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Spanky's celebrates 40 years on River Street

  • Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News - Original owners of Spanky's Ansley Williams, Dusty Yarbrough, and Alben Yarbrough stand in front of the River Street location.

Keeping the doors open on your first restaurant for 40 years is an accomplishment, but keeping those doors open for 40 years in Savannah where restaurants open and close almost overnight is worthy of a big celebration.

And the guys behind Spanky’s Pizza Galley and Saloon on River Street plan to do just that.

If you asked the original partners and owners — Ansley Williams, Alben Yarbrough and Dusty Yarbrough — who opened the doors on Spanky’s in 1976 if it was worth all the hard work and sacrifice, they would quickly say yes.

It all began with three guys who grew up in Thomaston, Ga. Williams and Alben were the same age, and Dusty was three years older. They went to school together, played football together and were best friends.

“My father died when I was a senior in high school,” Williams said. “I had to get a job while I was at (Georgia) Tech. I was going to be an airline pilot, and trust me, the world is much safer place now…”

His part-time job was working in Underground Atlanta’s popular Bucket Shop, known for their humongous hamburgers. He loved the work, and soon Alben came to join him.

“One of my philosophies,” said Williams, “is the only way you can grow and move up is to find someone better than you to take your place. And that was Alben. He was much better than me.

“And we were literally getting paid to do something that we would have paid to have done. We loved it. We had more fun than we ever had.”

The duo dreamed of becoming bartenders and then maybe restaurant managers. To fine tune their skills, they spent time in Cape Cod and Lake Tahoe.

“I like to say that’s when we got our master’s in the restaurant business,” Williams said.

Then the Crowley family, who owned the Bucket Shop, told the guys they needed help with their struggling River Street restaurant, O’Leary’s Tavern. Williams and Alben showed up to find the spot was popular with locals, but the workers were giving away the food and drinks, which is why they weren’t making any money.

“Alben and I came into town on New Year’s Eve in 1974, and (O’Leary’s) was loaded up with hippies,” Williams said. “They were having a ball. We said, this is going to be fun.”

Williams and Alben eventually took on part ownership of O’Leary’s and stayed on for a year and a half.

Meanwhile, back home, older brother Dusty had just taken leave from his job as an engineer with the highway department and was waiting to take his new job on the Alaskan Pipeline. Waiting for his new job to begin, he decided to help Williams and Alben and headed to Savannah to join the fun.

“But we still had the dream to do our own, especially after Dusty got out here,” Williams said. “He strengthened our position significantly.”

A location opened up a few doors down from O’Leary’s, and the trio began to construct their concept based on the unique half-pound hamburgers they were doing at the Bucket Shop.

“In those days, the hamburgers were like the size of McDonald’s,” Williams explained. “… There were no pizza places downtown, so we knew we also wanted to do pizza. … We came up with the name Spanky’s because we liked ‘The Little Rascals.’”

They added Pizza Galley and Saloon to the name to reference their position on the water, and Dusty used his engineering background to help with the design of the inside.

“We went out to Bluffton, S.C.,” Williams said. “A guy said he had an old barn that needed to be torn down. We said we’ll come tear it down for you if you give us the wood. So we tore down the barn. These boards came off that old barn in 1976.”

He pointed to the walls inside Spanky’s near the bar area to show the reclaimed wood panels.

Alben pointed out the back wall of the restaurant to show where they had to jackhammer off the old stucco to get down to the original rock walls.

“We were working so hard to get this thing open,” Dusty said. “Some nights my sons spent the night in the corners on their sleeping bags.”

They opened the doors in December 1976. Alben and Williams were 26 years old; Dusty was 29.

“Everyone came dressed in tuxedos and arrived in limousines,” Alben said. “Those were very special times because everybody in the city would come and get dressed up.”

“When we opened the doors, they were lined up at lunch, happy hour and night,” Williams said. “We had three shifts for bartenders. We were working 16 hour days, six days a week. … We had to regulate the doors because of the fire marshal.”

“It set a precedent on River Street that people had never seen,” Alben added.

“People would leave work and come down here and start drinking and then just decide to stay and not go back to work,” Dusty said. “I had never seen anything like it.”

A unique menu item invented by Alben was soon added: The Original Chicken Fingers.

“We called (Alben) the chicken hawk up in Cape Cod because he loved chicken so much; so we knew we wanted to have a chicken sandwich on the menu,” Williams said.

Dusty explained that the chicken breasts were too big, so they were cutting off the extra to make chicken salad and add to other items.

“Then I remember seeing the special on the menu and thinking, chicken fingers? What’s a chicken finger? And people were coming in asking about it,” Dusty said.

