It’s well over 8,000 miles from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Savannah. Getting from one city to the other is not exactly a snap. Barring flight delays or cancellations, the best-case scenario is about 30 hours in total, including 18 hours in the air from Atlanta, Washington, D.C., or New York.
But despite the inherent difficulties in the commute, dozens of families, couples and individuals have relocated from there to here and have added to the diversity and richness of Savannah’s business environment.
One of the best-known South African-owned enterprises in Savannah is Zunzi’s, the popular restaurant on York Street in the historic district, which was founded and is run by Johannesburg native Johnny de Beer. The 50-something restaurateur has lived stateside for more than 25 years, landing in Savannah about 13 years ago after stints in New York, Los Angeles and Hawaii.
“I visited here for a day trip during a week’s vacation in Charleston,” de Beer said. “I went back to New York, packed my bags and moved down shortly thereafter. After years in the big city, I was looking for a slower pace and enjoyed the fact that people said ‘hello’ when they passed you in the street.”
Zunzi’s opened about six years ago, and de Beer and his Swiss-born wife Gabriella, who was the longtime manager of River Street’s Olympia Café, have found a niche preparing deliciously eclectic food with a South African and Italian influence.
As he says, it’s “for working-class people at a working-class price.”
“I thought there was nowhere for the workers in the area to get a decent meal,” de Beer said. “The choices were either a sandwich chain or a pizza place. Also there are many thousands of SCAD students in the area who appreciate the pricing, the casual outdoor dining and the takeout option, which is very popular.”
Zunzi’s has garnered national media attention from the Travel Channel, which has named their Conquistador sandwich a finalist in the search for the nation’s best sandwich. In August, the network’s foodie, Adam Richman, listed the Conquistador as one of the best three sandwiches in the U.S.
Education and medicine
Dan and Helese Sandler both hail from the Johannesburg area, moved to the United States in 1990 and landed in Savannah in 1996.
They arrived in Gainesville , Fla., where Dan completed his pediatric residency and then his fellowship in neonatology at the University of Florida. They then moved to Clearfield, Pa., for two years.
“Pennsylvania felt very foreign to us, as there’s no snow in South Africa,” Helese said. “But when we eventually moved to Savannah it felt very much like home. We have found the community to be very welcoming.”
Helese, is a trained social worker who founded Savannah Educational Consultants, where she assists high school students in their college searches and throughout the application process.
Dan Sandler came to town initially to work as a pediatrician but turned to a full-time neonatology practice in 2001.
Helese, who worked at the Royce Learning Center for a decade before going into private practice as an educational consultant/college counselor in 2007, offers a perspective on why some South Africans have moved to Savannah.
“One of the connections between South Africa and Savannah comes through the nursing profession. There are many nurses here that were recruited from South Africa, which has a reputation for its excellent medical training,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons there’s been an influx of South Africans here in the 15-plus years we’ve lived in Savannah. Receiving a Green Card, which affords permanent work status, paves the way for permanent residency and citizenship down the road.
“Another reason is the fact that many of our fellow compatriots were looking to leave our home country in years past due in part to the instability of the political system. Coming to the U.S. was a natural choice, and many dozens of South African families have settled in Savannah.”
Michael Snaid tells a similar story of leaving an area where increasing social unrest was impacting the quality of life and ability to make a livelihood.
He was born in the neighboring country of Zimbabwe but moved to South Africa after high school and military service to further his education in accounting. There he met his future wife, Lynne, another Johannesburg native.
“The CEO of the dress manufacturing company that I had once worked for had moved to Hilton Head some years prior and invited me to take part in a business opportunity, running the food court at the outlet malls on U.S. 278 in Bluffton.”
It wasn’t long before the Snaids opened an ice cream shop and espresso bar in Twelve Oaks Plaza on Abercorn Street called Rainbow Row, running both enterprises concurrently.
Eventually he was asked to run the Cinnamon Bear Country Store, with several Hilton Head locations, and it eventually added two locations in Savannah, one in City Market and another on River Street.
After five years Snaid left to become the national sales manager for a nascent commercial-grade furniture company in nearby Ridgeland, S.C., which was founded and owned by another South African named David Horwitz, who also had settled in Savannah.
Nine years later, in 2010, he returned to the Cinnamon Bear Country Stores and bought the three remaining franchises, which he runs to this day.
“We were welcomed in this town the first day we arrived,” Michael Snaid said. “In Atlanta, there are about 20,000 South Africans, but my understanding is they are mostly their own subset. Here we have many American friends, which include lots of Savannah natives, and it’s a great place to do business.
“In all my travels selling furniture, in 46 different states, people always told me how much they loved Savannah. Well, my wife, my family and I feel the same way.”