Faith, cornbread and curbside carry Savannah favorite through pandemic
This February should have marked the celebration of the two-year anniversary of Geneva’s Famous Chicken and Cornbread Co.
Owner Geneva Wade along with Kenny Wade, her husband and co-owner, and her daughter Crystal Wade, the restaurant’s office manager, instead had to quietly acknowledge the milestone, offering thanks that they were still in business after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered more established places, such as Atlantic, Bier Haus, Mellow Mushroom and the District Café.
A year ago, just a few days after Geneva's first anniversary, Georgia recorded its first cases of the deadly coronavirus. On March 11, Mayor Van Johnson canceled the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. A week later, he declared a local emergency and the city’s "shelter at home" order went into effect.
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Instead of closing with no reopening date in sight, Wade and her crew, which also includes her son and three of her five grandsons, amplified the already-robust takeout side of their business. Customers could still order (over the phone or online) her crisp, juicy fried birds, Cajun fried turkey wings, Ogeechee crab cakes, chicken gumbo or any of the 12 different kinds of cornbread loaves and spreads on the menu.
“(The pandemic) did not change our business,” Wade said. “We saw the impact for the first two or three months, but fortunately,…our takeout business just increased. Okay, we thought, we can survive with that.”
Despite absorbing a large financial hit in the beginning, takeout sales increased as word spread that Geneva’s was open for business and folks were growing restless of their own cooking. Wade abided by the mask mandates and limited the number of people who could come through the door to pick up food. Both practices are still in place even with limited indoor seating now available.
One key to the restaurant’s resilience is its local rather than transient following. Situated in a narrow storefront in a strip mall in the Victory Square Shopping Center on Victory Drive, Geneva’s caters to the residents of eastside neighborhoods such as Gordonston, Twickenham, Avondale, Pine Gardens and Thunderbolt, rather than to tourists – the lifeblood of downtown eateries. While the Savannah Metropolitan Service Area (encompassing Chatham, Bryan, and Effingham counties) lost nearly half of its leisure and hospitality service sector jobs in 2020 (bouncing back to 81% of pre-pandemic levels by the first of this year), Wade lost only one employee.
Wade also credits the first wave of Paycheck Protection Program loans with keeping the restaurant afloat.
“The government has been fantastic,” Wade said. “If you do your due diligence and homework, there’s money out there – not just PPP.”
The biggest contributor to her staying power, however, is Wade’s reputation for good food and good service. She opened her first Savannah restaurant in 1983 on Habersham Boulevard when she was just 23 years old. After more than seven years, she moved to Bee Road for a year, then took over the old Shoney’s on Victory Drive. She took a five-year hiatus, then reopened on Bee Road across from Daffin Park. Geneva’s remained at that location until 2010.
During the nearly 40 years she has been cooking for Savannah, Wade has become known for her hand-cut candied yams, smoked-turkey laced greens and fresh shrimp. The cornbread recipe, which she perfected through trial and error over several years, now accounts for 350 to 400 loaves served daily. Everything is made fresh on site.
“What people come to expect from you, we try to deliver,” Wade said. “We had a lot of people saying, ‘We’re not going to see this place close.’ So, people talk about what it meant to them to have this place to come to. They thanked me for being here and offering the food we offer to the community.”
That community keeps showing up. On a recent Tuesday during the lunch rush, folks were sitting in their cars, waiting for people to move on so that they could step inside to get their to-go orders. Two diners were eating at two socially-distant outdoor tables, both with their eyes closed as they savored the sunshine and the delicate, shattering crust on fried chicken breasts. Inside, where there were half as many red banquette seats as there were pre-pandemic, diners kept their masks on, sneaking sips of iced tea, until their po-boys or tenders arrived.
Louis DeVaughn, the ever-attentive “valet” who has been with Wade through two other restaurants, smiled behind his mask as he listed the day’s specials — a succulent and comforting cheesy meatloaf among the offerings. The crinkles in the corners of his eyes and the tone of his voice put diners, some venturing inside for the first time in a year, at ease.
Wade watched and laughed, holding onto the ornate silver cross that dangled from her necklace. Her faith, as much as her customers’ fidelity, has buoyed her through the uncertainty.
“God is a great source in my life, and I feel like a lot of the things I’ve come up with, it’s come from intuition. Just grace, you know,” she said.