonds that were formed through this time as family will keep them close forever.

Andrea recalls being in the kitchen with her Mom since she was a little girl.  “One summer, Mom broke her leg.  She would sit on a stool in the kitchen with her leg propped up telling me what to do.  She didn’t measure anything unless she was baking and that is how she taught us to cook,” Andrea shares.

After Andrea moved away, she would often call her Mom and ask questions about how to prepare something and, of course, Mom helped her through those challenges.  In a tender moment, she recalls, “Mom always knew what to tell me.  I miss being able to call her.”

Ms. Jean’s Restaurant is more than just great fried chicken (a secret family recipe), which has won multiple local awards.  It is about serving others and being a service to the community. It is a place where anyone can get a home cooked meal every day. And, they still cook the same recipes Ms. Jean used herself.

The staff of Ms. Jeans Restaurant is another “Specialty” part of this business.  They take great pride in what they do, from the cooks to the servers to the dish washers.  Andrea adds, “God has blessed us with great people. They are wonderful employees.”

Ms. Jeans Restaurant is open six days a week for lunch from 11:00 am-2:30 pm.   They are also now open on Friday nights from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pmwhere they serve a seafood and southern menu.

Ms. Jeans also offers “To Go” meals for families who want to take their food home.  They also offer reservations for parties of 12  to 18  people for the Red Room, except on Sunday.

Ms. Jeans is currently expanding again with the addition of a sweet shop inside the Marketplace. Olivia is preparing custom cakes, cookies, candies and pies made in house for purchase.   Or, she will be happy to take your custom order.

Ms. Jean had always talked about what she called “A Party House.”  She wanted a place to host events that she could cater.  Unfortunately, she never got to see this come to fruition. But, there’s good news on the way.  Be on the lookout soon for the future plans of The Waters Estate; Ms. Jeans “Party House.”

It looks like this family is making sure Ms. Jean’s legacy lives on forever.

El Real Mexican Restaurant

When you walk through the door at El Real Mexican Restaurant in Rincon, you immediately have a feeling of home. You are always greeted with smiling faces, a warm hug or a friendly hand shake. They want all their customers to feel welcome – and like they are part of the El Real family.

El Real opened its doors over 12 years ago. Brothers Salvador and Javier Fuigeroa are the owners. This dynamic duo have done great things with this restaurant and both are very grateful for the people of Effingham County.

The brothers were born in Queretaro, Mexico. Salvador came to the United States at 16 years of age and Javier at 17.

Both started out working in restaurants soon after arriving in the U.S., making Houston, Texas their first home. From dishwashing, to waiting, to bussing tables, to cooking, these brothers made it a point to learn everything there was about the business.

Hence, the dream of opening their own restaurant was definitely going to become a reality.

Salvador was doing construction work in Rincon about 13 years ago. He saw that Weisenbaker Road was a busy spot. Then he noticed a building that he thought would make a perfect location for their “dream.” He called his brother Javier, who was working at a restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida at the time. They called the owner of the building, and as they say, the rest is history.

Like most mexican restaurants in the United States, El Real offers a “Tex-Mex” flair. But, as Salvador says, “We offer Tex-Mex with a spin of authenticity. We have more flavor than the average Tex-Mex, that is what makes us different.”

The brothers quickly called Effingham home. They love the small town atmosphere, it reminds them of home as they are from a very small town in Mexico. Salvador says, “I consider myself a Mexican Redneck. And I am very proud of that.”

The brothers consider their establishment a true family restaurant. In fact, both their mother and father joined them in Rincon about 3 years ago. Mom and Dad are both working in the “family business.” Dad does all of the prep work and Mom makes all the homemade tamales.

A lot of the food on their menu is from family recipes. Javier says, “We make everything fresh. We make our own chips, our own salsa and our own guacamole dip – all from family secrets.”

Both Salvador and Javier agree, when their customers walk in the door, they want them to feel special. Salvador adds, “Our staff treats our customers the same way we do. They know how important it is to us. We have the greatest employees.”

When asked what makes El Real so special, Salvador says it all as he quickly responds, “You do! Our customers make us special.”

So, the next time you are looking for a place to take the family to dinner, give El Real a try. They will make you feel right at home.