A lot of residents remember Mills Garwood from his firecracker days. He used to set up his fireworks stand around July 4th on the empty lot in the roundabout on Frederica Road on St. Simons Island. Next to where the Outback Steakhouse used to be.
Before that Mills worked in finance up in Atlanta. “It just wasn’t for me,” he said Thursday of his time with E-Trade Financial.
Garwood found his true calling in the kitchen at Palmer’s Café in the Pier Village. Renowned Chef John “J.B.” Belechak’s satisfaction in preparing fine foods to attract returning diners rubbed off on him inside the tight quarters of Palmer’s kitchen.
“I fell in love with cooking when I worked for John B.,” Garwood said. “I enjoyed the fast-paced environment, the excitement. I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
The café’s namesake, Palmer Fortune, showed Garwood the ropes of the restaurant business. In April 2018, Garwood opened the Porch at 549 Ocean Blvd. on St. Simons Island in partnership with Fortune.
The casual dining establishment’s offering of Nashville hot fried chicken, catfish, local shrimp and other Southern fare quickly developed a steady following that has remained unwavering.
And then there was this on Thursday: empty outdoor dining tables at the Porch on a sunny spring day; locked doors and lights out in the indoor dining area.
In an ongoing effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic, the Glynn County Commission determined Wednesday it is no longer safe for diners to congregate at restaurants. Restaurants were given the option of offering takeout, drive through and curbside service, as well as deliveries. The restrictions left restaurants throughout the Golden Isles struggling to remain viable and keep employees working.
The Porch opened the day after the county commission ruling under modified conditions, serving orders from noon to 8 p.m. out of its takeout door on the west side of the building.
And still they were coming. A husband and wife with three children in tow were just pulling out of the parking lot shortly after noon Thursday in a golf cart, its back loaded down with food bagged up to go. And George Bagby was just stepping in to the little takeout room to pick up his order.
“I just wanted to have some place to go,” Bagby said. “And I like this place a lot and I want to keep showing my support for places that are still open.”
Asked about the ever-increasing restrictions on public mobility brought to bear by the pandemic, Bagby grinned wryly. “I don’t like ‘em at all,” he said. “But I guess it’s all necessary.”
Despite the ghost town appearance inside the Porch, front manager Brooke Wrigley already had her hands full moments after the noon opening. Online orders had been rolling in before she even got to work.
“It’s good,” she said. “We’re definitely doing business. Everybody’s been really generous for the first day of takeout. Orders were pouring in before we opened, so that’s good.”
Garwood stepped out from the kitchen to talk with customers and thank them. Chef Belechak and others from Palmer’s kitchen crew have relocated to the Porch for now.
“The community has supported us so far, from the initial slowdown to today’s takeouts,” Garwood said. “We’ve had a lot of takeouts this morning. We’re grateful.”
Folks who choose to order takeout from their favorite restaurants are not necessarily placing themselves at a higher risk for COVID-19 exposure as a result, health officials say.
The state Department of Health and the CDC have released a plethora of sanitary and hygiene guidelines for restaurants offering takeout service.
“We support continued operations as outlined by the executive order of the Glynn County Board of Commissioners as long as restaurants and food service facilities strictly adhere to the guidance provided by the Georgia Department of Public Health,” said Sally Silbermann, spokeswoman for the Coastal Health District.
According to the University of Georgia Extension, purchasing takeout food is a “good risk management choice.”
“There is no current indication that takeout or drive-thru meals will increase illness,” according to a statement from the University of Georgia Extension.
Check, check and double-check, Garwood said.
“We’ve got our 100 on the wall,” he said, referring to the restaurant’s latest health department inspection. “We have hand sanitizer and soap everywhere, and we’re using it. Often. We’re being as careful as we can possibly be.”
About that time, retiree Richard Cowan arrived to pick up his order. He enjoys the Porch’s chicken tacos, but he also is keen on supporting local businesses during these tough times.
“It’s true,” Cowan said. “I’ve got stuff at home I could eat. A package of hotdogs, as a matter of fact. But I would rather have tacos today.”
From a safe distance across the takeout counter, Garwood smiled appreciatively. The Porch has already laid off at least four employees; Palmer’s has laid off several employees as well, he said. Garwood hopes to keep the rest working until this whole coronavirus nightmare passes.
“I’m optimistic,” he said. “Chef (Belechak) is on this end. We’re kind of a combined labor force so as many people as possible can keep their jobs. Our employees are family and we want to keep them getting checks as long as possible. We are going to continue to serve food as long as they allow us.”