Deen still a draw in Savannah

While the Food Network and several companies have distanced themselves from celebrity chef Paula Deen for her admitted use of a racial slur, the tourism industry in her hometown of Savannah shows no signs of disowning the self-proclaimed queen of Southern cuisine.

Websites for trolley operators still have her smiling face prominently displayed and are still booking the “Paula Deen tour” for as much as $60 per adult. Hotels continue to list her restaurant, The Lady and Sons, as an area dining attraction. Visit Savannah’s website lists the restaurant atop a page of “must-see” sights.

Savannah Movie Tours and More, one of the city’s few black-owned tourism businesses, said its Foody Tour featuring Deen’s restaurant is the most popular product by far and that hasn’t changed.

Old Savannah Tours, the city’s oldest trolley operator and originator of the Paula Deen Tour about a decade ago, is “riding the fence,” for now, said owner Will Green.

The website decribes the Deen tour as a rags-to-riches journey with stops at shops she frequents, The Lady and Sons and another Deen family eatery, Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House. Tourtakers also get to see where Deen and husband Michael Groover got married and several other of her “favorite” spots.

“We’ve been doing (tours) for 35 years and with 50 vehicles we’re monitoring the situation,” Green said.

Deen became a draw as her food empire grew, but local officials, tourists and business owners note that Savannah is hardly a one-horse town tourism-wise. The city’s moss-draped downtown, gracious B&Bs and annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities drew throngs long before the silver-coiffed Deen came along.

Diane McCray, owner of the Green Palm Inn, a bed and breakfast in the Historic District, said often guests — especially men — have no idea who Deen is.

“This controversy hasn’t affected bookings, length of stay — anything,” said McCray. “It may be too early to tell, but I’m betting this will blow over when the next big thing grabs headlines.”

Dan Leger, owner/operator of Savannah Dan Walking Tours agrees.

“This is more of a Paula Deen issue than a Savannah issue,” he said.

Still, Savannah has benefitted from periodic boosts to its inherent charms, whether from a celeb chef, a movie like “Forrest Gump” or a best-seller.

“It used to be most every tourist came to Savannah because of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” he said referring John Berendt’s 1994 novel and subsequent movie directed by Clint Eastwood. “Now I don’t even bring it up unless I get a book club or group who is asking about the Bird Girl statue or something like that. I’d have to educate them before I could entertain them.”

Known locally as simply “The Book,” Berendt’s novel painted a picture of eclectic small town personalities who were more interested in one’s favorite cocktail than social mores or politics.

Leger and many others credit that Southern gothic tome with getting TV producer Gordon Elliott interested in Savannah in the first place. It was Elliott who discovered Deen and put her buttery-smooth, sugary-sweet persona in front of the Food Network cameras.

Her charm and easy way were a hit with the young cable station’s executives, and she eventually got her own show. As her fan base grew, so did her brand — which generated revenue for her hometown.

According to data supplied by VisitSavannah, the convention and visitors bureau, tourism has grown steadily in the years since Deen has become a household name. Quantifying her role is difficult, though.

Erica Backus, a spokeswoman for the organization, credits the increasing variety of fairs and festivals, Savannah College of Art and Design and the burgeoning food culture as just as important as Deen’s fame.

“There are more tourism products, new attractions, and of course, Tybee Island,” she said. “And Savannah has continuously ranked high in tourism surveys for anything from walkability to romance and many things in between.”

Where springtime was once the high season, tourism has ticked up year round, she said, citing the Craft Brewfest in August, the jazz festival in September, the film festival in October and the food and wine festival in November as events that bring people back to the city.

A report released last month showed that 2012 was consistent with the previous years in terms of visitors and tourism revenue. An estimated 12.4 million visitors came to Savannah and spent about $1.6 billion last year. In 2011, there were 12.1 million visitors spending $1.5 billion. In 2010, there were 11.4 million visitors spending $1.3 billion.

Most came to shop with fine dining and visiting historic sites coming in second and third place.

Backus isn’t sure how Deen’s troubles will affect the city’s bottom line.

“Right now it’s business as usual,” she said. “We’re on pace to have another excellent summer.”

City government officials remain cautious.

“The Paula Deen franchise is a significant part of Savannah’s tourism industry,” said Van R. Johnson, alderman and mayor pro-tem of Savannah. “From my vantage point, the (residents are) kind of split about this.”

“What occurred is unfortunate, but it shows us how much further we have to go when it comes to race relations,” said Johnson, who is black. “The last three mayors have been black, the police chief is black, if Savannah was a racist city, there wouldn’t be so many people of color in leadership positions.”

Kim Miley spent Mothers Day weekend in Savannah and although she didn’t eat at The Lady and Sons because the lines were too long, she’s not sure if she’d frequent it or not. The Lithonia resident, who is black said she’s more concerned about Deen expressing a desire to see black male waiters dressed up to look like house slaves.

Nonetheless, Miley said she plans to go back to the Hostess City in the fall.

“I just hope everyone has learned something from the experience,” she said.

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