Alben decided to take the leftover chicken bits, batter them with a special batter and deep fry them. The new chicken fingers were so popular, the guys burned through their small table-top fryer in a matter of weeks.

The team also brought Dennis Clements and David Silverman over from O’Leary’s to help. Clements stayed in the kitchen with Alben and Silverman was working the door.

The guys laughed when talking about Clements making pizza.

“We told him he had to cook the pizza,” Dusty said. “Ansley found out the night before we opened, he had never cooked a pizza.”

But those kinds of fibs and surprises were common at Spanky’s, including Silverman’s age.

“He looked as old as us,” Dusty said. “We’d pay him $10 hour and let him drink all the beer he wanted.”

Dusty said one night a young man was angry because Silverman wouldn’t let him in to drink at the bar and Dusty had to explain it was Silverman’s job. The young man explained it was no fair because Silverman was his age.

“I looked at him and said, Silverman, how old are you? He said 17. I said, why didn’t you tell me? He said, you didn’t ask me.”

Silverman went on to become an important part of the team and eventually became a partner but he passed away last May at the age of 58.

Aside from the occasional sad story, the trio agreed those early days were full of fun and laughter – and other things – they could never get away with in today’s world. Many of the stories begin with, “I don’t know if you can print this, but…” and end with roaring laughter.

“It was a great time to be in the bar business,” Alben said. “People were scared they were going to miss something if they left.”

But these were also the days before Rousakis Plaza was completed on River Street and the big money was only made at St. Patrick’s Day.

“It was tough back then from November to March,” Williams said. “We had slim pickings. We struggled every year to make it to St. Patrick’s Day.”

The team decided to put Williams on the public relations front for the group.

“So Ansley was in front of the media,” Alben said. “He got be friends with former mayor Rousakis who was mayor for 21 years.”

Williams said at the time of the opening, St. Patrick’s Day and First Saturdays on the river were already established. He became involved with the Waterfront Association and eventually became president.

“Ansley said there is so much more we can do on the waterfront,” Alben said. “He started Oktoberfest, July 4th fireworks, the Christmas parade. He just kept on going and going.”

Williams joked, “It was easier than cooking.”

Two years after Spanky’s opened, the group opened a location on the southside. They went on to open locations at St. Simons Island, Tybee Island, Athens, Brunswick and Pooler. Williams’ Live Oak Restaurant Group now includes the original Spanky’s, Tubby’s and Fiddlers, Molly McGuire’s and Dub’s.

Over the years, they’ve brought in cousins, friends, brothers, nieces, nephews and their children to keep the business going strong for another 40 years, including Dusty’s son, John, who is an owner.

“Growing up in this environment was pretty unbelievable,” he said. “It wasn’t the average life of a kid. Working downtown was great money and the things you would see...” He shook his head and smiled. “I would go to school on Monday, and no one would believe the stories. They would say, don’t you want to join the Cub Scouts? I would say, no, I want to go work on Saturday nights on River Street.”

“We’ve just had so many people who worked with us and now their kids work with us,” Dusty said.

“It was built off of fun,” Alben added. “Ansley, Dusty and I have a passion for having fun and loving people. You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with, and we were blessed. God blessed us with the right people at the right time.”

“A cold Budweiser is the same wherever you go …,” Dusty added. “Food needs to be consistent and you need to have a pretty good product… but one thing you can’t duplicate is the people.”

“Amen!” Alben said.

“You can’t do any of this other stuff--the food, the service, the atmosphere-- you can’t do it without wonderful, good people, and we have been blessed with them,” Williams added. “… Find what it is that you love, and then do everything you can to do it for a living.

“If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. …Don’t get me wrong, it is hard work, but we enjoy it so much… We had a great opportunity to come together and create something that we had an awful lot of fun and love doing, and it’s just turned out to be an extraordinary experience for all of us,” Williams said. “And we managed to make a living out it. And I love these guys.”

“It’s very fun growing up through life with your best friends being your heroes,” Alben said.

The group added that they were also lucky Savannah welcomed three young guys from Thomaston with open arms and helped make Spanky’s a success.

“When Alben and I were scoping out places to open, we went to Steve’s Plantation Club on Southside,” Williams said. “We were sitting next to this gal and the band was playing and a dozen other people were there… She had this bouffant, redneck hairdo and she turned to us and said, ‘Don’t you like this place?’ and I said, ‘Yes ma’am, we do.’ And she said, ‘This is the best thing that has happened to this town since the bowling alley on Wednesday night.’ And I turned to Alben and said, ‘Son, we’re going to do good in this town.”

The room erupted in laughter once again.

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