Cléa Hernández chews on some memories with Spanky’s—a Savannah institution. Photos by Angela Hopper.
Founder and CEO, Live Oak Restaurant Group. Co-founder, Spanky’s Pizza Galley and Saloon
To truly live a festive life you must … have a great, positive attitude!
My philosophy can be summed up by … if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Surround yourself with good, passionate people and support their efforts.
To spice up your life … act like me, but don’t expect it to be as easy as it looks.
I love the smell of … chicken fingers, marsh mud and fresh cut grass.
The dishes I can never say “no” to … country cookin’ fresh out of the garden, stone crab claws in South Florida, abalone in Lake Tahoe and clams on Cape Cod.
It’s the zombie apocalypse and I’m hoarding … family, friends and vodka.
My party playlist includes … early country or bluegrass on the harmonica, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, and the singers and standards of that era.
My signature cocktail is … a “Swirling Eddy”—Deep Eddy Ruby Red Grapefruit Vodka and club soda.
The secret to presentation is … a genuine smile, sparkling eye contact, firm handshakes and hugs, generously sprinkled with laughter.
The theme song for my job should be … “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.
My most creative ideas come when I … am on the water, in the creeks and marshes, or skiing the peaks of the High Sierras with folks I love.
I wish more Savannahians would … spend more time with us on River Street.
I never leave home without a … mischievous thought.
I’m addicted to … fun and laughter.
I’d give my last $5 for … another run through the briar patch.
The five people at my dream dinner party include … my son Patrick, Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and Johnny Rousakis.
When I arrive at the Pearly Gates, I hope St. Peter serves me … with open arms, a grin and a wink!
In 1976, the same year the Concorde supersonic jet was first introduced, 26-year-old Ansley Williams ditched his aerospace engineering studies to open a restaurant with some friends.
After 40 years serving up tasty food and good times at Spanky’s Pizza Galley and Saloon, Williams has no difficulty explaining his choice.
He’ll often joke that swapping his dream of becoming an airline pilot for a career in the restaurant business was a no-brainer: “There’s more money in it, and you can drink on the job.”
Or, as he recently told a pilot, “The world is a much safer place this way.”
Williams credits his peace of mind with an early discovery that came while he flipped burgers at The Bucket Shop in Atlanta as a Georgia Tech student. He leapt from service role to service role, soaking in all he could as a waiter, barback, bartender, assistant manager and manager.
“It occurred to me that I just loved the business,” Williams remembers. “I was being paid to do something I would literally have paid to do.”
Then in ’74, the owners of The Bucket Shop asked Ansley and his buddy Alben Yarbrough to manage one of their holdings in Savannah–O’Leary’s Pub on River Street—which they did for two years until a vacancy opened a couple doors down. By that point, Thomasville-boy Williams and Yarbrough knew Savannah was “it” for them.
“Back when we worked the grill, we used to daydream that one day we’d own a place on the water,” he says. “There was no pizza place downtown at that time. None of us had ever made a pizza, but with the talent we were bringing together for this adventure, we thought we could probably figure it out. We knew we had the juicy, half-pound burgers down pat.”
Thus, Spanky’s was born, and the rest is chicken finger history. Alben “Chicken Hawk” Yarbrough is credited with inventing them in the Spanky’s kitchen. It was such a hit that Dusty Yarbrough, Alben’s brother, joined the pair two years later to open Spanky’s Southside.
The collection of Savannah-area restaurants the partners subsequently opened and now manage through Live Oak Restaurant Group include three Spanky’s outposts, Tubby’s Tank House and Tubby’s Seafood, Fiddler’s Crab House, Dub’s Pub and Molly McGuire’s. One thing that has never changed, though, is the group’s commitment to community. They have raised millions of dollars for charities, including the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association and their local favorites—Help Save One of Our Own, America’s Second Harvest Food Bank and the Georgia Chapter of the ALS Association.
Nor have they sacrificed quality for growth. One of Williams’ primary ingredients for success is always cooking with fresh, never frozen products. And while the savory crunch of a chicken finger never disappoints, the ace up Spanky’s sleeve has always been Miss Gwen’s country cooking talent.
In retrospect, it’s clear that, no, Williams wouldn’t have had it any other way. “I’m so lucky to spend my life doing what I love with passionate, fun-loving people,” he says. “We have always cared an awful lot about what we were doing and trying to create, and it was so special.”